The Dot-Com City:
Silicon Valley Urbanism

Alexandra Lange

Monocultures have always been part of the appeal of the suburban headquarters, and it is especially true for the tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley.

On their bland campuses, the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook dominate the world, removed from the mess and the prying eyes of the real city. But while their products are discussed endlessly, their urbanism has rarely been. So what does it look like? To date, the Silicon Valley campus has served as a backdrop to many a sun-kissed founder photoshoot, but there is little understanding of the distinctive urban personality that separates the village of Facebook from the town of Google or the truly urban Twitter (which recently decided to move to San Francisco’s notoriously un-gentrifiable Tenderloin). This investigation of the private towns of Silicon Valley examines the tech campus as a typology and seeks to discover what it says about the companies we think we know.


Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, historian and teacher based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and the New York Times, and she blogs weekly on Design Observer. Princeton Architectural Press published her most recent book, Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, in 2012.

The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism

The tech companies of Silicon Valley want spatial variety, “walkability”, chance encounters, creativity, but they need it (or think they need it) in a controlled, secure environment. They use the rhetoric of city planning – town squares and main streets, neighbourhoods and cafés, community gardens and food trucks – but at the back of it is literally a single chef (in Facebook’s case, Josef Desimone, formerly of Google), ordering the supplies for sushi and spanakopita, cheese for the pizza window and pork for the BBQ shack. Why do they think they need it? No one could point me to data. But the germ is the commonly-held idea, the buzzword each campus designer repeated to me as if it were brand new: serendipity.

As Ian Leslie wrote in the January/February 2012 issue of Intelligent Life, in an essay titled “In Search of Serendipity”:

When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.

… some of our most serendipitous spaces are under threat from the internet. Wander into a bookshop in search of something to read: the book jackets shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands. You may not find the book you wanted, but you will walk out with three you didn’t.

… serendipity, on the other hand, is, as Zuckerman says, “necessarily inefficient”. It is a fragile quality, vulnerable to our desire for convenience and speed. It also requires a kind of planned vagueness. Digital systems don’t do vagueness very well, and our patience with it seems to be fading.

If digital systems don’t do serendipity well, the physical sites in which they are being created do – or so the founders hope