Silicon Valley has a Sustainability Complex

A drone lifts off from the Junipero Serra Freeway, closing in on a futuristic glass ring lined with oak trees. Cutting through the building’s transparent four-floor façade – its inner workings splayed out like an infinite cross-section – the drone picks up the chase on a young woman as she races through its sprawling central garden. Clusters of fruit trees, rolling wild meadows, a perfectly manicured sports pitch, and a gigantic ripple pool dot the 175-acre expanse. Suspended in dreamy Californian sunlight, the scene is both primordial and hyper-futuristic; the landscape represents a seamless marriage of nature and technology. Welcome to the Garden of Steve.

When this commercial was released in late 2018, the $5 billion, 2.8 million-square-foot megalith known as Apple Park – conceived by the late company founder Steve Jobs and designed by British architects Foster & Partners – had been open to employees for over a year. As the first and only official documentation released of the project, it dials up Apple Park’s mystique, as if wanting to affirm the accusations of cultish insularity raised by the critics a year prior. The bad press centered overwhelmingly on its architecture: partly because no journalist (save for Steven Levy of Wired) had actually gotten inside what quickly became known as “the mothership”, and partly because there wasn’t much landscaping to speak of at the time. The unapologetic monumentality of the ring-shaped building was an embodiment of the navel-gazing stereotype of Silicon Valley culture and made for an easy target. But what about the pseudo-natural forest now radiating out from the building’s center?

“The campuses are less a starchitect-designed vision of power,” argues Claudia Dutson, a Tutor at the Royal College of Art in London who researches the architecture and environmental politics of Silicon Valley. “Than Big Tech working in a very hands-on and collaborative way to become the architects of their own worlds.”

To speak about Silicon Valley’s hermeticism is to speak about a very complex kind of insularity, wherein Big Tech’s unflinching belief in its own ability to resolve global issues of climate change eclipses its refusal to engage with the politics of its own back yard. To fully understand how these ideologies are constructed and reinforced, it’s important to move beyond the campus architecture and examine the role of the landscape – from Apple Park’s ecological resurrection to Facebook’s rooftop redwood forests and Google’s artificial oak groves and pixel-generated green trails – in cultivating the high-tech green magic of these corporate campuses.

“There’s a long cultural history of the lone genius leaving behind city luddites to build a new world freed from societal, political, and economic regulation,” suggests Charles Waldheim, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “You can clearly map that desire onto Silicon Valley campuses, where landscape architects are hired to build a verdant imaginary that looks like it’s always been there.” And while the types of pastoral oases envisioned by Silicon Valley come from a very high-tech, very Californian strain of neo-Thoreauism – where “original” West Coast ecologies can be resurrected and enhanced through advanced technology – they have more mundane roots in the American post-war corporate campus movement, itself resting on a whole set of libertarian preconceptions about what land is and who it serves.

When Jobs approached landscape architect Laurie Olin to design the green campus of Apple Park, the Californian inventor had two references in mind: the sweeping Main Quad of Stanford University, and the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, a nineteenth century landscape architect who is largely considered the founder of his field. These points of influence are helpful in unpicking the symbolic and aesthetic function of the Park, as a space that not only shrouds the company from public eye but also behaves like a self-contained world, a sacred space for the company to bask in its own origin story and affirm itself through cinematic “natural” surrounds, somewhere between its apple orchards and wildflower meadows.

More than a nod to the intellectual beacon of his native Palo Alto, Steve Jobs’s riff on Stanford draws on the cultural capital of elite private schools, which – as Louise Monzingo discusses in Pastoral Capitalism – carry a kind of “environmental prestige and independent intellectual inquiry that was supposedly free from corporate constraints”. In other words, every American tech company’s dream. Olmsted, for his part, understood the power of landscape as a symbolic gesture. For him, the landscape was a canvas upon which he could “paint” with elements of nature to heighten the senses – it was a practice far less concerned with “true” nature than producing a sense of the spectacular (one need look no further than the Jurassic-scale drama of his masterpiece, Central Park, whose folly-dotted, bomb-blown expanse happily blurs topographical fact and fiction). Then there’s the inherent public conception of green space as necessarily virtuous (‘Greenness is goodness,’ to quote Mozingo again), undercutting considerations of whom it profits.

Fifteen miles north of Apple Park, three gigantic grey canopies are scattered across the sprawling sun-burnt expanse of Mountain View. The largest butts elbows with Googleplex, a glossy 2-million-square-foot campus Google inherited from Silicon Graphics back in 2004, while the smaller pair is nestled against a cluster of research bases on NASA-owned land. Looking like a drab rain-soaked tent at Glastonbury, it’s hard to believe this is the end result of the multi-billion-dollar eco-futuristic utopia conceived for Google by Bjarke Ingels Group and Thomas Heatherwick Studio.

The original design for Google HQ was a four plot, 3 million-plus-square-foot high-tech pastoral oasis: greenhouses, indoor running tracks, and community tai-chi were sprinkled around the glimmering renderings, which promised the ’60s modular dream of Archigram rehashed by two of Burning Man’s favorite architects. (Ingels, I am told, wanted an actual forest growing inside the building, shading desk workers.) The reality of Google’s first self-built office provides a comparatively paltry 1 million square feet of office space underneath what is now being described by its designers as “airport hangar-like”. But Google’s downgrade from a hippie-friendly transparent bubble dome to a grim canopy is not just a design fail; it’s bad news for an industry that sees no difference between an optics of transparency and actual corporate accountability. To compensate, Google’s HQ features a ‘green loop’ walking trail that runs through the building.

“The green loop gives the public peek-a-boos into the building,” beams Mary Margaret Jones, President and CEO of Hargreaves Jones Architects, the renowned international firm behind Google’s new Charleston East campus. “From courtyards to boardroom meetings, you can witness a village of activity underneath the building’s solar-harvesting penetrable canopy.

Study any Silicon Valley tech campus built in the last five years and you’ll notice a few running themes: 1. An unfounded obsession with public voyeurism, often realized through glass facades butting up streetside and “public plazas” running through the landscaping (ShoP’s Uber HQ, HOK’s Central + Wolfe Campus, Gensler’s Nvidia Headquarters and Frank Gehry’s Facebook Campus extension are all examples). 2. A rehashing of the modernist fantasy of blurring indoor and outdoor space. In the high-tech green symbolism of Big Tech, this manifests through biophilic design – buildings loaded up with green walls and stuffed with indoor jungles.

Moving beyond surface-level greenwashing, the new corporate campus typology is designed as a symbolic ode to nature. Streamlined buildings shaped like clovers, buttercups, rings, and bubbles, inspired by any range of philosophy bro favorites from the Fibonacci sequence to patterns of cloud formations, find their techno-utopian match in photovoltaic panel and complex water harvesting system coatings. It’s a Burning Man type of metaphorical architecture with a solarpunk finish. (Originating as a niche environmental movement for techies who “don’t fear dirt”, solarpunk is rapidly gaining traction in our current climate apocalypse, which has spawned a late capitalist flurry of corporate sustainability drives.) Building off the mythology of the lone genius and the eco-futurist aesthetic of solarpunk, Big Tech utilizes landscape architecture as a form of storytelling, through with it can insert itself into the history and future of California as a necessary agent.

Across Apple Park and the new headquarters of Facebook and Google, various initiatives to resurrect ecological histories lost to time or human action manifest in the planting of wild oak forests, the construction of burrowing owl habitats, or, in the most extreme case of Apple Park, recreating the topography of the region before it was settled by mankind. The architectural language is fluid; this subtle gesture of world-making folds seamlessly into the running tracks, corporate-sponsored food truck courtyards, 40 foot tall redwood-lined “public squares”, and other ostensibly public-serving landscape features of Big Tech campuses.

Of course, this doesn’t quite chalk up with the reality of the companies’ actions. This May, Google incited the rage of the local council when it proposed building two transit bridges crossing over the local bioreserve of Stevens Creek Trail, so its 23,000 employees could bypass the perpetually-clogged adjacent highway; three years ago, Apple faced a similar row when it fell back on its promise to provide more public transit in Cupertino, instead limiting its bus network to staff-only. Civic service violations and commuting emissions are one side of the story – the other is the billions of dollars Big Tech routinely invests in unsustainable manufacturing practices including the rare Earth minerals that go into their products and power their cloud-computing technologies.

The techno-utopian fig leaf of Big Tech is far easier to critique in the pastoral bliss of its Silicon Valley campuses than where we’re headed next. The last few years have seen tech’s slow and insidious creep into the urban realm: Amazon now owns an estimated 20% of real estate in Seattle; ousted from Berlin in late 2018, Google’s £1 billion ‘landscraper’ (a 300-meter-long cross between a cruise ship and a prison, plus a green roof) is well under construction in Kings Cross; while Facebook is building its very own neighbourhood, Willow Campus, next to its Menlo Park HQ. As cities grow increasingly privatized and Big Tech endeavors “to have its urban utopia in spite of itself,” as Waldheim suggests, the true influence of these companies can longer be shrouded in its Silicon Valley bucolic palaces that have kept Big Tech from our peripheral view, like a sun-baked mirage.

(Published on: It's Freezing in LA! )