A Good Place in Silicon Valley

OneWorkPlace_Photo©BruceDamonte_05 revised

Urbanites sniff that Silicon Valley lacks place, but that is so yesterday.


By Sharon Simonson

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ounded by spectacular vistas of sea and bay, mossy hills and towering redwoods, San Francisco has an intrinsic sense of place, an identity rooted in its location. Place has always been important. It just seems that more people realize it now.

The rap against Silicon Valley has been that it has no place. The topography is beautiful—but no more beautiful than many other parts of Northern California. Largely unimaginative development has made urban Silicon Valley feel like one big sprawl.

Yet parts of the valley have carved out distinct identities, such as Palo Alto and Stanford University. Others are gaining on it, such as Mountain View and downtown Sunnyvale, Bay Meadows and the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo. The 49ers stadium should give Santa Clara and North San Jose a stronger sense of place.


New York City-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces says that place involves the way “buildings shape human experience … and make people feel.” Founded in 1975, PPS argues that creating place is the central roll and effect of architecture, good and bad. Place divides space; buildings divide space and create place. “Like a stage becomes a place to present a play, the congregation of the physical stuff that we create becomes the stage of life,” Vancouver architect Paul Merrick said. “The way it is shapes or supports or aggravates what can go on in it.”

The dusty, dirty hodge-podge of industrial, retail and small office properties on the southeast edge of Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport seems an inhospitable spot for place to take root. But the seeds are being planted: a new 18,000-seat soccer stadium, an $82 million private-aircraft terminal for Google Inc. executives, a 1.75 million-square-foot office complex with hotel, shops and public soccer fields, plus 275,000 square feet of new stand-alone retail space.

The latest comer is an office-furniture distributor that specializes in creating place. One Workplace, formerly headquartered in Milpitas, has bought a downright unattractive 1950s paper factory at 2500 de la Cruz Blvd. in Santa Clara, and is creating place inside and out.

“One Workplace” blares in 22-foot letters painted on the building’s airport-facing façade, blurring art and branding. Inside, the company has created dozens of discrete places, both showroom for its products and ideas and workspace for its employees. With 38,000 square feet dedicated to office use (another 200,000 square feet are for warehousing), employees are supposed to gain experience to inform their own opinions and advise clients.

“It is a great re-use story,” said Seth Hanley, principal and creative director of San Francisco’s Blitz architecture and interior design firm, which helped conceive the remake. “They have taken a building that hadn’t been loved for a long time. It has really anchored that whole location.”

The airport, a perpetual hive of activity, is a symbolic and real backdrop. One Workplace has cut windows in the face of the former warehouse to admit natural light and the sight of the arriving and departing aircraft.

One Workplace distributes products for more than 300 manufacturers including Steelcase Inc., the Grand Rapids, Mich., workplace-product, furnishings and service provider. “That building is at the intersection of planes, trains and automobiles—a train line goes into the back of the building next door. It is a really energized space,” Hanley said.

The valley’s largest and most successful companies are embracing place like never before. Some are leveraging San Francisco’s place with satellite offices there. But Google Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Nvidia Corp., Samsung Semiconductor Inc. and LinkedIn Inc. all are sinking tap roots into the South Bay, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in development and eschewing Silicon Valley’s existing building stock.

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Photography courtesy of One Workplace copyright Bruce Damonte


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