Silicon Valley Has Its Tech Campuses. Now It Wants A Monument

Apr 19, 2019
Originally published on April 19, 2019 8:16 am

As much as Silicon Valley is an actual place, it has no official borders or capital. It's a nickname, not a name on a map. But now there might be a monument about its glory.

The San Jose City Council approved a design competition for a landmark that would symbolize the tech industry's power and influence. There isn't a single architectural icon to represent Silicon Valley, like the Hollywood sign or the Empire State Building.

Tourists line up to take photographs in front of Facebook's "like" sign, which has become a landmark in Silicon Valley.
James Tensuan for NPR

However, Silicon Valley has long been physically defined first by its modest, unremarkable suburban office parks. Then, in the past few years, tech giants began erecting grandiose campuses designed by superstar architects. These buildings, such as Apple's new headquarters and Frank Gehry's addition to Facebook, can be seen as corporate monuments. They convey a sense of permanence and establishment, instead of the fluidity and flexibility that defined startup culture.

"This is what rich and powerful people have done throughout history. Louis XIV built Versailles. The pope built St. Peter's. The pharaohs built the pyramids," said Louise Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley who studies corporate landscapes. "And at this moment, the really rich and powerful are the technology companies."

That's what tourists already travel for. They want to see where their apps and devices are dreamed up.

Tourists shop and snap photographs at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif.
James Tensuan for NPR

"There's an energy and a spirit here," said Le Zhang, who runs a startup. "I want to show my friends who are visiting how Silicon Valley was built and what a success story looks like."

He and his friend, who works at Apple in China, rode their bikes to notable tech sites. They went from Steve Jobs' childhood home, where he and Steve Wozniak put together the first Apple computers inside the garage, to the HP Garage located on a residential street in downtown Palo Alto. A handful of tourists were already snapping pictures of where classmates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started their company 80 years ago.

Bella Chen takes a photograph of the iconic garage where HP started in Palo Alto 80 years ago.
James Tensuan for NPR

"It's good to pay respect to these histories," Zhang said, "but in the end, we need to make our own, make our own stories." I joked that in a few years people will want to see the house he rents in Menlo Park. "I definitely hope so," he said and laughed. Coming here is more a pilgrimage than a typical vacation.

People wait in line at the "like" sign outside Facebook's headquarters. They eat and shop at Apple's multimillion-dollar visitor center. They play in Google's colorful candy land with sculptures of the Android mascot.

Top: Google's colorful corporate fleet of bikes take employees — and tourists — around its many buildings. Tourists come to Silicon Valley to explore tech campuses, such as Google's (left), and to see where it all began, like the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak put together the first Apple computers.
James Tensuan for NPR

Then, they post about it on social media. On Instagram, @ravikiran_kondoju captioned a photo at Google with #CantImagineLifeWithoutGoogle and @meredithwild posted a photo of herself at the Apple campus with the caption "This tech nerd is very happy!" and #oneinfiniteloop.

Access to these campuses lets visitors satiate their obsession with technology. "People are in awe of an industry that's so ubiquitous in our lives," said photographer James Tensuan, who grew up in Mountain View and documents tech culture.

But these slivers of public space on the campuses can feel like a facade. Instagram user @tobiblond captioned his picture at the Facebook thumbs-up sign: "Finally found all my data." The openness and friendliness convey a sense of false transparency at a time when Silicon Valley is under intense scrutiny.

The animosity for how smartphones, social networks and monopolistic policies undermine society is growing, so it's not surprising that the industry is trying to immortalize its legacy in the landscape of Silicon Valley.

A man takes a photograph of a Google street sign at its headquarters in Mountain View.
James Tensuan for NPR

Samantha Clark is a writer and photo editor based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Instagram @samanthabrandyclark.

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