In the 1996 Roland Emmerich film Independence Day, a powerful alien civilization attacks Earth. Huge saucers 15 miles across lurk over major cities, literally foreshadowing their destruction. When the attack finally arrives, the vessels focus their power, signaled for cinema as an aquamarine glow, onto major monuments in each urban location. All are synecdoches for the cities and their cultures: The White House explodes, and with it the promise of representative democracy. An explosion radiates down the Empire State Building, an icon of industrial humanity’s rejection of impossibility.
One of them is not like the others. In downtown Los Angeles, the Library Tower (now known as the U.S. Bank Tower) took the hit on the city’s behalf, its windows shattering as the alien beam pummeled through it. Once the tallest building in the city, the postmodern skyscraper bore negligible emotional value for Angelenos, whose urban glory was never defined by tall buildings anyway. But a more culturally relevant target, such as the Hollywood sign, wouldn’t have offered sufficient carnage for a big-budget action film. When the Getty Center opened at a Santa Monica Mountain precipice overlooking Brentwood, Bel Air, and Westwood the next year, in 1997, one critic noted that finally Los Angeles might have a landmark worth destroying in film, the city’s native medium.
Today, the same problem faces Silicon Valley. Flooded with wealth and influence, the array of South Bay cities that make up the high-tech business sector have few meaningful architectural features to mark their cultural importance. That’s why the San Jose City Council will consider a proposal this month to launch a design competition for a landmark “that symbolizes its power and reach,” as The New York Times put it. The plan reveals the hidden terror of a region driven by the immaterial nature of the software business. A monument’s purpose is to make permanent something transient. And to be truly eternal, any good landmark must also invite, and even desire, its own destruction. In pursuing one, Silicon Valley makes an unusual concession. It too is mortal, and fears death as much as anyone.
San Francisco has monuments worthy of destruction, accomplishments of architecture and engineering both that tug heartstrings and record human accomplishment directly in the built environment: the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, which has been destroyed repeatedly in film. Or the Transamerica Pyramid, a distinctive, white-quartz landmark in the financial district that was the city’s tallest skyscraper until Salesforce Tower captured that laurel in 2018.
The latter structure was called Transbay Tower until Salesforce signed a lucrative long-term lease to become the structure’s anchor tenant. It too has not achieved landmark status. Salesforce is one of only a few children of the dot-com economy that didn’t burn out as an adult; it’s still technically called Salesforce.com Inc., a vestige of the days when a URL marked a distinction. But the company couldn’t produce a more boring product: customer-relationship-management software, an Information Age approach to a problem as old as modern industry. That this particular big-tech company would name the tallest building in San Francisco, rather than Facebook or Google or Uber, testifies to the anodyne aspirations of even bigger tech. When it comes to making a mark on the world, the tech sector prefers to do it through its products and services, not through its physical plants.
That’s a history as old as Silicon Valley itself. When the region, once known as Santa Clara Valley, transitioned from an agricultural and packaging economy to semiconductors, and then to information, it grew haphazardly. Famously, the sector celebrates the suburban garage where Hewlett-Packard was started (and later, Apple’s copycat) as its birthplace. As hobby became industry, low-profile, tilt-up buildings were constructed to accommodate the growing need for office space. Forgettable and ugly, these structures persist, with occasional efforts to make them slightly more attractive and sustainable going unnoticed.
Eventually, the tilt-ups evolved into corporate campuses, like those of Google in Mountain View and Facebook in Menlo Park. Here, the box of architectural pedigree gets ticked (Frank Gehry drafted Facebook’s campus; Bjarke Ingels will design Google’s new Sunnyvale campus), but few will ever notice—partly because they aren’t allowed inside. Apple’s new campus in Cupertino is an exception: a giant, obsidian torus that strongly resembles the alien craft that destroyed the globe in Independence Day. Even there, the architectural sublime quickly gave way to the slapstick, as employees and guests reportedly injured themselves walking into the building’s glass walls and doors.
It’s no accident that this would be the year Silicon Valley became eager to cement its legacy in the built environment. A “techlash” has swept the sector, driven by startling revelations about the role of companies like Facebook and Google in undermining public life. Despite the outcry, big-tech firms like these remain largely unaffected, pulling in record profits even as they seem to preside over a burning world.
And yet, it doesn’t literally burn like New York or Paris does in Independence Day. In the movie, destruction’s impact is made of real fire, or at least the visual-effects equivalent. Technology’s apocalypse is a modest one. It leaves no traces worth fictionalizing or committing to film. As privacy erodes, as democracy unravels, as wealth concentrates, and as comfort abrades, it’s still hard to point a finger at the cause. Zuckerberg at a desk in Menlo Park? A sea of anonymous Google servers in a rural Oregon data center? Government and industry alike once recorded their power and influence in the material world, with bridges and skyscrapers meant to bear permanent testament to human impact on civilized life. Silicon Valley has realized that its impact is just as substantial, and whatever its pretensions to permanence, no less susceptible to decline.