The end of Silicon Valley, again

“Sic transit gloria siliconvallensis”, wrote Reyner Banham in the 80s.

Reyner Banham devoted three essays to the examination of the greatest technopolis in the world, published in quick succession between 1980 and 1987[1]. In his last article, “La fine della Silicon Valley” [The End of Silicon Valley], the English historian expresses a position that is, by that point, far from the optimistic view of hi-tech that had characterized his early essays, where he painted Silicon Valley not only as a physical location but also as enlightened industrial consciousness.

The first of Banham’s essays on Silicon Valley architecture dates back to 1980, the year in which the Valley’s economy began to show signs of malaise, so much so that Banham noted that the time had come to stop and pin down the current state of Silicon Valley’s corporate vision and hi-tech architecture. During that exact year, the San José Museum of Art unveiled the exhibition “Architecture for Industry in the Santa Clara Valley”[2]. The information on the exhibition — that can be found in the 1980 article, which was published in the local magazine New West — was removed when the text underwent small cuts and interpolations for its 1981 republication in The Architectural Review with the title “Silicon Style” therefore this event was never even mentioned[3]. And yet, in this very article in The Architectural Review, Banham published part of the material on display in the exhibition, like photographs and blueprints of the offices of IBM, Qume, Alza, Digital Equipment, and Dysan.

Fairchild Whisman Road assembly area. Photo courtesy of Computer History Museum

In 1985, the magazine Architecture published Banham’s second text, “The Greening of Hi-Tech in Silicon Valley”, a very meticulous investigation of the most representative and controversial architectural styles of an area with such powerful economic sway that it would soon impose its taste on the rest of the world… “What happens on your 18th birthday?” Banham wrote sarcastically. “Daddy gives you a Porsche?”[4]. The hi-tech car wash on El Camino Real, Campbell High School’s conversion into a shopping center, the Rose-Croix University’s Egyptian revival architecture, and the kitschy style of San José’s Winchester House of Mystery are merely a handful of examples of what Banham had sardonically defined as “Silicon Style”—a style that probably fascinated him precisely because of its strong contradictions. In this text, he concluded with a sense of disenchantment as good architecture disappeared, or survived only to be recycled, as in the case of Campbell High School, a classic-style building that was converted into a shopping center. On the other hand, the Valley’s buildings that were designed in a kitschy architectural style are rigorously preserved as tourist destinations, as in the case of the Winchester Mystery House, a late nineteenth-century mansion that is similar to a Disneyland attraction[5].

In his last article on this subject, Banham described Silicon Valley as a spectral geography in ruins, made up of an enormous corpus of disintegrating or unfinished postmodern buildings that become relics before completion, and that are “ultimately derived from the works of Michael Graves and Aldo Rossi”[6]. Out of this selection of buildings, Banham focuses on certain pre-existing buildings like the Shoreline Amphitheater, which bears the traces of its counterculture roots in the Bay Area, and the remains of militarization—like the Moffett Airfield, the hangars and NASA’s Ames Research laboratories—that remind us of how, throughout the Cold War, the Valley became a true command and defense center on the Pacific. The text is accompanied by a series of photographs taken by the author, in which one can observe the area’s state of decay. What appears to be a landscape in ruins is quickly joined by the image of a landfill, since, as Banham writes, the Santa Clara Valley—termed “Silicon Valley” starting in 1970—was “consecrated” to gigantic landfills:

“The buried garbage ferments and produces large quantities of methane gas […] and some of it filters up through the grass and on still, wind-less nights, enough gas has been known to collect to produce fires and explosions when some unsuspecting member of the audience flicks his Bic lighter and goes to apply the flame to a cigarette or joint of marjuana… These apocalyptic moments, when fire springs from the ground like some Old Testament vision of Divine Vengeance, are very appropriate – symbolic even – to the present condition of Silicon Valley”[7].

This apocalyptic and, at the same time, desecrating image is able to present a few contradictions inherent to Silicon Valley, suspended between the utopian ambitions of the digital age, which will drive it to become the world’s largest technopolis, and the pragmatic nature of its buildings’ architectural style. Along with the image of a territory in ruins, Reyner Banham highlighted the presence of a few meager monuments. One building in particular caught his eye: that of Fairchild Instruments, one of the first companies to emerge in the area, modeled after Eero Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters and Craig Ellwood’s Xerox Corporation headquarters in El Segundo:

“Built in 1967 – barely twenty years ago, sic transit gloria siliconvallensis! – […] [the Fairchild Building] was the first modern building in the Valley to express a sense that good design might be an essential part of company policy and corporate image, and these corporate pretensions are clear. [It] seems an appropriate marker of the end of Silicon Valley, for the point in time where the Valley and its unrestrained industrial culture must finally assess their own position in a history they have tended to ignore completely, preferring to pretend that there was no yesterday, just as they have built as if there were no tomorrow” [8].

With these words, Banham seems to underline a certain degree of immaturity in the industrial culture of the area. If, in the past, the Valley was the monument to a nation’s technological ambitions, today it appears as the illusory city of technology that comes up with products that will be manufactured elsewhere. What, then, will become of Silicon Valley? Will it become a geographic region populated by new monuments, or will it survive merely as the physical deposit, the dispersed archive and museum of digital culture? The juxtaposition that Banham highlights between the decomposing body and the emergence of monuments to the ambitions of the microelectronic age still apply to the area’s current appearance. History repeats itself and Silicon Valley takes the form of a set of enclaves, which follows the urban model of Los Angeles, the city that was born out of the ambition of a few developers, rather than the rules of a city plan. However, in light of Banham’s reinvention of the myth of Los Angeles[8], we must also reconsider many of the clichés about Silicon Valley, which, like LA, is suspended between an urban history comprised of physical separation and a fantasy dimension. And even today this area is characterized by the contrast between young IT companies or startups—which tend to change quickly, occupying factories, office buildings or industrial warehouses that can be dismantled and restructured rapidly—and internet giants, who prefer instead to build new headquarters capable of conveying, through their architecture, the self-image that the company wishes to propagate. These buildings become personalized monuments, symbols of a new and eccentric hi-tech era.

See Banham, Reyner, “The Architecture of Silicon Valley”, New West, n. 5, September 22, 1980, 47-51; Banham, Reyner, “Silicon Style”, The Architectural Review, n. 169, May 1981, 283-90; Banham, Reyner, “The Greening of high tech in Silicon Valley”, Architecture, March 1985, vol. 74, 110-119; Banham, Reyner, “La fine della Silicon Valley”, Casabella, n. 539, October 1987, 42-43.
See Banham, Reyner, “The Architecture of Silicon Valley,” ibid., 48. The exhibition opened on September 2, 1980, and the archival material regarding the exhibition is currently housed in the History San José Research Library and Archive (HSJ). The corporations on display were: Adp Dealer Services, Alza, Digital Equipment, Dysan, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, Hewlett-Packard (2 sedi), IBM (General Products Building), Intel (2 sedi), I.S.S. Sperry Univac, Memorex, Qume, Rolm, Syntex, Varian Associates, Xerox, Wyle e Distribution Group.
There is a mention of the exhibition in Banham’s last article about Silicon Valley, “La fine della Silicon Valley” [The End of Silicon Valley], but it was only published in Italian, and it was ignored by American historians.
Banham, Reyner, “The Greening of high tech in Silicon Valley”, ibid., 119.
See Winner, Langdon, Silicon Valley Mystery House, in Sorkin, Michael (a cura di), Variations on a Theme Park: Scenes From The Few American City and the End of Public Space, New York: Hill and Wang, 1992, 31-55.
Banham, Reyner, “La fine della Silicon Valley”, ibid., 42.
Banham, Reyner, “The End of Silicon Valley”, ibid., 42
Banham, Reyner, “The End of Silicon Valley”, ibid., 43. The highlighted text is from Banham. Inspired by the work of Eero Saarinen, Simpson, Stratta & Associates from San Francisco designed the Fairchild Building in the end of the sixties and it was demolished in 1993.
Consider Banham, Reyner, Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971.

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