Published: Aug. 8, 1999

OUT IN THE BAYLANDS of Mountain View, there is an artificial Italian-style hill town built atop its own artificial hill. And in the ersatz village live two classes of technology worker. The R&D engineers of the upper class are not hard to spot. They're the ones who have office doors. Nobody else gets his or her own door. No exceptions. That's life in the village.

On North First Street in San Jose, there's a $130 million limestone-and-granite monument to rebirth. The corporate family that lives there had lost its bearings for the better part of a decade. The man who put the family back together needed to show each individual how much he cared. He needed to reassure them that the darkest days were gone for good. He said it with museum-quality fixtures, exotic wood accents--and a lot of office doors.

On the far northern edge of Santa Clara, there's an ongoing experiment concerning the high-fashion potential of butcher-block slabs and really, really big tin cans. And in this Jetsonian funhouse, in between the offices where the alpha-geeks toil, are a half-dozen ''eating experiences,'' a convenience store, a health club and other amenities. Like the other two, it is not just a workplace but also a massive testament to the fact that the heart of Silicon Valley culture is work.

Building by building, a wild new strain of corporate architecture is reshaping the face of Silicon Valley. The metamorphosis is most apparent in the Golden Triangle -- the technology district ringed by highways 237, 101 and 880--and north to San Mateo along the 101 corridor.

The new projects are far bigger than their predecessors, and far better-equipped to support a work culture built around communication and collaboration. The very best of them are loaded with something rarely seen in Silicon Valley office design: a degree of aesthetic sophistication. Where previous generations of corporate planners lived and built by the unyielding realities of cost-per-square-foot, today's facilities czars find themselves reaching for terms such as ''soul'' to describe their highest aspirations.

''Architecture in Silicon Valley is not exuberant just for the sake of being exuberant,'' says David Kalb, corporate architect on staff of Mountain View's Silicon Graphics, Inc. ''It's a product of corporate culture and of companies reinventing themselves.... It reflects the pace of the technology industry.''

The campus architecture of the past five or six years is by and large a byproduct of exponential growth within the networking sector. And with few exceptions, these new campuses tell the story of an industry in the throes of adolescence. They are gawky, painfully self-aware and in a hurry to be all grown up.

In a region once derided for the cookie-cutter sameness of its office parks, these bulked-out, broad-shouldered campuses are destined to be landmarks for the new millennium. They are the first monumental statements about Silicon Valley's place at the red-hot center of the networked world.

Giving it personality

Today's campus designs continue to be shaped to a great degree by the same constraints that shaped the valley's one-style-fits-all tilt-up office plazas: zoning and density restrictions, parking requirements and construction costs. But there is a new, idiosyncratic factor at work: a high-minded belief that these new exterior campus designs should reflect a company's internal culture.

Increasingly, companies that opt to build their own campuses consider themselves design partners with the architecture firms and builders they retain. And they expect that the finished product will be an eloquent expression of their corporate values, the company line writ large in granite and glass.

''Many of our clients are interested in integrating the environment with their culture,'' says Erik Sueberkrop, a principal at Studios Architecture, the San Francisco firm responsible for some of the valley's most challenging designs. ''They want to have that culture speak to their [customers] through their architecture. And why not? It costs no more to have a personality.''

And none has more personality than 3Com's campus, hard by Highway 237 at the eastern edge of Santa Clara. Visually speaking, the networking-equipment maker's spread has more fun per square foot than any Golden Triangle development, with the possible exception of Great America. Not everyone is enamored with the high-energy jumble of styles in the facility, which was designed by Studios Architecture and built in three stages over the last decade. (According to the design czar of another Triangle corporation, the 1.4 million-square-foot campus is derisively known in facilities circles as ''The Train Wreck.'') The latest addition, which added 50 percent to the total square-footage, is an extraordinary three-building sampler of ultra-mod design--Pee-Wee's Playhouse on steroids and an oversize budget.

The crazy quilt of exterior surfaces ranges from great expanses of high-gloss blond wood to metal siding that looks like it might have been cut from Jolly Green Giant-size tin cans. ''Clearly we've become a lot more expressive over the years,'' says Abe Darwish, 3Com's vice president of real estate and site services. ''We were a lot more willing to be in the forefront of design in the latter phases.''

Darwish says the visual wallop didn't come at an exorbitant price. ''You can make a statement, but not be expensive. What makes the building look expensive is the fact we focused on the design. If you look at architectural fees, did we spend more than most? Yeah--but design is a very small percentage of the total cost.'' As for the super-luxe touches, Darwish says they were used relatively sparingly. ''That wood is only used in one spot out of 300,000 square feet. It just gives you the punch. Just like a nice dress--it's elegant, it's simple, it's not overdone.''

At SGI's Amphitheatre Technology Center in Mountain View, another highly animated Studios project, some of the stunning design touches sprang from the idiosyncrasies of the site rather than any desire to be outrageous.

The 22-acre facility just across the road from Shoreline Amphitheatre is four sleek buildings and six glass-walled Lego-ish towers very tightly circled around an interior greensward. The distinctive towers, which house elevators, were factored into the designs because the campus sits atop a very shallow, environmentally sensitive aquifer. Those towers, a work-around to an environmental constraint, ended up reinforcing the campus model for work communities. ''There is a hill town in Tuscany, a medieval village where each family built homes around their tower,'' explains Kalb. ''We wanted it to feel like a community, not a sprawl. This became our high-tech hill town.'' The underground parking on the site is actually at ground level, with a berm built up around it. So in addition to fabricating the hill town, SGI built the hill the town sits on as well.

There may be no design czar or architect in all of Silicon Valley who is not a little obsessed with ''Italian hill towns.'' Few companies take it as literally as SGI, which went so far as to build a bocce ball court. But it seems as if everyone wishes to be dreaming under the Tuscan sun rather than toiling next to the bay landfill. According to Sun Microsystems' building czar Eric Richert, people walking through the courtyard at the company's Menlo Park facility say ''it feels like a European town.'' And Randall Knox, the facilities chief at Novell, insists his firm was ''trying to create some sort of Italian piazza feel to the whole campus.''

Bill Valentine, a senior partner in the San Francisco office of the architectural firm Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum Inc., who's had a hand in many of the valley's largest corporate projects, believes many of the buildings (and their designers) are trying a bit too hard to make a statement. ''If you could develop a really neat environment where the buildings were comfortable to use but they didn't shout for attention, I'd bet the employees would absolutely love it and the stockholders would like it. And over the long haul that would make the best city, as opposed to these gizmos shouting, 'Look at me, look how stunning I am!'''

Strung out

It's a telling measure of ambition that the creators of the new-breed campuses have taken to speaking of their work with analogies drawn from urban planning. These architects and facilities planners are not doing anything as pedestrian as building cube farms. No, to use the lingo of the craft, they're busy creating healthy neighborhoods, fostering communities and designing new downtowns.

Kalb has definite ideas about what separates the good neighborhoods from the not-so-good. ''If you were to ask what's the nature of a ghetto or a poor space, it's the strip--that's never an effective workplace,'' he says. ''In real life it's where you get your strip malls. Everything looks the same, every intersection and storefront. We have a very small portion of that, places where things got too strung out. The communication isn't good and people are always happy to move out of that kind of space.''

Kalb says the worst space he can recall in all of SGI's Mountain View facilities (there are 16 buildings in the Shoreline area in addition to the Amphitheatre Technology Center) was a 100,000-square-foot floor that was an open sea of cubes. ''There was one aisle that went from one end of the building to the other, and people called it the Bayshore,'' says Kalb. ''Having an office off that was like living on a freeway.''

Beyond the neighborhoods, when it comes to building formal meeting spaces and ''downtowns,'' the campus designers steal freely from other architectural disciplines. For example, SGI's elegant presentation center is an intimate theater ringed with a second level of seating, a design that echoes that of many great nightclubs. ''The best social settings you've ever experienced are things you want to bring to the corporate environment,'' Kalb says. ''This is where the town planning analogies really help.... It can be a sprawl, or it can have a real sense of community.''

The concepts of working neighborhoods and community design can scale up to a point--beyond which they become untenable. The valley's most extreme example of explosive growth in the networking sector is Cisco Systems, which manufactures much of the hardware on which the Internet runs. Cisco has been on a six-year building binge along Tasman Drive in northernmost San Jose--the likes of which far outstrip Sarah Winchester's wildest dreams. The Cisco presence along Tasman and side streets now numbers 28 buildings spread over four locations. By the end of the year, the total will be 35 buildings.

While most campuses have a pedestrian culture, Cisco's Tasman developments are an auto culture. Many employees move from site to site by car or they hail a company shuttle bus, which will arrive 10 or 15 minutes later.

Cisco is, by almost any measure imaginable, the largest, richest and most successful player in the computer networking business. It is also home to a corporate culture of almost unparalleled austerity and self-restraint. Cisco is downright phobic about spending dime one on anything that might be considered non-essential. The seemingly endless blocks of plain-jane, sandstone-colored office structures strung along Tasman Drive tell the Cisco story: They are solid, large and uniformly unremarkable, imbued with an almost Soviet-style lack of imagination.

''In a lot of ways, we probably want to be viewed as the most boring company. A lot of people would call our building style boring or simple,'' says Nancy Bareilles, Cisco's vice president of real estate and workplace resources. ''We think it's functional and understated. There's a timeless look to the buildings. We don't ever want to build a monument to our success.'' This fear of what Bareilles calls ''creeping elegance'' runs deep within the company's rank and file, since every Cisco employee is also a shareholder. Cost-containment is such an obsession that the company maintains an e-mail hot-line where employees can blow the whistle on extravagance.

Robert Thurman, Cisco's director of worldwide planning and business solutions, hopes the company can keep the lean-and-mean mindset of a start-up--despite a market capitalization in the neighborhood of $200 billion. (At the close of fiscal 1998 Cisco was No. 3 in income and No. 2 in market capitalization among valley companies.) ''When you're a small company in start-up mode, there's not a sense of entitlements for people. As you get larger, from the CEO on down, people start developing this sense of needing and wanting more,'' he says. ''I think what we've been able to do at Cisco fairly well is to limit that sense of entitlement.''

The valley never sleeps

Several centuries from now, an archaeologist picking through the ruins of the tech campuses will find ample evidence to support a thesis that Silicon Valley 1999 was a culture built around sleep deprivation. The major campuses have many of the personal services typically found in a neighborhood shopping center--coffee bars, a variety of restaurants, 24-hour health clubs, convenience stores and dry cleaners. All that's missing is a place to sleep.

The rationale behind the on-campus services never varies: The amenities are necessary, planners say, to recruit and retain the best workers in a hyper-competitive environment. ''When I joined 3Com about 13 years ago, one of the things that attracted me was that the company was really interested in using the working environment as a strategic advantage--a competitive advantage,'' says Abe Darwish.

When it comes to personal quality-of-life amenities, none apparently is more coveted than an office with a door. The question of who needs an honest-to-gypsum office with real walls and who can get by in a doorless, fabric-skinned cubicle divides architects and planners. Academic studies on how cubes affect communication are inconclusive. ''Those decisions generally have to do with either misbegotten notions about how people communicate, or--worse yet--applying one blanket design to everybody,'' says Richert, the architect who directs Sun's Workplace Effectiveness Group. ''Lesson No. 1 is the solution should depend on the work people are doing. When people say 'We want our engineers to communicate more therefore we're putting them in a bunch of Dilbert-type cubes,' I know they have not one iota of understanding of how that really works.''

Richert believes the people who really need the hard-walled offices are those who ''are doing intense, heads-down coding where you have to keep a set of variables in your head for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. If you're disturbed you've lost that work.'' He believes people whose jobs depend on such concentration will invariably find ways to rebel against cubicle seating. ''They'll bring earphones. They put tape and barriers across the openings to their offices. Worse yet, they'll simply avoid times when a lot of other people are in the office.''

SGI's Amphitheatre Technology Center is an example of a campus where the interior designs support the company's culture. Although the facility houses the company's top executives, engineers are undeniably at the top of the SGI caste system. ''It's an R&D site and it should send the message that research is at the heart of our company,'' David Kalb says.

At SGI, the ratio of hard-walled offices to cubicles is 50/50. Every one of those offices belongs to a technical staffer who's involved in new product development. Managers, from top executives on down, are in cubicles. (One egalitarian touch: The hard-walled offices are set in the interior of the buildings, rather than along the windows, thus putting cubicle-dwellers in the best position to enjoy maximum natural light.)

While some networking companies such as Novell have gone to hard-walled offices almost exclusively, 3Com's corporate culture is gradually moving in the opposite direction, shifting from dedicated private space to shared space. ''We as humans have inherited a lot of strong territorial feelings, but it's my own personal view that the world we're going to be living in more and more is going to be the collaborative work of teams,'' says Darwish. ''If you look at the type of fast-moving competitive pressure that we're under, no longer are you going to see the need for isolation.''

Exit strategy

No matter how classic the design, no matter how solid the materials, no campus is forever. The unrelenting cycles of innovation that power the valley economy force corporations to make flexibility a top priority in campus design. Firms are constantly calculating and recalculating their campus plans as business conditions change. Exit strategy--a contingency plan for selling or leasing surplus space to outsiders--is a key consideration right from the drawing-board stage of most large campuses. Alas, attempts to build a good campus and a good exit strategy can be a zero-sum game. All the design factors that make a campus work as a cohesive, integrated whole also make individual buildings less appropriate for use by outsiders.

Architecture experts say this hedge-all-bets mindset has kept the valley's architecture at a plodding level up until now. Cathy Lang Ho wrote in a recent issue of Architectural Record: ''Part of the valley's identity problem is the local architecture's emphasis on flexible, inexpensive space, essential for companies that can't imagine a future beyond their next quarterly earnings report. Experience has shown that departments can double in size, split into fragments or disappear altogether in the time it takes for the paint to dry.''

At Cisco Systems, which is adding employees at a rate of 30 percent per year, flexibility means undistinguished buildings with standardized features and amenities. ''If you had a crystal ball and you could predict that Cisco would go through this amount of growth and change, you'd probably develop a system that's just plain vanilla--and, in fact, that's what we did,'' says Thurman. ''We have intentionally provided spaces that are flexible and fairly generic. There's not a lot of hierarchal difference.'' For example, in Cisco-land there are two just standard cubicle sizes for the company, instead of the more typical four to six. ''If you were to peel back the skin, you'd find the buildings have the flexibility from electrical, mechanical and communications perspective to accommodate virtually any group,'' says Thurman.

Re-entrance strategy

No other valley corporation has an exit-strategy tale quite as hair-raising as the one that touched Novell, one of the world's largest producers of business networking software. Through the mid-'90s, the general perception within the software industry was that Novell was a company that had lost its technological edge and faded from relevance. The old plant around Lundy Avenue--10 dark, dingy tilt-ups spread out along three busy intersections--seemed to be custom-built to reinforce this has-been identity.

In 1997, the company was finishing plans for a hulking brute of a five-building campus on North First Street at Guadalupe Parkway in San Jose when a reorganization shrunk Novell's local workforce from 1,150 positions to fewer than 500. New CEO Eric Schmidt lopped one story off all but one of the buildings. Two buildings that were planned at five stories became four and two others that were to be four shrunk to three. Schmidt--using exit strategy as an entrance strategy--decided to put all his troops in the two front buildings on the property and lease out the rest.

''You know, Novell went through that period when everybody viewed us as dying. Microsoft had eaten our lunch. We were on our way out,'' says Knox, the company's vice president of California site operations and facilities. ''One thing we wanted to do here was create new life and excitement. And that's one reason Eric drew everyone into these two buildings. He didn't want a lot of empty offices around.''

''Nice'' does not begin to describe the creature comforts $130 million can buy--from the lavish stone exteriors to elevator cabs that cost as much as a new Lexus. But while the first impression may be one of opulence, the deeper message here is one of reassurance. With every little touch (and there are many) the buildings tell employees that the darkest and most uncertain days for Novell are behind them. (Novell's stock, around $7 when Schmidt took over, was recently trading at around $30.)

The new campus, which opened for business last November, signifies a new life for Novell as a Net-centric company. Knox says the decision to build with relatively expensive limestone and granite was one way to send the message that Novell would endure. ''We wanted to project a stable image, and we think stone does that,'' he says. ''We spent a lot of time, effort and money designing our campus to be timeless and enduring. And we believe this approach flies in the face of the reputation valley architecture has--fast, fleeting and quickly dated.'' While the basic design of the campus was set before CEO Eric Schmidt came onboard, Knox says Schmidt did have a direct hand in the deciding the look and feel of the final campus, right down to choosing the colors for the exterior stone and the interior accents. ''He didn't want us cutting a lot of corners,'' says Knox. ''He made a comment to me one day when we were talking about amenity areas: 'Why would I want to make anybody leave the campus?'''

Knox doesn't deny that the company invested more than usual to show its employees that they're valued: ''You know that lowball-everything mentality? That was us--that was Novell under a previous CEO. Eric wants to show [the employees] that this is a quality company and we're determined to treat them like quality employees. We're going to raise the level of performance by raising what we're giving them.''

The soul of a new building

The concentration of campuses in the Golden Triangle and along Highway 101 may well be the only architectural feature that sets Silicon Valley apart from any other region. The very best of the new breed--the ones that capture what it feels like to live and work in these go-go years when Silicon Valley is the economic engine at the center of the wired world--may someday come to be regarded as great works. But most of the architects and planners behind the campuses are uncomfortable with the idea that their designs will ultimately be judged in the larger context of valley culture as a whole.

3Com's Darwish is typical in his ambivalence. He understands that his campus is destined to be a landmark. He also knows that building landmarks is an endeavor fundamentally at odds with a hyper-speed industry that redefines itself every three months. ''To me this is Mecca. This is where it's happening. The interesting thing in technology is that we're moving too fast,'' he says. ''Nobody really wants to think about something of permanence. It's almost counterintuitive.''

Given all the other corporate mandates, is it really the designer's responsibility to make the campus something more than a good office, something that brings--dare we say it?--real enjoyment to the lives of all who see it?

''I like to think that we have an obligation, from a design standpoint, to pay attention,'' Darwish says. ''We all have a responsibility as planners to create ... the soul. Anybody can put a building together. But are you willing to do what it takes to add that extra dimension?''


WHAT'S RESPONSIBLE for the beefy look of the new campuses? Real estate brokers, architects and corporate planners agree that the greatest single factor behind the behemoths is the high cost and relative scarcity of buildable land in Silicon Valley's prime high-tech districts, particularly the Golden Triangle.

According to veteran land broker Chip Macdonald, senior vice president/principal of CPS, a commercial property services company, a square foot of commercial land in North San Jose that sold for approximately $20 five years ago now goes for $40. And the large parcels that would accommodate major corporate headquarters are becoming increasingly scarce. Macdonald says the Golden Triangle has been ''full'' for at least the last 18 months, with next to no major parcels on the market.

Because the dirt itself is so dear, companies are forced to maximize the return on their land investment by building taller, denser campus structures. The sprawling campus of one-story, ranch-style buildings partially hidden from the road by verdant berms is about as practical today as a 1,200-baud modem. ''We've gone from single-story to multi-story, all because of land costs,'' says architect Bill Valentine, a senior partner in the San Francisco office of the firm Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum Inc. ''I'd be interested if you can find a single person who's not planning for the max.''

From a cost perspective, building up is good. But there is a limit to how far up one may go before bumping into the municipal height and density limits that keep the Triangle and other tech districts from turning into Manhattan By The Bay. In most campus areas, density limits called ''floor-area ratios'' dictate that any 100 square feet of land can only support between 35 and 50 square feet of office space. Given all the requisite items at ground level--such as driveways, landscaping and parking--architects say it's almost impossible to achieve the maximum allowable density with a single, sprawling floor. Two- or three-story designs, which were the exception 10 years ago, are now the rule. And where local density caps are looser, four- or five-story designs are increasingly common.

The other primary force shaping the new-breed Silicon Valley corporate campus is the need for efficient communication. Old-style office parks are organizational islands, isolated from each other by seas of parking. Campuses, by their very definition, are designed to eliminate that isolation and encourage easy interaction between colleagues.

Until recently, most valley corporations lived in office parks that had been designed to accommodate multiple tenants. But now, more companies are taking control of their own land destiny and building campuses designed with their specific organizational needs in mind.

The holy grail for campus designers is ''synergy'' -- the collegial feeling that comes when individuals and groups are arranged for optimal communication. Alas, unlike the unyielding math of floor-area ratios, synergy is a slippery concept and the never-ending quest for it is as much a black art as a science. While every architect invokes the S-word freely, no two ever agree on which exact attributes define a communications-friendly building.

''It's one of the things that my profession does not do well,'' says Eric Richert, a staff architect for Sun Microsystems. ''There's been a lot of literature and research on how teams work from an organizational sense, but very little work on how teams work with either physical space or technology infrastructure.''

One of Richert's goals with the Sun Menlo Park campus was to find the right scale buildings. ''We wanted buildings large enough so that large research organizations could be cohesive on one hand--and on the other hand not be so distant from each other that being in the same building became meaningless,'' he says. ''People who are really working closely with each other--solving problems and developing ideas, not just delivering information--need to be together. If we could create a situation where every team like that was in a 25,000-50,000-square-foot space on one floor, that would be ideal. You get to 300,000 square feet on a floor and ... there's nothing wrong with that, but it's silly to think that people on that floor are all going to be interacting in an intimate way.''

There is a general consensus that two floors is a good scale for a tech campus building, with lots of design flexibility, and that three floors is the highest one can build without running into some breakdown in interpersonal communications. But there is no industry benchmark for what constitutes a correct scale for each floor. While Richert's ideal is 25,000-50,000 square feet, SGI decided the sweet spot for its new Amphitheatre Technology Center in Mountain View would be an intimate 15,000 square feet per floor.

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