Last week Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, sat down with Allison Arief of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) in downtown San Jose to discuss the state of 21st Century urbanism with a focus on Silicon Valley. Though admired the world over as the preeminent center for technological innovation, Silicon Valley has never been known for its great architecture. Goldberger suggested that this reputation could’ve improved had Apple not missed the mark with the design of their proposed Apple Campus 2 building in Cupertino.
While acknowledging that Apple is probably the best design company at the moment, Goldberger asserted that the company’s design abilities end with small consumer gadgets and fail spectacularly at the urban level. Calling the Norman Foster designed building for the new Apple Campus a ‘beautifully designed donut or spaceship’, he lamented the lack of context and connection to anything around it. Speaking to an audience that included members of San Jose’s city government, Goldberger suggested that Apple missed the opportunity to take the reins to help transform San Jose by relocating at least some of its operations to help its long struggling (and subsidized) downtown.
The reality is that most of the big tech companies in the Valley, not just Apple, have an extreme indifference to place-choosing to locate operations in suburban office parks. This has much to do with the history of Silicon Valley planning as it does with the nature of tech companies, which tend to employ legions of introverted computer engineering types and go to great lengths to remain insular and secretive (Apple taking this to the extreme). Perhaps it also makes perfect sense that rather than even acknowledging the true urban environment, companies whose primary business is creating the virtual world in which we increasingly experience public life take an active stance on turning their backs on the city.
Yet for those still interested in experiencing the delights of pre-Information Era, pre-21 Century urbanism, there is always San Francisco not far up the road. Goldberger made the point that the handful of tech companies who do choose to locate their operations in the city probably have a different mindset than those that stay in the Valley. Twitter being the prime example of the moment- the micro blogging site just leased 400,000 square feet of space on a long-maligned section of Market Street. Up in Seattle, Amazon recently announced its plan to build three new 37-story towers in the downtown area, which the proposal’s architect said is “not about building a corporate campus, it’s about building a neighborhood.”
So even though not every tech company is averse to the city, the Richard Florida argument that high urban density is a prerequisite for innovation and creativity is a bit of a stretch, as the economic success of suburban Silicon Valley continually disproves. Near the end of the discussion, Goldberger suggested that deliberately designing space for innovation might be a bit too self-conscious. This implies that rather than design, factors such as human resources, access to capital and a culture with openness to trial-and-error matter more than the traditional urban hardware of cities.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently based in China and California. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNMayer.