In 1881, an eccentric newspaper publisher named James Jerome “J.J.” Owenrallied the city of San Jose behind a wacky new idea: Electricity could oust gas as a form of municipal lighting.
The culmination of his successful campaign was the construction of a 237-foot high electric light tower of his own design at the corner of Santa Clara and Market streets. The tower was an attractive iron structure on delicate legs. It earned international plaudits; local boosters claimed it inspired the design of the soon-to-be-built Eiffel Tower. The tower stood until a storm knocked it down in 1915.
Now, another group of magnates has determined it’s time for San Jose to have a new landmark that gets a similar amount of attention.
That’s a tall ask in 2019, and the board of the San Jose Light Tower Corp. knows it. The board has already raised $1 million, and promises it can raise far more — enough so that there won’t be any “artificial cap” on the design budget.
It has secured a prime location: Arena Green is a pastoral downtown site right along the Guadalupe River, across the street from the HP Pavilion and near Google’s planned downtown transit village.
It has locked down political support. On Tuesday, March 12, the San Jose City Council voted to approve the project 11-0.
The board has everything and everyone it needs to make this landmark happen, except the most important thing — a design.
“Our thought was to do a modern interpretation of the light tower, but we didn’t get a lot of excitement from our friends and contacts in the community,” said Jon Ball, board chairman of the San Jose Light Tower Corp. “They thought we should do something more inspirational and forward-thinking, something that better captured contemporary San Jose and Silicon Valley.”
Therein lies the problem. How in the world does one visually capture Silicon Valley?
For that matter, how in the world does one visually capture San Jose?
Speaking as a San Jose native who ran out of that city as fast as I could, I empathize deeply with the board’s determination to make something remarkable out of one of the country’s largest cities of least renown.
San Jose has an identity of which it should be proud. It’s a city that continually reinvents its economy. It’s been incredibly successful at absorbing huge numbers of immigrants and refugees. In the recent past, it was the best place for upward mobility in America.
Unfortunately, the city was planned as a sleepy bedroom community rather than a metropolis. All of its attributes are buried under a banal landscape of strip malls and low-slung ranch houses.
For as long as I’ve been alive, boosters have been trying mightily to create a visual and cultural identity for what was essentially designed to be a non-place. Those efforts have had, at best, a mild impact.
If San Jose is a visual abstraction, Silicon Valley is a metaphysical one.
Silicon Valley’s products have reshaped the world and changed the way we live.
But there’s no visual identity for Silicon Valley, either, and the difficulty of creating one becomes clear as soon as you think about it.
How on earth is an artist supposed to make a line of executable code look beautiful? A central processing unit is a fascinating thing, when you think about what it’s done — but it’s tough to bring mystery or even interest to its physical form.
Meanwhile, the image that’s most associated with Silicon Valley is a white guy in a hoodie, pontificating on a poorly lit stage.
That’s not an image anyone’s clamoring to cast in bronze.
The interesting thing about all of this abstraction is that it has sparked a public hunger for representation that’s physical and real.
Every time I drive by Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, there’s a line of tourists waiting to snap a selfie of themselves in front of the “Thumbs-Up” sign.
I find those lines to be both sweet and sad.
Big Tech has rightly taken some knocks over the past few years, but people around the world still want to envision themselves in a picture of Silicon Valley magic. Since the monumental campuses of these companies are so aggressively private, the public is literally trying to create its own image by the side of the road.
The San Jose Light Tower Corp. believes it can get around these hurdles by hosting an international design competition.
“The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., San Francisco’s City Hall — there’s a really strong tradition of open competitions producing spectacular results,” said Steve Borkenhagen, executive director of the Light Tower Corp..
They’ve got a whole plan for the committee that will choose the design, too — local and international artists and architects, community designers, etc.
I wish them all the luck in the world. For San Jose’s sake, I hope someone comes up with a fantastic design that makes that visually impoverished city look and feel special.
But if no one can come up with anything better than a 237-foot electric light tower, I won’t be surprised.