What Samsung's New American HQ Says About the Korean Giant

The architecture of fitting in in Silicon Valley

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Samsung breaks ground on a new $300 million North American headquarters building in San Jose today. The building will house more than 2,000 employees in R&D and sales. As you'd expect, it's a green (LEED Gold) building that's designed to foster fickle innovation by making it easy for people to bump into each other in courtyards and facilities. The heart of the development is a ten-story tower that the company's architect, NBBJ, says "will create a powerful brand image for Samsung."

I got curious, though. What, precisely, did the building say about Samsung, a company that can compete with Intel with one hand and Apple with the other? So, I sent six renderings of the new building to some architecture critics to see what they had to say. I did not tell them the name of the company or architect; they were flying/critiquing blind. (And while I waited for them to respond, I brushed up on my Samsung history; you can skip ahead if you're familiar with the company's rise.)

A Brief History of Samsung
The company was founded in 1938 by Lee-Byung Chull as a trading firm, and by 1950 was one of the ten largest in Korea. A few years later, Samsung started manufacturing sugars and then textiles. The company's entrance into electronics came in 1969 with the formation of Samsung Electronics Co. As summarized by Youngsoo Kim in a Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy report, "Samsung's entry into the electronics industry had four important features which continued to characterize Samsung's electronics activities into the 1980s: an emphasis on mass production, reliance on foreign technology, a follow-the-leader strategy, and government support."

Through a variety of joint ventures with Japanese companies like NEC and Sanyo, Samsung began to build its technological capabilities, largely focusing on assembling black-and-white televisions through the late 1970s, primarily for export to the United States as an original-equipment manufacturer, or OEM, for American brands.

It was around this time that Samsung entered the semiconductor and telecommunications hardware businesses. The company built technical know-how throughout the 1980s across the world, including a massive facility in Austin, Texas. Samsung's founder, Lee, chose DRAM, memory chips, as the area where the company would compete. By the late 1980s, that choice had paid off. As Japanese and American memory chip companies fought, Samsung swooped in to capture more and more business. By 1993, it had the largest DRAM market share in the world. That success started to bubble over into adjacent businesses. The company became a leading maker of flash memory and LCD TVs, the latter of which became wildly profitable in the late 1990s. All three fields required Samsung to value speed as they could only make money on a particular generation of products for a short time before commodification caught up with them.

That trait served them well in the small but growing mobile phone market of the early 2000s. "Even expensive fish becomes cheap in a day or two," Jong-Yong Yun, CEO of Samsung Electronics, told Newsweek in 2004. "For both sashimi shops and the digital industry, inventory is detrimental. Speed is everything."

Aided by South Korea's early deployment of both broadband and wireless broadband, Samsung got the jump on some other companies in realizing the importance mobile phones would come to assume. Thanks to a massive (and still growing) global marketing and advertising campaign begun by Eric Kim in 1999, their phones became the consumer product that transformed Samsung's image from a manufacturer of cheap electronics into an elite global brand.

Now, Samsung finds itself as a vertically integrated monster electronics company with a top 10 global brand. And they're one of only a handful of corporations that have figured out how to make money off smartphones.

And yet, the original knock, summed up by Sea-Jin Chang in his 2008 book, Samsung Vs. Sony, on which I've relied heavily in this account of the company's fortunes, remains: "Samsung is not competitive in products for which creativity and software matter and to which Samsung's magic formula, 'speed and aggressive investment,' do not apply." But that's not to say that Samsung has not desperately wanted to become radically innovative, like the Sony of old and Apple of late. 

The Architecture of Fitting In
So... That's the context for this new building in San Jose. A company headquarters is a monument to what it wants to be. And Samsung has been nothing if not aspirational (and successful).

Remember that (all but one of) the architecture critics I contacted did not know that we were talking about a Samsung building. They just knew it was the prospective North American HQ of a global corporation.

Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times' architecture critic, delivered a perfect summation of the building's aspirations, revealing several threads that run through the rest of the evaluations. I'm going to let him walk you through the building.

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What do these renderings reveal? A building that makes sincere if modest gestures in the direction of public engagement but is more clearly designed to draw employees into a sleek, dynamic and well-appointed interior realm. On its outer facades, it is stocky, symmetrical and well-behaved, reminiscent of office buildings of the 1960s and 1970s; the decision to slice it into three horizontal bands suggests an interest in keeping it, at any cost, from looking like a vertical building.

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Inside, the focus is very different: on interaction, collegiality, a chance for employees to see what their colleagues are doing, and even better to run into them on the way to or from a meeting or the gym. Many new high-tech campuses -- by Facebook, Apple et al. -- put an architectural and rhetorical premium on this kind of serendipitous encounter and how it can boost a company's creativity. This was the basis of Marissa Mayer's edict that Yahoo employees stop working so much from home; as she put it, people are "more collaborative and innovative when they're together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together."

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That, of course, is a fundamentally urban notion, the same idea that has always made cities attractive and vital. Crucially, though, the companies allow it only inside, from one employee to another; outside, they prefer suburban enclaves that their staffs reach largely by car. They want city-like energy inside the building, but a ring of privacy and a suburban buffer outside. 

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This building seems not nearly as extreme in that regard as, say, Norman Foster's Apple Campus 2; but the long arm of the parking garage serving the main building like plumbing serves a house, half-heartedly camouflaged behind its solar array and giant gridded metal panels, combined with the way the architecture is staid on the outside but fluid and energetic in the interior courtyard, suggests a watered-down version of the same approach here: a squared-off update of the Apple ring, feeling slightly guilty (but not *too* guilty) about sealing itself off from the world around it. You park, you experience a few yards of the public realm, maybe you buy a coffee at one of the storefronts attached to the garage; and then you make your way inside, where the architectural and corporate action is.

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