IBM's Building 25, designed to foster creativity, burns down

Complex pioneered campus-like approach to workspaces

In 1957, IBM built a complex in San Jose, California different from the grimy industrial age factories and offices then closing in East Coast cities. Its open, campus-like feeling was so representative of America's technical prowess and creative spark that US officials included a tour of it as part of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit.

Last weekend, IBM Building 25, as it is known, burned down. The building was empty and without water, and the San Jose Fire Department says the cause remains unknown. It had been hit previously by thieves stripping its interior of metals. What remains of the building is burnt and twisted.

When Susan Brandt-Hawley, the attorney representing the Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC-SJ) in its effort to save the building, learned of the fire she "was hoping it wasn't true." But when she saw the videos of this "distinctive, iconic building with ceramic tiles that look like IBM punch cards" in flames, she knew and was numbed by it.

IBM stopped using the facility in the mid-1990s; the company still owns the property but has an agreement to sell it to Lowes Companies, the home improvement retailer. Lowes' plan for retail complex on the 18 acre site included demolition of Building 25. The move was challenged by the preservation council, but its six-year legal fight was just about to end. Both sides were set to announce a settlement this week to preserve a portion of the building, said Brandt-Hawley.

Now, in the wake of the fire, the preservation group is hoping a restoration plan will emerge. The intent is to move forward and "put together what's left," said Brian Grayson, the interim executive director of the PAC-SJ.

"The fire is certainly a setback," said Lowes spokeswoman Chris Ahearn, but she said the company has not determined its next steps.

The 69,000 square foot Building 25 was "a radical departure from the solid wall construction of most industrial and laboratory facilities of the time," wrote San Jose planning officials in a report last year ( PDF format ).

The building, said the city's planners, "was designed so that each office and laboratory had walls of glass to integrate the landscaping and outdoor art with the working spaces. This design would start the West Coast trend away from the single manufacturing facility and set the standard for a bucolic setting that high technology campuses would follow. The design intent was to bring together production efficiency and employee comfort in a campus setting, and in a context of good architecture, landscaping and art."

Building 25 was the home of IBM's San Jose Research and Development Laboratories. IBM described it on its Web site as "designed specifically for creative engineers," and in "true California style, patios between the wings give the effect that offices and laboratories extend outdoors."

The city said that technology developments at the center included the floating or "flying head" disk drive to allow on-line processing, and said "the first significant" application of this technology was by Sabre Systems, the online reservation system.

This idea of creating work environments that encourage creativity is so mainstream today in Silicon Valley that it has become a race by companies to push the perk envelope. For instance, Eric Schmidt , the CEO of Google, describes life at its Mountain View headquarters thus: "We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, car washes, dry cleaning and commuting buses. Let's face it: programmers want to program, they don't want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both."

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