Strelka Press is a digital-first publisher of new writing on architecture, design and the city. Reviving the essay as a popular form, we publish critical writing in digital and print editions.

THE DOT-COM CITY
SILICON VALLEY URBANISM

by Alexandra Lange

Monocultures have always been part of the appeal of the suburban headquarters, and it is especially true for the tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley.

Printed book FROM €7.49

On their bland campuses, the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook dominate the world, removed from the mess and the prying eyes of the real city. But while their products are discussed endlessly, their urbanism has rarely been. So what does it look like? To date, the Silicon Valley campus has served as a backdrop to many a sun-kissed founder photoshoot, but there is little understanding of the distinctive urban personality that separates the village of Facebook from the town of Google or the truly urban Twitter (which recently decided to move to San Francisco’s notoriously un-gentrifiable Tenderloin). This investigation of the private towns of Silicon Valley examines the tech campus as a typology and seeks to discover what it says about the companies we think we know.


About the author

She is an architecture and design critic, historian and teacher based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and the New York Times, and she blogs weekly on Design Observer. Princeton Architectural Press published her most recent book, Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, in 2012.

THE DOT-COM CITY
SILICON VALLEY URBANISM

“When you enter you become immersed in the culture that is Facebook,” Katigbak says, “but from the outside you would just think it was another Silicon Valley campus. We don’t want to make it like a theme park. You rarely see any logotypes or things branded Facebook blue. It’s a residential approach. You are going into the office but it is an extension of where you are comfortable working. A lot of people like to work in cafés, coffee shops, studios. We want a variety of work environments here.” In that sense, physical Facebook resembles the Facebook the rest of us know, always open and ready to be updated. Where online you post vacation photos, the Facebook international group identifies themselves with ceiling-hung flags. Where online you brag about your second-place ultimate Frisbee trophy, at Facebook you park it on your desk.

As a simultaneously symbolic and actual sign of thrift, Facebook’s designers did save the doors, thousands of them, and repurposed them as the entrances to conference rooms, bathrooms, phone booths. Some of the glass bears the defunct Sun mark at eye-level, a warning both about walking into walls and, perhaps, about the need to brand everything. The backwards Sun logos fit the overall anti-aesthetic aesthetic: the concrete floor slabs are bared, and show the marks of all those disappeared walls; big HVAC pipes snake overheard, clad in silver insulation; walls are covered in chalkboard paint or sections of whiteboard; steel columns interrupt the new drywall wherever they occur.

Break-out spaces, the hipster offspring of the conference room, without walls, and with better furniture, pop up everywhere off the main corridor. The furniture is IKEA, CB2 (Crate & Barrel’s younger, citron-loving cousin), with a few more expensive offerings from the midcentury reissues at Design Within Reach. Someone has made a DIY panel out of climbing rope, to which papers can be clipped. Desks are minimal, 30 square feet per person, and ganged together in long rows adjacent to the windows. The workers choice is not space, but mode: everyone I talked to seemed to be experimenting with the standing desk, and a few private cubicles had been set aside for those who want to work on the treadmill. Conference rooms’ names were a group project, mash-ups of Star Wars and cocktails, those categories also voted on by all the employees. In case it’s not obvious where Jar Jar Drinks might lie in the floor plan, flatscreens are mounted at major intersections that allow you to look up a conference room and its bookings, or the location of any employee. There’s a digital method to the madness: the naming contest was, of course, conducted via online vote. More than anything else, the office looks like the semi-finished and unrealistically large downtown lofts inhabited by twenty-something males in American sitcoms: good bones, top-notch tech, but needs a girlfriend’s touch. Hacker chic is about right.