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The skyline that Silicon Valley isn't building

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1999


Famous places usually have their architectural icons. The Chrysler building in New York. The Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco.

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But here in Silicon Valley, the fount of technologic ingenuity driving modern American life, there is a kind of time-distortion field that turns many things on their heads. And in the case of architecture, it's discarding the traditional high rises for sprawling "campuses" boasting flexible interiors with few fixed office spaces, as well as amenities like bocce-ball courts that smudge lines between work and leisure.

Silicon Valley is abuzz with construction right now, and a journey into the architecture of the world's technology capital is a tour of low-slung campuses that seem deliberately to hide their charms from the distant observer. Nonetheless, these structures are a pioneering approach to modern architecture that emphasizes adaptability and functionality and strives, often, to create its own sense of community, say experts in the field.

Further, architecture critic Alan Hess predicts that "the high-tech model is going to lead the way" as more and more of the economy shifts to service, entertainment, and thoughtware industries.

Ironically, the industry that many accuse of dehumanizing work spaces, turning the music of human chatter into the numbing metronome of tapping keyboards, is spending millions to get people together for "face" time.

"One of the key issues in the idea of a campus is creating a place that promotes human interaction," says Erik Sueberkrop of Studios Architecture, the design firm behind some of Silicon Valley's most noteworthy modern campuses.

Valley heavyweights like 3Com and Sun Microsystems are building expansions that update the campus concept that has ruled high technology since the early 1990s.

SGI, best known for its animation work in movies, including "Jurassic Park," is regarded by many architecture critics as having produced the best piece of campus architecture in Silicon Valley.

SGI's compound couples the low-density, sprawling feel of a nonurban university with the amenities and bright design of a shopping mall. Perhaps best known for its bocce-ball court, SGI also has a fitness gym, volleyball court, cafes and restaurants, and even bicycles to get around. The five-star amenities are a recruiting tool, to be sure. But they also function "to keep employees on site" rather than drifting off at lunch, or even before and after work for activities that can be done on the premises, says Ray Johnson, SGI's former vice president of real estate.

But unlike most campuses, SGI's exterior has panache, too. Four buildings of glass, chrome, and bleached wood are joined by second-story walkways. And all buildings open onto a common area that architects call a corporate "town square."

3Com has a similar feel. On a weekday afternoon, six employees were engaged in a spirited game of basketball as others chatted across treadmills in the corporate gym. Noted a company official, "the culture here says it's fine if you're playing basketball at 3 in the afternoon or 10 in the morning. You're not judged on the hours you work, but on what you produce."