We were drawn to the Architectural Review (AR) magazine’s Notopia campaign when it first landed on our desks with their June 2016 issue. It was a reassuring vocalisation of a phenomenon that has very sadly crept into our profession and the built environment. As The Editor of AR, Christine Murray, writes soon “..we will be unable to distinguish any one global city from another”; …”the edge of Mumbai will look like the beginning of Shenzhen, and the centre of Singapore will look downtown Dallas.” According to Murray, this level of banal urbanism is endemic not only amongst the many nondescript buildings around the world but also amongst the sought-after iconic landmarks that fail to capture a sense of place.
Our fascination with Architectural Review’s Notopia campaign is not so much our dwelling on the recent short-comings of our profession (although we do indulge on some days) but more about the AR identifying a problem, giving it a name, or a diagnosis as it were, and thereby facilitating a potential cure. How do we tackle this epidemic? We have thought about this a great deal as we work near one of the world’s fastest growing hubs: Silicon Valley. We wrote about this Californian technology paradise some years ago,
“In terms of the magnitude of its inventions, the culture could easily be compared with the Florence of the Renaissance, and yet we have no movies to account for this vast urban carpet, no literature to mark the unfolding of human affairs in its dispersed fabric, no iconic image etched in the mind of the general public.” (Form, Sept-Oct 2011)
..No Woody Allen filming in the streets of the Silicon Valley. In fact visitors to Silicon Valley are confronted with streets of drab, Notopia worthy stuff. There are, of course, Renaissance-minded exceptions to this such as the new Frank Gehry campus for Facebook and the more accessible Facebook Classic Campus with its vibrant street life; but the overall effect is too disjointed to allow even the best building projects to thrive. Like many a booming community, Silicon Valley desperately needs a municipal vision, a town plan imbued with a sense of public life and intelligent placemaking.
We have certainly witnessed how entrepreneurs in the Valley have been interested in how design within their buildings can help achieve better staff retention and improve creative thinking. In many ways, the Silicon Valley is a pioneer in making the office a more friendly, collaborative, egalitarian work environment. Yet much of this is lost and becomes less meaningful when it is only experienced in a hermetic and enclosed way within the confines of air-conditioned rooms.
How much more attractive would Silicon Valley be if it built on Facebook’s vision in Menlo Park. Or that of Google in San Jose where civic mindedness is thankfully gradually being considered as a positive expression of the internet giant’s influence. If you think about it, the Valley is currently much like a business park where people go to work whilst having their homes in engaging and diverse places like San Francisco. As a result, tech-company employees are bussed from the more convivial cities and towns in the Bay Area to their workplaces in the Silicon Valley.
Wouldn’t it be better if Silicon Valley were a great place to inhabit and not only for those working for the big tech companies but for people of all walks of life? This would require a real Renaissance in the Valley or phenomenon some call “techquity”, put simply, a drive to let everyone benefit from a city’s tech boom. We hope that this is the next phase in the Silicon Valley: a more outwardly and community orientated agenda for development encouraging people to spend their time there walking, eating out, enjoying recreational or cultural pursuits or shopping and, of course, also choosing it as an attractive place to live and bring up families. And we are encouraged by news of Facebook and Google looking into building housing – including affordable housing – in the Valley which will help achieve this.
Form4 Architecture is currently working with The Architectural Review on a publication about these very issues with Wired Magazine contributor and architectural critic Sam Lubell writing about Silicon Valley.