The skyline that Silicon Valley isn't building

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

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."

Sun Microsystem's main campus looks like an apartment complex from the outside. Security is strict and the complex has an economical, no-nonsense look. But inside its interior courtyard of willow trees, overflowing planters, and vine-covered walkways is like stepping into an oasis.

The high-technology workplace is well known for its periods of frenzy, when many people work hours akin to those of students crashing for final exams. As a result, buildings are designed for use round the clock. Need some laundry done or film processed? Need a gift? All can be handled on 3Com's campus.

In addition to aiding a 24-hour work day, design here is also geared to how people work. Teams are common, but they last only as long as a project. As a result, hard-walled offices are a rarity, and increasingly, companies are practicing "hoteling," where employees have no assigned work space. They move from location to location and can take their office belongings with them on a smart card.

It all adds up to a new way to think about architecture.

"A lot of the architecture here is being thought of from the inside out," says Lee Lippert, a member of the Architectural Review Board of Palo Alto, the city many consider the valley's intellectual center.

Mr. Hess, an architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News, says world-class architecture is hard to find in Silicon Valley because the parameters are so different here. Companies start, break up, get sold into pieces, or change their character so rapidly that the architectural objectives are not often to make a grand and permanent statement.

The purpose of a building here "is very ephemeral, useful for a year or two and then things change," he says. "Architecture here has a different role."

Of course, not all companies are built on sand. Some of Silicon Valley's grand dowagers have left lasting footprints. Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center, terraced into a hillside with balconies draped in ivy, seems a timeless example of architecture blending into the landscape.

And there are, of course, plenty of forgettable structures: buildings that seem mainly testaments to owners' egos, as well as the legions of "tilt ups" and "pre-fab" facilities built rapidly and inexpensively but with little redeeming design quality.

But for the most part, even the established pillars of the technology community like Hewlett Packard and Intel have resisted building monuments. Eagle-eyed shareholders have something to do with that, yet so does the technology culture.

"You won't see any pinnacles rising out of Silicon Valley," says Mr. Lippert.

Rather, there is a grace and informality that most architectural experts say is building its own worthwhile legacy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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