The “Capital of Silicon Valley” will one day have a fluid, illuminated, kinetic landmark, swaying in the breeze—that is, assuming the design is approved by the San Jose City Council and the project is privately funded and built.
It's a tall order, but Breeze of Innovation has already jumped the first hurdle by besting 963 submissions from 72 countries in Urban Confluence Silicon Valley’s competition to design a San Jose landmark. The design aims to highlight Silicon Valley’s innovative legacy and pays homage to the city’s long-collapsed 1881 “Electric Tower,” the original inspiration for the competition.
The structure’s 1,000 flexible stainless steel rods, designed to move with the wind, generate power and support walkable platforms, enabled its success. A 14-member jury of local, national and international architects, designers and civic leaders evaluated the designs based on their constructibility and sustainability and how much more lively each could make Arena Green, a city-owned park on Santa Clara Street, in between the Guadalupe River and the SAP Center in Downtown San Jose.
Designed by Fer Jerez and Belen de Juan of SMAR Architecture Studio, which has offices in Perth, Australia and Madrid, Spain, visitors may one day ascend a series of ramps and feel the sway of the forest of rods with illuminated tips that from a distance will look like a constellation of lights moving in the breeze at night. As envisioned, it'll cost somewhere around $100 million, funded entirely through donations and other voluntary contributions.
Jerez says his last year was spent researching, planning, designing and patiently waiting through Covid-19-related delays to find out on a March 22 conference call that Breeze of Innovation was the last design standing. He compared the suspense to watching a Hitchcock film.
“It was in the morning here [in Australia], so it was not time to open the bottle of champagne for breakfast,” Jerez told San Jose Inside. “We were very confident in this one because I think we had the best project, but nothing is guaranteed. … We were very grateful and happy to win.”
The competition specifically rejected direct recreations of the old San Jose electric light tower, but Jerez decided to take a modern spin on the 19th Century San Jose structure.
“We thought that if something represented the knowledge of the 21st Century, it is invisibility—technology is invisible; it’s around us, but we don't see it,” Jerez said. “Silicon Valley’s young kids were kind of Harry Potters of our time—the new magicians—so each single rod is kind of a magic wand that lights up the at tip when the wind comes.”
Jerez and his team have spent the past seven months planning and testing scaled wind tunnel models after Breeze of Innovation made it to the top three finalist for the contest in July. There's still plenty of work to do, but Jerez isn’t expecting any barriers to success.
“When you try to be innovative, there's always risk,” Jerez said,” but when we design something, we know what we're doing—we knew it would work.”
His confidence comes, in part, from working with structural engineers at Magnusson Klemencic Associates, which have more than 100 years of experience, including designing Manhattan’s World Trade Center and San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower as well as Levi’s and Avaya stadiums.
Breeze of Innovation challenges how international landmarks are remembered, such as the recognizable shape of the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House and St Louis Gateway. Rather, Jerez said they are rejecting any one silhouette in pursuit of infinite forms flowing in the wind.
“We are so enthusiastic about this project because we haven't been able to find anything like it,” he said. “Because the ambition of the organizers was that high—they wanted something to bring people not only from San Jose but from America and the world—you need to create an experience that is completely unique.”
Steve Borkenhagen, executive director of San Jose Light Tower Corp., the nonprofit responsible for the initiative, said that engineering innovation is why Breeze of Innovation emerged as a “clear winner” to represent San Jose.
“One of the things the jury was fascinated by is the idea that the spirit of innovation manifested in the breeze really represented Silicon Valley and San Jose,” Borkenhagen said. “There was a sense of poetry about it that separated it from the others, and some people thought it almost had a spirituality about it; when you see those reed-like structures moving in the breeze, there's something really human and powerful about it.”
After four years of planning, submissions and deliberation, the 200-foot structure is slated to include an exhibition space, cafe and elevators to a vantage point of the entire Santa Clara Valley, but final details and logistics will be fleshed out in the upcoming Phase 3.
Breeze of Innovation came out ahead of the other two finalists, Nebula Tower and Welcome to Wonderland. “Nebula,” whose team was led by recent Harvard grad Qinrong Liu, surrounded a light tower-like conical void with a lattice grid. Rish Saito’s “Wonderland” was an “artificial nature” garden of oversized white flowers that could be illuminated into a multi-colored fantasy land inspired by Lewis Carroll’s fiction.
Borkenhagen said the project, which would be a gift to the city of San Jose, has already crowdsourced $2.5 million towards the project’s completion from around 400 donors, including corporate investors like Adobe and Applied Materials and private foundations and households. Borkenhagen expects thousands will contribute before the project is done.
Breeze of Innovation must still be approved by the San Jose City Council, with a discussion tentatively scheduled for May 4, 2021. Borkenhagen said the Urban Confluence team has communicated with the entire San Jose City Council, officials from the Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services Department and the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy throughout the project’s progression due to its location on city-owned land, so nothing will present a surprise.
The area slated for this massive project continues to make headlines as a home to hundreds of unhoused residents, who’ve taken up camp along the Guadalupe River—a stark contrast prompting some residents to question the project’s necessity. But Borkenhagen said there shouldn’t be an “either or” situation against artistic, architectural pursuits. Rather, he said providing beautiful parks and objects for all to see for free is central to their mission.
San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez agrees. Despite the stark dichotomy between the $100 million structure’s announcement and his colleagues’ votes on razing encampments and approving temporary housing projects, Peralez sees the upcoming artistic structure as placemaking, hopefully drawing more community members into the park.
“Currently the Arena Green is an underutilized public open space, and it is my belief an investment like this can be a catalyst for change,” Peralez wrote in an email. “The City and the general public will be the beneficiary of this privately funded project, and it is not taking one penny away from any resources that provide housing and basic needs.”
Looking ahead, Borkenhagan said the team is excited to start finalizing steps to put Silicon Valley physically on the map, with hopes to pop celebratory champagne by 2025.
“A place as important and wealthy as Silicon Valley should have a physical icon that people use instantly to recognize where we are, and we really don't have that yet,” Borkenhagen said. “Placemaking really matters, and having beautiful places where you can go, have a sandwich or a beer, admire something beautiful and have that inspiration that art and architecture give to us, it's a critical part of life.”
Jerez agreed, especially while the world tiptoes towards reopening amid Covid-19 vaccines.
“We felt that after this very tough year with the pandemic, we need these kinds of public spaces more than ever – spaces that can trigger people to be together again,” Jerez said. “Now after spending these years with a psychological and social distancing … we hope that by the time we finish, people can fully enjoy it.