Leah Alissa Bayer's Portfolio
DESIGN [ leader ] RESEARCH [ futurist ]

Writings

Architecture in Silicon Valley - Here It Comes

When you hear mention of Silicon Valley, what types of thoughts cross your mind? Start ups? Stanford? The birthplace of the tech world? Sure. But what about stunning architecture, urban planning, or innovative environmental design? Not likely, I bet.

Well, not yet. But it’s coming.

Just as tech development has exploded from this epicenter for decades, so begins an exciting architectural boom. Decisive efforts are in the works to abandon uninspired office park sprawl and instead plan for design that reflects the unconventional and ambitious energy so abundant in the area. What a perfect place to begin a career in architecture, where I might some day lend a hand in shaping environments that support and inspire some the greatest minds in the world.

Immediately after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I moved to the beautiful hills of Portola Valley. With a just a hint of a plan and no real grasp on the architecture industry, I was ready to jump into the unknown so I began looking for my first job at an architecture firm. While I knew large firms are plentiful in downtown San Francisco, I hadn’t heard much with regards to the industry in Silicon Valley, so I looked for smaller firms doing quality work - somewhere I’d be able to learn the ins and outs of all aspects of architecture. Quickly enough (thank you Cal Poly), I landed a position smack dab in the middle of downtown Mountain View, completely unaware of the industry giants and all the potential surrounding our modest office.

The first few months working on Castro Street were overwhelming and exciting - finding my bearings within the firm and experiencing the area and people (and dodging Google’s driverless cars EVERYWHERE I go). I spent many hours commuting through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Cupertino, and San Jose, running errands and visiting job sites. It often struck me that for such a famously influential region, Silicon Valley looks painfully average – dated, even. As a young aspiring architect passionate about innovative, speculative architecture, I found few if any examples to take inspiration from. For the most part, though, I spent most of my waking hours in the office, working hard. I learned quickly that my previous experience in management carried over nicely in the firm and I began taking on and managing projects. Fast forward to a few months later and I’m now in charge of a condo development project in downtown Mountain View.

Working with the city is both daunting and fun. I hadn’t taken any city and regional planning classes in school but after the hours I’ve spent in their various department offices, I’d highly recommend it to current students. Understanding the bigger picture and working well with those involved in deciding the future of our cities is paramount to the success of an architect. It happens that the principal at my firm is pretty great at all levels interfacing and takes a vested interest in municipal participation, which leads me to the North Bayshore Precise Plan

If you are unfamiliar with the term, Precise Plans are development standards written by the city and community and implemented for specific regions. They help define and uphold visions for the future, often focusing on managing resources and people more efficiently. A handful of our recent clients have property they’d like to develop that lie in various precise plan jurisdictions, including one in the North Bayshore region, or as I’ve learned, Google territory. As an employee of a firm working in Mountain View, the development of these regions has naturally become a professional interest of mine, so last week Monday I tuned into KQED’s broadcast focused on Google’s expansion and proposal for a new Googleplex in North Bayshore (found here if you’re interested). It's through this discussion that I was clued into the big architectural players stepping up to bat to transform the appearance of Silicon Valley.

Google has an insanely impressive team working for them. The particular members I look to as role models are brilliant minds with tremendous foresight, focused on big picture black sky thinking, such as Ray Kurzweil. So it came as no surprise that when faced with the challenges of (sub)urban renewal, densification, and proposing a new campus as impressive and thoughtful as their members, Google turned to Bjarke Ingles of BIG and Thomas Heatherwick, best known for his Seed Cathedral at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai.

BIG's design for an elementary school in Denmark

BIG's design for an elementary school in Denmark

Thomas Heatherwick's Seed Cathedral

Thomas Heatherwick's Seed Cathedral

While the specifics of allowing an individual corporation ownership and control over a majority of land in Mountain View may leave room for debate and study, it’s undeniable that these two architects have a thrilling proposal for the North Bayshore development plan that would set the standard for architecture to come. It’s stunning, thoughtful, and thought provoking – a plan as energetic, adaptive, and accepting of evolution as those individuals it intends to shelter. While Google surely won’t be the last to bring innovative architecture to the Valley (there are endless progressive and powerful companies with potential to follow suit), it’s also not the first. 

 A brief search will tell you that big names such as Frank Gehry and Normal Foster have recently been commissioned to design local projects for Facebook and Apple, respectively. Gehry is well known for his playful, sculptural works of art while Foster’s portfolio boasts high-tech, sustainable, otherworldly designs I cannot get enough of.  And while it’s great that world-class architects are taking notice and participating in developing the tech capital, I find the implications of the type of architects being chosen to design here even more exciting. The spirit of the work of these professionals is a perfect reflection of what this strange land embodies. It's also closely in-line with my own career values and professional goals.

Frank Gehry's proposal for Facebook campus

Frank Gehry's proposal for Facebook campus

Norman Foster's Apple design, the Spaceship

Norman Foster's Apple design, the Spaceship

My purpose in this industry only came to light recently. A few years ago I discovered an overwhelming connection to a handful of boundary-pushing designers giving TED talks on biomimicry and tech innovation. Exploring and developing my passion during thesis year in university, I jumpstarted a trajectory I foresee following for a lifetime. As much fun as I am having learning the ropes in a successful and evolving firm, traditional architectural practice isn’t the right fit for me in the long run. I intend to spend years learning the industry here, but my end-game plans are different – further reaching into the future of built environments.

And who better than these exemplary architects to pave the way for young architecture professionals like myself, hoping to make big changes in the industry someday? What better place to become the Dr. Frankenstein of architecture than in Silicon Valley, where anything is possible and people are willing to invest in what would otherwise be considered insanity anywhere else in the world? Whether you call my journey here fate or happenstance, it’s an absolutely thrilling place to be.

 This is where I am meant to evolve, and this is where I’ll help architecture find a pulse.

 ...but I’ll save the details of breathing life into structure for another post.