If Silicon Valley Were a Sculpture, What Would It Look Like?

1 min
"Nebula Tower," designed by Quinrong Liu and Ruize Li, is one of three finalists for Urban Confluence Silicon Valley's design competition. The winning project is to be installed in Guadalupe River Park. (Courtesy of Urban Confluence Silicon Valley)

What is the structure that will say to the world, "Behold! This is Silicon Valley! Look upon me — and then take a selfie for your social media feeds!"

Could it be “Nebula Tower,” shown above? From the proposal, it looks like the scaffolding on a construction project, but without a construction project inside.

Instead, there's a conically shaped negative space inside, a nod to the original inspiration that led to this international search for an icon: a 207-foot-high light tower made of iron pipe and hoops that lit up the night sky in downtown San Jose from 1881 to 1915.

Or perhaps “Breeze of Innovation” is more to your liking. It promises to send 500 white rods shooting 200 feet into the sky, to represent Silicon Valley's innovative companies. A similar tower-shaped empty space lurks inside here, too.

"Breeze of Innovation," by Fer Jerez and Belen Perez de Juan of SMAR Architecture Studio, is one of the finalists in Urban Confluence Silicon Valley's design competition for an iconic landmark to represent the region.
"Breeze of Innovation," by Fer Jerez and Belen Perez de Juan of SMAR Architecture Studio, is one of the finalists in Urban Confluence Silicon Valley's design competition for an iconic landmark to represent the region. (Courtesy: Urban Confluence Silicon Valley)

The San Jose Light Tower Corporation was originally formed with the idea that tower might be reinvented or reimagined.

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"It really boggles my mind that a philanthropic group or a government group or a company or someone hasn’t built a public facing thing that is like the Space Needle or the Arch or the Statue of Liberty. We do need it, even if people don’t think we need it," said Steve Borkenhagen, executive director of Urban Confluence Silicon Valley, an international competition designed to fill what he feels is a void in the civic landscape of San Jose.

"Some people have said something like, 'What about the Apple Spaceship or the NVIDIA building?' Well, those are beautiful things, but they're private. They're not public. They don't fulfill the same thing as public squares, public art, public architecture, places where you and I can sit and have a sandwich and have our heart race and think, 'Wow, isn't that beautiful? I want to show this to my children, share it with my grandchildren.'"

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)

Once the folks behind the San Jose Light Tower Corporation recognized there was little to no demand for another replica of the light tower (there's already a half-size version at San Jose's History Park), the group opted instead for an open call to the world's artists and architects.

In 2019, the group got backing from the San Jose City Council as well as a spot for the ultimate winner in Guadalupe River Park. Thus came 963 submissions  from around the world.

City leaders required the competition create community panel of more than 30 people that reviewed the submissions and came up with a short list of 47 designs, but Urban Confluence ultimately deferred to a jury of 14 architects, artists and local park officials that chose three completely different designs.

"You put 14 really experienced, smart, sensitive people in a room. They make their own decisions," said Borkenhagen.

"Welcome to Wonderland," by Rish Saito, is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley competition.
"Welcome to Wonderland," by Rish Saito, is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley competition. (Courtesy of Urban Confluence Silicon Valley)

All three finalists, he said, have some kind of singular “magic” that makes them likely to draw foot traffic to the park, a key goal for the competition organizers.

"Activation of the park is our ultimate goal. It's not just for us to plop down some beautiful object in the park and walk away," he said, noting the park is steps away from the SAP Center, Google's massive planned expansion and Diridon Station. "The footprint of downtown San Jose is going to double in size in the next 10 years. We expect to be the new epicenter of our downtown, that the epicenter is going to shift to the west."

So what's the third finalist?

“Welcome to Wonderland” is a 700 foot long sculptural homage to Antoni Gaudí and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, walkable inside, and built of a neutral material like plaster or aluminum that allows it to be lit up in technicolor fashion at night. It's the brainchild of Rish Saito, who recently graduated from SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

"Welcome to Wonderland," by Rish Saito, is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley competition.
"Welcome to Wonderland," by Rish Saito, is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley competition. (Courtesy of Urban Confluence Silicon Valley)

"My idea is how to make this a surreal environment by playing with abstraction. Some researchers say a violation of your expectation in a strange and fantastical circumstance refines the flexibility and creativity of your brain," Saito said. Silicon Valley and San Jose, he noted, is known for technological advancement, but he wants to celebrate the region's history advancing imagination, wonder and innovation.

Next steps for Urban Confluence include ginning up more donations, as this landmark is primarily privately financed. One of the biggest donations to date comes from Adobe, which has packed the towers of its downtown headquarters with all kinds of public art. But more money is needed.

Each designer will get a $150,000 stipend to develop the concepts into workable plans over the next few months with outside experts in landscaping, lighting, hydrology, and civil engineering. The winner be announced early next year. Groundbreaking is expected in 2022.

And what of the critics? San Jose no stranger to controversy over public art downtown. Borkenhagen is ready with answers, acknowledging there's no hope of winning over everybody.

"We're committed to building something magnificent and beautiful. But art and beauty are subjective," he said, noting some people in Paris wanted to tear down the Eiffel Tower after the 1889 World's Fair. "They thought it was an abomination."