Samsung seeks evolution with new Silicon Valley base

SEOUL - The grandiose plans for constructing Samsung's new headquarters in Silicon Valley's heart of San Jose are underway, and designer Jonathan Ward spoke to The Korea Herald about the US$300 million (S$381.9 million) project and his client, Samsung.

"The CEO (Samsung's Lee Jay-yong) and all of San Jose's Samsung executives have been very excited and supportive and are looking forward to seeing how this new building can evolve and transform their culture in the hotbed of Silicon Valley," said Ward, who is a partner at global architect firm NBBJ.

Those close to Samsung here said the San Jose building would inevitably add fuel to the rivalry between the Korean tech giant and Apple Inc., which is gearing up to open a new campus by 2016. The Apple 2 Campus is expected to be huge, not to mention innovative and quintessentially Apple, but the details have yet to be finalized.

"We're fighting for the top spot in the industry, so we might as well have it out again, this time in the race to build the better office facility," said one Samsung R&D official, declining to be identified. He added that his views did not reflect company policy.

Aware of the pressure, Samsung handpicked Ward and NBBJ after seeing the design for Samsung Electronics Learning Center, which was never built but made the Korean firm take notice.

Eventually, Ward wound up designing the R5 centre in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, another facility that won kudos for being both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional as an R&D centre housing Samsung employees from all over the world.

Creativity, inspiration and modernity were the key terms Ward grappled with when designing the San Jose building as he was acutely conscious of growing criticism of Silicon Valley's lack of architectural finesse, which ran counter to its reputation as home to the world's most innovative enterprises.

In the end, the design for the new facility was inspired by none other than one of Samsung's best-selling products: semiconductors.

"The idea here was developed initially from the idea of using the building to help generate greater synergy between the employees at Samsung. The semiconductor does something similar - it is a series of layers and wafers with gases in between each layer that enables high-speed communication and computation," Ward said.

Two-story buildings were stacked on top of each other for this "chip effect." This design innovation is not so blatant from the facade, but a glimpse from the rooftop reveals that a courtyard is nestled between the buildings to link them together and offer ample green scenery to the workers.

"Each employee is no more than one floor from the outdoors, and the gardens and courtyard enable interaction, chance encounters and synergy. ... So back to the semiconductor wafer!" Ward said.

Employees can chat, snack or go for a stroll in the gardens that are easily accessible from anywhere in the edifice.

Creating a look unlike anything from Samsung's rivals was another challenge.

"The San Jose project required a unique solution that sets Samsung apart from Apple, Google, Nvidia and others, makes a creative statement about Samsung and makes a unique, fun and effective workplace for the future of Samsung," the designer explained.

Stressing his love for Korea, the people and culture, the designer noted that Korean clients were very curious and interested in new ideas, but also quite demanding in terms of timetables.

NHN is among NBBJ's Korean clients, and Ward said he looked forward to contracts with others such as LG in the future.

Set to open in 2015, the San Jose facility broke ground in July. It will be comprised of a 10-story tower, an amenity pavilion and parking garage. The exterior is to be chiefly white metal, glass and terracotta, while the parking structure will be covered in a folding green-coloured wall.

Up to 2,000 employees will work in the tower, which will house both R&D and sales departments.

For greater energy-efficiency, a rooftop solar array on the parking garage will deliver renewable energy, and clear glass will be used to allow natural light to seep deeper into the floor plates, NBBJ said.