Think of Silicon Valley, and the chances are you’ll think of shiny corporate headquarters – futuristic campuses with slides instead of stairs, rooftop bars and state-of-the-art gyms.
That’s what photographer Alastair Philip Wiper had in mind before he visited the Valley – home to more than 70 tech billionaires and some of the world’s most powerful brands – but what he found was a little less inspiring. His new series Silicon Nights documents the reality: a jumble of outdated office buildings that wouldn’t look all that out of place in a suburban business park off the M1.
“Like most people I suppose, I was expecting Silicon Valley to look like something from the Jetsons and that the architecture and buildings would be in sync with the aspirations of the companies that inhabited them,” Wiper explains on his website. “But alas, what I found was a valley full of boring corporate architecture (not even the good kind), generic office buildings from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.”
Some of these brands have since moved into newer, better headquarters. Apple’s ambitious Apple Park HQ, which opened in 2017, resembles a spaceship from above, and is exactly the kind of building you’d expect a trillion dollar tech company to inhabit. But Wiper was more interested in the mundane spaces that they once called home, and the peculiar group of towns that suddenly found themselves home to vast numbers of coders, inventors and entrepreneurs.
“As tech companies grew at an unimaginable pace in the early 2000s, they did not have time to build new buildings to seat all the new staff they were hiring, so they took over any empty office space they could get their hands on,” he says. “Most of the towns that make up Silicon Valley like Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Cupertino and Palo Alto are not really towns at all in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they are a series of strip malls along busy roads that are clogged with the hundreds of thousands of workers that head into the Valley every day for work.”
Alongside photographing corporate offices, Wiper tracked down the humble beginnings of tech brands and founders, taking pictures of Steve Jobs’ childhood home – a quintessential American bungalow with blue shutters and a neat front lawn – and the Palo Alto garage where William Hewlett and David Packard began developing their first product, an audio oscillator, in 1938.
His decision to photograph at night gives the images a cinematic feel, with buildings taking on a romantic, moonlit glow. “I love photographing at night, and the colours and light that comes from long exposure gives a kind of magic to otherwise dull situations. I think some of the images in the series would be very uninteresting if shot during the day, so I like the idea of trying to make these boring situations sexy,” he tells CR.
Aware of the tight security controls at tech companies, Wiper did some legal research before his trip, and discovered there was nothing brands could do to stop him taking pictures so long as they were taken from a public space. “If I step onto their property to take the picture, that is another matter. But that was fine for me. I liked the idea that there was a bit of spying going on. Even still, I was constantly expecting security to turn up and challenge me, but I didn’t have any problems.”
“Perhaps the place I had to take most care was outside Steve Jobs’ childhood home,” he adds. “It was on an extremely quiet residential road and my assistant had to tiptoe and whisper because we thought a neighbour would call the police. It was pitch black when we were there, so I had to do an exposure of around 2.5 minutes to get the shot, and it took quite a while to get it right. I think there are busloads of Apple fanatics turning up there during the day, but at night it was dead quiet.”