When his firm started working on a redesign of a 1980s-era office complex in the Silicon Valley, architect Wright Sherman says it was a classic example of “fried egg planning.”
“You have these buildings in the center of the site that have nothing to do with the edges of the site, surrounded by parking,” says Sherman, a partner at WRNS Studio. Spread over 17 acres in Mountain View, with 5 ziggurat-shaped buildings as the yolk of that fried egg, the office park was a remnant of another time. Sherman’s firm and the landscape architects at SWA Group were hired by the office park’s owner, Rockwood Capital, to bring it into the modern, hip, and urban present of tech-rich Silicon Valley.
“Every element that we encountered on the site that had a suburban feel—meaning lawn areas and large spread out trees, lots of parking between buildings and the street—we questioned all of those things,” says Sherman.
Now, the fried egg has been scrambled. Or frittata’d. Or perhaps quiched. Whatever egg dish seems most integrated, that’s what the designers have created. They ripped out most of the surface parking lots, replaced the unused acres of lawns and hedges and turned the spaces between the buildings from decorative dead zones into a series of plazas, parklets, alleyways, and pedestrian corridors. What was once a moat of grass and asphalt is now a semi-public campus of walkable areas, outdoor meeting spaces, and landscaped gardens. As the pandemic has called into question the need for offices in some sectors, the redesign was planned both as a way to improve the space but also to help attract tenants.
Large trellises are the standout architectural element added to the campus, creating several outdoor areas that are suitable for meetings, events, or just a midday break. “Three-quarters of the year, it’s great to be outside in Mountain View,” says Sherman. Even for that last quarter, the Valley’s hot summer, the campus has been augmented with shade from trees and other structures to make the great outdoors tenable as a work possibility.
Richard Crockett, a principal at SWA, says the project represents a major shift away from the formerly decorative approach used in many suburban office parks in the area. “In the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, campuses would have fountains and lawns, maybe a place to eat outside, maybe a basketball court, but not much else. It was something to look at and occupy in a very one-dimensional way,” says Crockett. “What really caught traction between WRNS Studio and ourselves is this place slowly becoming urban.”
The main plaza they created sits in a space that once had 80 parking spots. Crockett says it’s now an ideal place for a company event, all-hands meeting, or even a weekly farmers market. It also gave the 30-year-old sycamore trees on site more room to thrive. Removing all the grass on site also brought down the campus irrigation needs by 75%.
Gardens have been placed throughout the campus, creating what Crockett calls small pods where someone could go to do some solo outdoor work or perhaps have a small meeting. And though these spaces are situated alongside each of the five office buildings, Crockett says they don’t feel like they’re directly connected to them. “What was important with these landscape amenities was to think about how they are not necessarily owned by the most adjacent building, but that they’re a collectively owned amenity,” he says. “It doesn’t feel weird to be having a meeting or sitting on a bench that’s three buildings away from where your desk is. It all feels somewhat like a university campus.”
The project also involved some major changes to the buildings themselves, which had their own hermetic seal from their surroundings, with black tinted windows and uninviting facades. “We spent quite a bit of our budget on enlarging openings, making them taller, wider, and then replacing all the windows with clear glass,” says Sherman. “The entries to the buildings were facing the parking lot. What we’ve been doing is trying to create more of a central core that has entries on both sides that face inward to the pedestrian street.”
The architects even carved out some new space within the existing building footprint. Large corner offices had been built in the original design as boxes on the edge of each of the ziggurat-shaped buildings. Despite having large flat surfaces on their roofs, these spaces went unused. WRNS Studio tuned them into rooftop patios and work areas, with both small pods for intimate meetings and bigger ones for events. One part of the campus combined three of these corner office roofs by placing a large grandstand-style staircase at their center, creating a seating area and a connection to what Sherman calls the “people plaza” below.
The project has been completed in phases over the years, one building at a time. Plans are now being submitted for approval on a parking garage that will eliminate the need for surface parking. Another new office building will be built where the last remaining parking spots now sit. It’s all part of what Sherman calls a gradual move away from the fried egg planning that’s now so outmoded. “We wanted to press the suburban typology into a much more urban feeling campus,” he says.