The Tower at the Heart of the Tech Boom

A symbol of the industry's reach takes its place in San Francisco's skyline just as Americans begin to reckon with the power of Silicon Valley's companies.

The San Francisco skyline with the Salesforce Tower
The Salesforce Tower (Salesforce)

The Salesforce Tower is everywhere.

The business-software company’s future headquarters is the tallest building in San Francisco, and now easily its most prominent. Compared with the rest of the city’s skyscrapers, it looks like the kid in sixth grade who went through puberty early. No matter where you are in the Bay—Marin, Japantown, Hayward, Oakland—you see this thing, seemingly half again as tall as every other building.

The skyline from Oakland (Alexis Madrigal)

The TransAmerica Pyramid, the putative architectural signature of the city, seems insubstantial. Sutro Tower, the knowing local’s choice for city symbol, needs the boost of the natural terrain just to remain within range. There is every other building, and then there is the Salesforce Tower. Salesforce ran a social-media campaign called #ISpySalesforceTower, which is hilarious because it is the second-most noticeable thing in the sky after the sun.

Cities change. The novelist Colson Whitehead has said that “you are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” By that standard, we are all people of the Bay now, even the people who only got here last year, or in February.

For a time, two cranes matched its height, seeming to sprout from its bulk. It was as if a robot was gestating in the center of the city. It was impossible not to stare at it, watching the unfinished top of the building morph as the light changed. This will be how I remember the tower and the city, at sunset, from the flats of the Port of Oakland, looking across the water:

The San Francisco skyline from the Port of Oakland (Alexis Madrigal)

Then the cranes came down. The building’s exterior was finished. At 61 floors and 1,070 feet, it’s roughly as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Underground, it extends another 318 feet. The building weighs 368 million pounds. During the peak of construction, 800 humans a day would help this thing go up.

All of which makes the experience of walking up to it puzzling. It is not grand. At street level, it looks like every other building.

Up close, another building (Alexis Madrigal)

Craning your neck to look up, the perspective shortens how much bigger the building is than everything around it. That is to say, the place that you’re least likely to comprehend its scale is standing right in front of it.

One and another building (Alexis Madrigal)

But go inside, as Salesforce is slowly allowing people to do, and take the elevator up to that 61st floor, and there is no mistaking how high up you are. From the top, the Transamerica Pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Coit Tower look like toys.

San Francisco from 61 floors up (Alexis Madrigal)

The building’s shadow falls like a thumb on the circuit-board rooftops of the older buildings.

Salesforce Tower’s shadow (Alexis Madrigal)

Every single angle on the city and Bay is beautiful, even the freeway-dominated view to the southwest. The open design of the top floor, which will be maintained when it is complete, means that you can walk a circle around the floor, seeing a different palette in each direction.

The San Francisco Bay, with ships and old piers (Alexis Madrigal)

Maybe it is silly to think of a skyscraper as the symbol of something new, something different. Skyscrapers have meant the same thing for a long time: the wealth of the builders, the power of humans over nature, and the power of some humans over others. There is something about having to anchor a building 300 feet down in the earth that makes the mind reach for bedrock, too. “Just as churches had raised the highest towers of the traditional city, each corporation now raised its skyscraper,” wrote historian David Nye in his book American Technological Sublime.

But Silicon Valley had been different. Its architecture was low-slung, the industrial park as the university as the office. All throughout the Peninsula and San Jose, one can find long one-story buildings winding around fast-casual restaurants and stubby condos. Even Apple’s circular spaceship HQ in Cupertino or Facebook’s techno-ark in Menlo Park are short. They reshaped no skyline, because those cities don’t have them, and the buildings didn’t start one. Facebook’s is like a skyscraper turned on its side, going on forever horizontally, but on one floor, a plain.

So the Salesforce Tower is, by far, the most visible monument to the industry in the region and the country.

To outsiders, it might seem peculiar that this building belongs to Salesforce, a relatively small company in the tech world, and only in this world. It had revenue of $8.4 billion in its fiscal year 2017, which just ended. Multiple major tech players—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—deliver an order of magnitude more revenue a year.

And yet, even this relatively small tech business can build the biggest building in town. Even this relatively small tech business can take over the city with its massive annual conference, Dreamforce, which annually paints the lower reaches of downtown in Salesforce’s just-lighter-than-Facebook blue.

Salesforce is, by any industry’s standards, a good local corporate citizen. CEO Marc Benioff donates millions of dollars to local schools. The company and its employees donate technology and time to local causes. Salesforce feels invested in the city in a way that few other tech companies do. The building is built into downtown, supporting local businesses. The building is LEED Platinum. The building is precisely at the intersection of many modes of public transit. The top floor will be available for nonprofits to use for events.

Clearly, Salesforce thought this stuff through. Any project this big is going to be controversial, but Salesforce did the things people want companies to do with their buildings.

At the same time, the tower feels like a message from the tech industry: Even our lesser powers can dominate the skyline. But we, in turn, can see it.

Congress, the users formerly known as people, and the industry are grappling with the power technology companies have taken and created over the last decade. The power that had been obscured by mission statements, hooded sweatshirts, and good intentions is now out in the open.

The tower stands in the heart of the empire, watching over all with some kind of grace.