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Does Silicon Valley Need an Instagramable Icon?

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Apple Park viewed from the air. Is this the best visual symbol of Silicon Valley? Or the South Bay? (Photo: Courtesy of Duncan Sinfield)

Hollywood has the Hollywood Sign. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. But there’s no one iconic visual the world recognizes as embodying Silicon Valley.

The garage in Palo Alto where Hewlett Packard began? Too humble, visually speaking.

How about Apple’s snazzy new corporate headquarters in Cupertino? Too corporate, and frankly, a little chilling in this dystopian era of Big Tech choking the San Francisco Bay Area with traffic and rising real estate prices.

The Electric Light Tower, a commanding if spindly precursor to the Eiffel Tower championed by the San Jose Light Tower Corporation was inspiring in its day, but a modern version would likely prove more of a nostalgic nod to times past than a cohesive symbol of what we are today.

There’s really no one visual that says “Silicon Valley.” Or “South Bay.” 


“What are people going to Instagram when they come to San Jose and Silicon Valley?” asks Sal Pizarro, Around Town columnist with the Mercury News. One might argue the region doesn’t need an icon if one hasn’t organically emerged by now.

But Pizarro says a new design competition in San Jose — and the patronizing coverage that followed from various publications led by the New York Times this past week — indicates that, perhaps, we do.

The Electric Light Tower was proposed by the publisher of the San Jose Mercury, the precursor of the Mercury News. In 1881, the tower was a pioneering use of electricity for municipal purposes.
The Electric Light Tower was proposed by the publisher of the San Jose Mercury, the precursor of the Mercury News. In 1881, the tower was a pioneering use of electricity for municipal purposes. (Photo: Courtesy of San Jose State University)

“We do have a problem identifying who we are,” Pizarro acknowledges. “I think we’ve got a great culture, and a great arts scene here, and we have some really wonderful things to do. But when someone comes from out of town, it’s hard to say, ‘We have great Vietnamese restaurants. Take a picture in front of them.’”

That works for me. How about a giant bowl of pho? 

Why is it so hard to come up with one idea everyone can get behind?

For one thing, there’s a problem conflating San Jose with Silicon Valley. The two aren’t the same thing. Also, there is no disputing in matters of taste.

The San Jose Light Tower Corporation’s plan is to hold an international competition to solicit concepts for a “world-class iconic landmark” tentatively intended for Guadalupe River Park at Arena Green.

Three finalists chosen by a seven-member jury will be awarded a monetary stipend to develop their ideas for further review and selection of the final design. Sometime in early 2020, the nonprofit will return to the San Jose City Council with a recommendation and seek authorization to proceed with design and development.

How HBO cracked the nut for its "Silicon Valley" show open.
How HBO cracked the nut for its “Silicon Valley” show open. (Photo: Courtesy of HBO)

“I’m confident that no matter how good the design, it will not work for everyone,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “There will be someone who has a reason to object. But that’s OK. We don’t need unanimity to move forward with something that is compelling, and hopefully inspiring.”

Yes, he has an idea to submit for the contest, and no, he’s not going to share it with us at this time. “Hell, no! I want it to win!”

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