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Visiting the HQs of Silicon Valley’s iconic brands

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Five months before he died, Steve Jobs in 2011 unveiled to the Cupertino city council Apple’s plans for a new corporate headquarters, a four-story ring for 12,000 employees.

“We have a shot,” said Jobs, “at building the best office building in the world.” He continued, “I really do think that architecture students will come here to see this, I think it could be that good.”

Six years and billions of dollars later, the amazing Norman Foster-designed spaceship, christened Apple Park, is nearly done.  The first Apple employees arrive in April.  This remarkable structure beneath the Santa Cruz mountains off Interstate 280 is Steve Jobs’ enduring legacy.

Already architecture students — and others — are coming to see his creation.

Superlatives abound. Bigger than the Pentagon, the building’s 1,600-foot diameter exceeds the height of the Empire State Building. It is 1 mile around. Six thousand trees are being planted. There are 11,000 underground parking spaces, 15 acres of grasslands, jogging trails, two research buildings, the 1,000-seat Steve Jobs auditorium, a visitor center with a café and Apple store, and a fitness center. Apple Park is powered with internally generated renewable energy, much of it from solar panels that cover the roof.

Situated 20 miles south of San Francisco, the Silicon Valley is the global center of technological innovation.  The term Silicon Valley was first used in 1971. It caught on as silicon was pervasive in the manufacture of computer chips, then a critical Santa Clara Valley industry. The valley comprises small cities that radiate out from Stanford University in Palo Alto, whose engineering prowess produced some of the first tech entrepreneurs, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. An HP facility once stood where Campus 2 is situated.

The valley is rich, powerful and super competitive. Not to be outdone by Apple, Facebook — founded in 2004 — has already moved into its new headquarters, a complicated structure from “starchitect” Frank Gehry.

Located in Menlo Park adjoining its existing campus on San Francisco Bay, Facebook’s MPK 20 boasts a magnificent rooftop park with 400 trees, a café, hiking trail and terrific views. The elongated structure houses 2,300 employees in “the world’s largest open plan office.”

MPK 20 (FB’s 20th building, with a whimsical Menlo Park airport code) was an architectural challenge as the property is wedged between a freeway, high-voltage power lines and abandoned rail tracks.  The already 86-year-old Gehry and his team overcame those constraints to create a truly impressive building.

Facebook’s army of youthful employees glide through MPK 20 either on foot or bicycles. When I visited for a business appointment, the place was reminiscent of a college dorm. Random notices were posted on the walls. Signs declared, “keep calm and ride on,” “think local, scale global,” and “even busy bees stop and smell the roses.”  Backpacks and bicycles were leaned against dividers. Micro-kitchens and cafes dispensed free food. Commenting that people were dressed very casually,  a Facebooker replied, “the only suits we see are visiting lawyers and bankers.”

Employment at Facebook has exploded from 500 to 14,000 in 8 ½ years. About half of the employees at the Menlo Park campus arrive by alternative transport and the white, logo-free buses connecting Silicon Valley firms with San Francisco and Oakland are everywhere.

Building 20 is essentially built on stilts as the street level is mostly parking underneath the main structure.

Sadly, Building 20 and most of the Facebook campus is off-limits to visitors. That doesn’t stop people from coming. They overcome traffic and a shortage of parking to photograph the thumbs-up logo at 1 Hacker Way.

While Apple plans a visitor center and Facebook has none, Google in Mountain View has a visitor center that is closed to most visitors.

Google is 6 miles from Facebook down Highway 101.  That tech giant has 11,000 employees in Mountain View, most of them in the Googleplex, a maze of low buildings off Shoreline Boulevard near the Computer History Museum. Visitors can stroll through the Googleplex but can’t go inside buildings.

On a recent visit I was surprised to find the visitor center restricted to guests of Google employees. A short walk away is the Google store where visitors are indeed welcome.

Like Facebook hundreds of bicycles are available to employees. Not surprisingly, Google bikes are outfitted in bright Google colors while Facebook’s are light blue.

Google has not yet matched its Silicon Valley rivals in building a new HQ, but it may be coming. A large plot of land close to Shoreline Boulevard is where the next Google building will rise.

A useful stop coming out from the Googleplex is the Computer History Museum just up the street at 1401 North Shoreline Boulevard. While the non-profit charges a steep $17.50 for admission, students get a $4 discount and children 10 and under are free.

The large museum housed in a former corporate headquarters offers a multimedia history of computing and the Silicon Valley that is easily understood by non-specialists. It’s worth a two- to four-hour visit.

With new buildings and constant hiring of new employees, Silicon Valley firms are transforming the valley. Land is scarce and despite skyrocketing rents and home prices, people are continuing to pour in. Economist Steve Levy in Palo Alto says the San Francisco Bay area over the past five years led California in population growth.  The last time that happened, he says, was following the gold rush in 1849.

Barry D. Wood recently wrote for USA TODAY about Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus at the World Trade Center. His new book Exploring New Europe: A Bicycle Journey is available at Amazon.com.


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