‘Building the Future’ delves into the architecture of new tech campuses and how they help forge a sense of place in the valley.

The hangars at nearby Moffett Field had an impact on the design of Google’s new Bay View campus in Mountain View, which opened in 2022. Courtesy Richard Adler.

No doubt, Silicon Valley has a global reputation, and it’s complicated. That worldwide fame is matched perhaps only by the disbelief of visitors wondering why the valley doesn’t have more to show, architecturally speaking, for all its storied innovation and riches.

“A couple years ago, I was photographing the HP Garage, which is on Addison Street (in Palo Alto), a quiet, suburban street, but there’s a historic marker in front. While I was photographing, there was a couple — I think they were from Finland — visiting this area. And they asked me, ‘Where is Silicon Valley? We don’t know where to find it,'” recalled photographer Richard Adler. 

It may not have an obvious center, but Silicon Valley does have unique architecture — though much like the unseen products of the valley itself, from the algorithms that power A.I. down to the old-school chips that gave the place its name, you may not always know it’s there. 

Whether that’s a feature or a bug is up to the viewer of “Building the Future; A Visual History of the Architecture of Silicon Valley,” a new exhibition at the Los Altos History Museum that opens Aug. 3 featuring Adler’s photographs of valley architecture. Either way, the show makes the case that the area does have a distinct visual identity.

In addition to photographs of 13 different sites, the exhibition features curated artifacts related to the buildings, as well as architectural sketches.

“This diverse collection aims to deepen visitors’ understanding of the motivations behind these buildings while providing a glimpse into the future through renderings of upcoming projects,” according to a press release about the show.

Adler spent the last four years photographing a variety of the valley’s tech campuses, as well as some iconic historical sites, such as the Hewlett Packard Garage and Moffett Field’s Hangar One. He was inspired to start the project in 2019 while taking a class about Silicon Valley architecture at Stanford University Continuing Studies taught by professor Barry Katz. Katz will join Adler for a conversation about Silicon Valley architecture on Aug. 17 at the museum.

Apple’s “Spaceship” headquarters building is an example of more Silicon Valley companies looking to make their mark by building architecturally unique campuses. Courtesy Richard Adler.

“The thesis of this course was that there was a kind of a major revolution underway among high-tech companies,” Adler said. 

Where previously, many companies bought or leased existing office space, in recent years, more Silicon Valley companies have begun looking to make their mark by building architecturally unique campuses. One of the best known examples is the donut-shaped Apple Park in Cupertino, often called “the spaceship.” 

A longtime photographer, Adler set himself a challenge to get a visual record of these new buildings. He knows the region and its mindset well. He came to Palo Alto in 1972, where he lived for nearly 30 years. He now lives in Cupertino. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future, where he has researched and consulted on emerging technologies.

“My goal is to show people what’s here. You can go to San Francisco. You can go up to the top of Coit Tower and look out, and you can even fall in love with San Francisco. You know, it’s this one little compact, charming city, but Silicon Valley isn’t like that — there is no center, really, for Silicon Valley. It’s more like LA in a way. It’s very spread out. There’s lots to see in LA but you have to know where you’re going,” Adler said.

The comparison to Los Angeles might be particularly apt, as one of Adler’s inspirations for the project was in response to a 2013 Los Angeles Times article that declared Silicon Valley “an architectural wasteland.” 

But Adler agrees that, at the time, the LA Times writer had a point.

“It was sort of true, I mean, there really wasn’t a lot to see here. And that’s now, I believe, really changed because Silicon Valley is so large an area. Most people have never seen many of these buildings. And so one of the goals of this exhibit is to let people know that this isn’t the wasteland anymore,” he said. 

Because many of these new campuses do often go largely unseen for all but employees, “Building the Future” will include a map to encourage visitors to take themselves on a tour of the valley’s new architecture.

“One of the things that we’ve created (for the exhibit) is going to be a free handout, which is called a ‘Field Guide to Silicon Valley.’ It has a map that shows where these buildings are, and it has a little section on each one of the sites. … My hope is that this is going to spark people’s interest in their own environment,” Adler said.

Among the new additions to this former “wasteland” in the past 10 years are the Apple spaceship, the Frank Gehry-designed Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, Google’s new Bay View campus in Mountain View, Nvidia’s triangle-shaped headquarters in Santa Clara and Adobe’s newest tower in downtown San Jose. Even Microsoft, a company that’s famously a Silicon Valley outlier, has now opted for its own bespoke campus in Mountain View. Adler photographed these and other buildings, and in a few cases, toured them.

Nvidia’s triangle-shaped headquarters in Santa Clara is an addition to Silicon Valley’s former “architectural wasteland.” Courtesy Richard Adler.

Getting the images presented some challenges, not the least of which was that COVID made places more inaccessible. Plus, the subjects were massive. 

“These buildings tend to be very low and long. The Apple spaceship is literally a mile around. You have to find a way to capture the whole building. A lot of my photography uses a wide-angle lens. It’s really sort of breathtaking when you see the scale of that building,” he said

It wasn’t just the pandemic making access tricky: Tech companies are also frequently siloed off from the public for security’s sake. 

“They tend to be very controlled. But I think they now realize that there really is a public interest,” Adler said.

To that end, a number of the newer campuses boast spaces designed to welcome the public, with amenities such as cafes, stores, museums and visitors’ centers.

Other trends Adler found in documenting these spaces was that there was an emphasis on making the exterior of the building a visual representation of the company, while on the interior, there was typically a focus on creating spaces for employees to collaborate. Since these structures were designed before the pandemic spurred an increase in remote work, he said it will be interesting to see how that design choice evolves in the coming years.

Another striking element to Silicon Valley’s new architecture is that most buildings were created almost as “science projects,” as Adler describes them, packing in many features to help mitigate environmental impact, such as solar panels, water recycling systems, living roofs or geothermal climate control.

“They put a tremendous amount of effort and attention into sustainability,” he said.

Adler notes that the Silicon Valley region has long been home to important structures that broke new ground, which is why, in part, he included a historic element to the exhibition,

“Things like Hangar One at Moffett Field, when that was built in 1933, it was the world’s largest freestanding building, and then when the Stanford Linear Accelerator was built in the 1960s, it was the longest and straightest building ever built,” he said. 

The influence of such structures and of the local environment is present in some of the valley’s new buildings. Adler pointed out that the hangars at nearby Moffett Field had an impact on the design of Google’s Bay View campus.

Even the grounds of Apple Park take inspiration from the surroundings of another iconic local structure, the Stanford Dish, where Steve Jobs liked to stroll.

“People don’t pay much attention to the past. That’s why I liked the title, ‘Building the Future: A Visual History of Silicon Valley.’  So we’re going to talk about the future but we’re also talking about the past as well,” Adler said.

“Building the Future: A Visual History of Silicon Valley” runs Aug. 3-Oct. 22 at the Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos. Admission is free. On Aug. 17, 5:30-7 p.m., the museum presents “Conversations and Reflections: The Stories Behind the Buildings,” a discussion with Adler and professor Barry Katz. Tickets are $10, losaltoshistory.org.

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