Edifice Complex:
A Tribute To Silicon Valley Architecture

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

I think Shelley would well have understood Silicon Valley. He would have seen in the actions of the technology mighty the sort of arrogance and insecurity he ascribed to his ancient king. He would not have used a phrase like erection envy to describe the desire to build chrome and glass monuments, to fix a small moment of success onto the landscape as if it was always there, waiting to be recognized, admired and envied. But he would have seen it for what it is.

On this page I have attempted to capture a few of the valley's more dramatic erections, when companies moved from a series of anonymous and interchangeable lowrises into something more appropriate to their vision of themselves. In a place with a "blink and you'll miss it" view of history, it seems a shame to lose such sterling examples of massive confidence.

Oracle Corporation

A cliche from my childhood has it that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. I guess that's a lesson Oracle's Larry Ellison never took to heart; in a land of oversize egos, his may just be the biggest. And in an industry that has sold more than its share of vapor while waiting for the engineers to create what the salesforce has been promising, Oracle did it longer and with greater success than anybody could have dreamed. So maybe mirrored towers aren't such a bad metaphor for the giant of the database world. Whatever attacks are launched at the company or its egocentric head just seem to be reflected right back. Although if the firm ever does join the ranks of Silicon Valley has-beens, there'll be more than a few grins and high fives up and down Highway 101.

Palm, Inc.

I guess Palm is proof that having the best product, the one users swear by (as opposed to swear at), just isn't enough. Palm didn't invent the PDA; they just got it right, with the perfect combination of size, weight, battery life, applications and ease of use. Just a few years ago everybody who was anybody had a Palm (called a Palm Pilot before Pilot Pen made lawyer noises).

And then... something happened. Not sure what, really. Palms still do the job better than anything out there. And Microsoft's bloated Pocket PC models (which they tried calling PalmPC until Palm's lawyers started grumbling) aren't exactly flying off the shelves. Was it licensing the platform? (Handspring, Palm's competitor on Palm's own software, managed to lose money at an impressive rate, tried to be a mobile phone company and ended up as part of Palm.) Was it the corporate shuffle, being bought by U.S. Robotics, USR being bought by 3Com, spinning off to a separate company and now splitting along device/software lines? (Palm's impressive offices are an extension of 3Com's own magnificent complex, constructed during both parent and child's brighter days.) Or is the world just bored with a device that hasn't changed much since it arrived? That's a problem with getting it right the first time: the money's in the upgrades. (Since I wrote the preceding, Palm moved to other quarters. And 3Com has vacated both its Santa Clara headquarters and Silicon Valley.)

Silicon Graphics Inc.

The Silicon Graphics I joined in early 1995 was a company in transition, although I didn't see it at the time. SGI had something of a split personality, its glamorous image and party hearty reputation balanced by its unimpressive offices in a series of dreary leased brick fronted buildings. And the split personality extended to the company's leadership: a conservative and soft-spoken CEO who favored business suits in necktie-phobic Silicon Valley and his clown prince COO, who had a rather different image of professionalism.

1995 saw major growth in SGI's workforce, which meant a lot of new buildings. And as the company's needs exceeded the local supply, it began to build its own. But no boring brick this time; the new offices were everything the old weren't: open, airy, with lots of glass and dramatic colors and curved walls both inside and out. Particularly disconcerting for those of us who live in earthquake country, one major section of the new headquarters has a slanted roof and windows, making it look from the outside (and in some places from the inside) like the whole thing is falling apart. Which turned out to be truer than they knew; by the time the building was fully occupied, things had begun to turn downward for SGI. They've yet to turn back. And the beautiful campus stands as a reminder of a more upbeat time and the odd duo who thought the future was so bright. (One hopes for better things for Google, the new residents.)

Yahoo! Inc.

In the history of the web and the hype that surrounds it, Yahoo always struck me as something of an anomaly. Started by a couple of Stanford students on less than a shoestring, it became the web portal that everyone else wanted to be. Yet as ubiquitous as its web face was, its physical presence barely registered. Among the grand palaces of Silicon Valley, Yahoo had a comforting and unimpressive (one might say anti-impressive) little home in an anonymous office park. That was then. Because like a lot of other companies, Yahoo seemed to have moved into its impressive new campus right around the time its markets headed south. What was left of web advertising and attempts to replace large numbers of freebie users with handsfull of paying customers didn't look so good compared to those days not so long ago, although they're looking a lot better now. And there's some honor in still being the most successful portal on the web. Isn't there?


In the search for an Internet business model that would actually justify all that VC money, wave after wave would announce a new "truth" about the New Economy, which would be debated, argued (which is the same as debate, just louder), accepted and then rejected as the next great truth was proclaimed. In one phase it was all about content, that stuff that would fill all those expensive web pages. Then it was about access, the toll roads that would lead all of us consumers to all that (formerly viable) content. So what could be more natural than to merge the number one content provider with the number one access provider? That brilliant thinking gave us AOL/Time Warner, which at this writing is finally being acknowledged widely as a pretty bad idea.

But it didn't stop there; it also led to the high priced merger of At Home, pioneer in cable access to the net, and Excite, at the time the best known portal site that wasn't Yahoo or AOL. But there's one sure thing about pioneers: you can recognize them by all the arrows sticking out of them. And when Excite@Home's cable company customers figured out they could offer the service without an expensive middleman, this particular balloon deflated with shocking rapidity. Leading one wit (okay, me) to remark that its staff went from being Excited to sitting At Home. And leaving their expensive headquarters on Highway 101 a grim reminder of what happens to people who build grand monuments to themselves, complete with a pair of $10,000 indoor slides for the kiddies employees.

Exodus Communications Inc.

One of the great truths about the California Gold Rush, or so the historians tell us, was that the odds were against a miner making any kind of money, what with the long odds of finding any gold, the likelihood of someone stealing whatever they did find and the miners' tendency to spend whatever was left to reduce the tedium of their existance. No, it was those who supplied and outfitted the miners who made out like bandits and built empires. So in the great gold rush of the turn of the 21st century, what better business could there be than to supply the bandwidth and server capacity for all those would be dotcom zillionaires? Alas, history doesn't always repeat itself, at least not the way we would like. And when the boom turned to bust, server farm facilitators like Exodus found themselves with lots of expensive buildings and acres of computers ready to serve content no one would see. In retrospect, the company's choice of name seems eerily prescient.

Take me home:

Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California