Stanford Report Online

Red tile roofs in Bangalore: Stanford's look copied in Silicon Valley and beyond
University founders wanted green space and low-lying buildings, scholar says


The story of Stanford's influence on Silicon Valley is a tale most often told through vacuum tubes and routers. But in a talk she presented to the Stanford Historical Society on Jan. 22, "Campus and City Plans: The Design and Influence of Stanford's Land Developments," Margaret O'Mara, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and the Program for the Study of the North American West, asserted that the university's influence on Silicon Valley also has been made up of bricks and mortar -- or more precisely, red tile roofs and green space.

The university landscape and its surroundings would have been dramatically altered in 1953 had the university followed a recommendation to develop 6,000 acres of land as residential subdivisions, O’Mara said. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Through the development of Stanford Research Park, originally Stanford Industrial Park, the university's "distinct geography" has influenced the look and feel of Silicon Valley and, subsequently, is felt throughout the world, she said. "Everyone wants not only to be another Silicon Valley, but everyone also seems to want to look like another Silicon Valley," said O'Mara, author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, to be published by Princeton University Press in October. To prove her point, O'Mara flashed on the screen a photograph of a building with a familiar-looking red tile roof housing high tech-related industry -- in Goa, India.

'Natural' but highly planned

Though the spread of the influence of Stanford land development has turned on key factors, including the postwar population boom in the Bay Area and the Cold War defense industry, its low-lying buildings and green spaces are rooted in decisions made by university founders Jane and Leland Stanford, O'Mara said.

In building on their horse farm rather than in San Francisco, the Stanfords were following the prevailing anti-city cultural presumption that students needed natural settings to uplift them intellectually and morally, she said. The Stanfords turned for help in designing the new university not to a campus planner but to urban landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. The result -- Olmsted's design as modified by Leland Stanford -- was as different from the look of Eastern campuses as could be, she said. It looked "natural," but was a highly planned, self-sustaining city, O'Mara said.

Stanford also differed from other campuses in its permanent ownership of more than 8,000 acres of farmland. For decades, there was never any pressure that the land be used for anything other than grazing sheep and winding country roads, she said. During World War II, however, hundreds of thousands of war workers moved to San Francisco, Oakland and surrounding communities and the population boom created rapid residential suburbanization on the Peninsula. Between 1940 and 1960, Menlo Park's population grew from just over 3,000 people to 27,000 and Palo Alto's population grew from 17,000 to 52,000.

Stanford's farmland was suddenly attractive to real estate developers just when the university needed the money -- enrollments dropped during the Great Depression and World War II. And rising land values caused rising property taxes, which applied to Stanford land whether it was used for grazing sheep or for suburban subdivisions, O'Mara said. Administrators also worried that local governments might condemn unused land and take it over for parks and schools, she said.

Administrators hired the prominent urban planner Lewis Mumford, a proponent of the "garden suburbs" movement, to assess potential development options. In a 1947 report, Mumford called Stanford land "the last large open area in what has become practically a single great suburban development." He argued that the land would be most valuable if it was kept open or used for academic purposes and strongly opposed subdividing acres on the border for housing subdivisions.

In the short run, administrators ignored Mumford's recommendations, since his proposals "seem to have not met the need for income generation," O'Mara said. But administrators also failed to follow the 1953 advice of a San Francisco architectural firm, which called for 6,000 acres of Stanford land to be developed as residential subdivisions.

"If Stanford administrators had accepted this recommendation, not only might the economic history of Silicon Valley have taken a different course, but the landscape of Palo Alto also would have been strikingly different," O'Mara said. "Residential development on such a scale would have nearly obliterated the open spaces on the Stanford reserve and perhaps would have set a precedent for further subdividing and development of open spaces elsewhere."

'We didn't know what the hell we were doing'

Stanford administrators instead followed a strategy that combined light "clean" industry with housing and retail construction. Their plan was self-interested -- it gave the university long-term flexibility, because the university could sign much shorter leases with industrial firms than with residential developers, O'Mara said. But it also showed that the university, which was the first in the nation to have a campus planning office, believed in comprehensive planning, she added. In a 1954 report, administrators argued that Stanford development presented an opportunity to create a "community in which work, home, recreation and cultural life are brought together with some degree of balance and integration." In addition to rental income, the industrial development would provide professional opportunities for faculty and students, they said. For the times, "this was a bold vision," O'Mara said.

Administrators were also mindful of their neighbors as they set out to make the park a model for suburban industrial planning, she said. "If the future of the San Francisco Peninsula lay in high-tech industry -- as [Engineering Dean] Fred Terman believed -- there needed to be an example to show how this kind of industrial development could peacefully coexist with an affluent suburban community" like Palo Alto, she said.

Because of the university's large land holdings, administrators had the luxury of translating the pastoral ideals of the campus to an industrial development, O'Mara said. While other communities were launching aggressive marketing campaigns to woo industry, Stanford required that tenants apply for admittance and then screened them for qualities including energy and innovation. Buildings were required to be low-rise structures surrounded by open land that was 60 percent larger than the building themselves, and parking lots were to be built in back.

In her talk, O'Mara quoted a fifties-era administrator as saying, "We didn't know what the hell we were doing. If we knew how hard it was to get industry, that you've got to give tax exemptions, cheap labor and free buildings, we probably wouldn't have even tried. But we were as tough as we could be and we couldn't discourage them."

The result was an industrial park with the look and feel of a college campus, O'Mara said. Stanford seemed to other communities to have stumbled on a perfect and easy solution to development, "park-like industrial real estate, located near good housing and schools, where tenants could take advantage of the resources of a world-class university," she said.

In 1955, the Saturday Evening Post lauded Stanford lands as a "model city" that "dwarfs ordinary town development schemes." In 1958, the research park -- then called the Stanford Industrial Park -- was a featured exhibit at the World's Fair in Brussels, and when Charles de Gaulle visited the United States in 1960, he asked to be taken on a tour. (An audience member recalled the French president being driven around her neighborhood.)

By the mid-1960s, the Stanford Industrial Park had become the gold standard for science-based industrial development, inspiring local initiatives from Santa Clara to Oregon to Texas, Kansas and Mississippi, O'Mara said. In the decades since, the architectural and planning elements of Stanford's campus and adjoining "city" have become recurring motifs in real estate development from the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina to Boston and Bangalore, she said.

"The Cold War gave Stanford the opportunity to become a world-class research university," O'Mara said. "Stanford's land grant gave it the opportunity to become a great land developer."