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

The architecture of fitting in in Silicon Valley


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.

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.
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."
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.
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.

Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, saw the building's rather practical appeal. "It looks like a pretty forward-thinking design, and I guess it will be a desirable place to work, but," he noted, "it has a hermetic feel to it, even as it appears to be very open architecturally."

As Hawthorne noted, the building retains the trappings of a suburban office park. "Move beyond the high-end, high-tech aesthetics and landscaping, and you find a building that is pretty insular, even though it appears to be set on a busy street grid," Lamster wrote. "The idea: keep employees inside at all times, so they're never away from work. (Companies also like to point out that this kind of enforced proximity promotes collaboration and innovation.)"

Samsung is, in fact, famous for requiring that employees trying to innovate spend vast amounts of time with each other. In Korea, they even have a facility called the Value Innovation Program Center to which employees repair for months at a time to literally eat and sleep at work.

Design Observer's Alexandra Lange picked up on specific set of corporate cues. "Infinite loop. Check. Green walls. Check. Green roof. Check. Fitness feelies. Check," she wrote. "The renderings of this headquarters exhibits many of the de rigeur elements of new corporatism, focusing on glass and greenery and casually dressed people, making the workplace seem like more of a walk in the park, or a lifestyle, than an office."

She wondered whether the tension between the corporate subtext and casual facade could be resolved.

"The front, boxy building looks like a blandish 1970s office building newly retrofitted with a curving interior atrium," Lange said. "It should be rethought, as the message of its front facade doesn't match with the long, green-walled tail.

Founding editor-in-chief of Dwell Magazine and former New York magazine architecture critic Karrie Jacobs weighed in although she knew she was looking at Samsung's building. Generally, she had much the same reaction as those who did not know it was a tech company's new digs. "The idea is that everyone can see everyone and that this will somehow encourage human contact and collaboration. It's post-Panopticon," she said. "Not authoritarian but more about visual peer pressure, the built version of social media."


Where the others saw a general, bland corporate decisionmaking process at work, she had more explicit me-too reference points. "My first thought upon seeing the open core of the building was that Apple had reigned in its giant Foster donut," Jacobs said. She also compared the building to IBM's 1964 headquarters building in Armonk, NY. "Not for any good reason," she noted. "But the resemblance, real or imagined, was enough that I entertained the thought that maybe IBM was trying to reinvent itself yet again with a fabulous, greenish, state of the art Silicon Valley building."

Putting the responses together, I'm struck by the idea that this is an architecture of fitting in. When American companies look to foreign markets, they often talk about "localizing" their products for the "cultural preferences" of the target consumers. This building strikes me as what happens when a very smart company from a distant shore localizes ititself for Silicon Valley. It must have green space. It must have green walls. It must have "fitness feelies." And there is something for everyone, as BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh (and incoming editor of Gizmodo) observes. "They are also trying to project an appeal across class lines and lifestyles by depicting different types of render ghosts in the images: dudes in shorts, women in pant suits, a lady in a tennis visor, guys in Prada-like autumn wear sporting Ray-Bans in the sun." 


Manaugh allllmost calls the building the mullet of corporate headquarters: business in the front, party in the back.

"The images also say that they're serious and competitive on the outside (see the modern, gridded, rectilinear building envelope), but, around the corner, if you're willing to walk out back here with us, you can check out our oddly shaped long tail where you'll get lost in the free geometry and casual landscaping, and you can dwell for a while and have a coffee" he wrote to me. "Meanwhile, if you are lucky enough to work here -- or to be invited here for a meeting -- you will experience our quirky interior courtyard carved out of the floor plate, indicating that we're more fun and less formal than the public image we first deliberately greeted you with."

What makes the building interesting as a Samsung emblem is that this is an inversion of the stereotypical Valley attitude. The vibe is supposed to be casual on the outside, but serious and competitive on the inside: sharks in flip-flops, vampires in jeans, eggheads in t-shirts. Samsung inverts this norm, playing off the besuited Asian business stereotype, while not quite pretending to the affable, work-life balance hang-looseism of a Facebook. This is a work space, even as it concedes that it must look Silicon Valley -- which is to say, "innovative" -- enough. Maybe call it Minimum-Viable Valley Architecture.