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“Silicon Valley is having its Versailles moment,” says Louise Mozingo, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a fine book called “Pastoral Capitalism” about corporate headquarters. Last year Facebook opened a new, 430,000-square-foot building in Menlo Park designed to embody the company’s informal culture. Resembling a giant warehouse, it is reputedly the largest open-plan office in the world. Meanwhile, Google is working on a zany idea for a new headquarters to replace its Googleplex, which involves constructing movable glass buildings. Other technology companies, including Nvidia, Samsung and Uber, will, collectively, spend well over $1 billion on new buildings that broadcast their success. These ambitious projects will transform a bland architectural landscape of generic-looking office parks. But they also mark a cultural shift for the Valley, whose ethos is to value garages (in which firms like Hewlett-Packard and Apple were born) over glitz.

Facebook’s “classic” campus, which features work by local artists on its walls
Facebook’s “classic” campus, which features work by local artists on its walls

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[Facebook, Google and Apple]’s visions for what they want to erect may differ, but they share common elements. They are designing functional, open-plan offices to increase collaboration among employees: “activity-based” working, which involves people doing their jobs from different places within an office, including outdoor benches, on-site coffee shops, napping pods and meeting rooms, is becoming the norm. They are also softening the buildings – and the whiff of corporate might – with greenery. Apple is using renewable energy to power its spaceship and is planting 9,000 trees. At nine acres, the roof garden on top of Facebook’s Building 20 feels vast. There is a juice bar and food carts, and sprinkled throughout it are map legends, designed to look like those consulted by backpackers in a state park.

But while this wave of construction captures the optimism and wealth of a cohort of companies that are imagining and packaging our digital future, Silicon Valley could lose something in the long term. The Valley thrived because people met and shared ideas in office parks, restaurants and cafés, and talent has historically moved around easily within and between companies. As firms build self-enclosed universes, that mixing may stop. Innovative architecture may attract talent and tourists initially, but it also risks altering an environment that has fostered world-beating ideas and products. Cupertino and other Silicon Valley towns may come to long for the time when they had no interesting buildings to distinguish them.