An Urban Icon Emerges

The Urban Confluence Silicon Valley Competition



Urban Confluence Silicon Valley winner: ©SMAR Architecture Studio


After several stops and starts over an extended period of time, the winner of the Urban Confluence Design Competition was named in early March, 2021. SMAR Architecture Studio’s The Breeze of Innovation, which prevailed over two other shortlisted finalists from the original 963 entries, won with a novel tower-like structure consisting primarily of hundreds of rods, generating energy while swaying in the wind.


Urban Confluence Silicon Valley winner: ©SMAR Architecture Studio


Project Origins


   In 2017, three founders of a local non-profit established The San Jose Light Tower Corporation (SJLTC). The founders of the non-profit, Restaurateur Steve Borkenhagen, construction company executive, Jon Ball and filmmaker Thomas Wohlmut, saw its primary mission in designing and building a new tower as a San Jose and Silicon Valley landmark. This idea was based on the memory of the original San Jose Electric Light Tower (1881-1915), a 22-story structure, located in downtown San Jose, which came down as the victim of a gale, never to be rebuilt.


   Realizing such a project depends on public support, the SJLTC cleared the first hurdle toward building a public consensus with the unanimous endorsement of the San Jose City Council—for the organization to move forward “with plans to design and construct an artistically-inspired and iconic structure in downtown San Jose.”


To realize such an idea, the project required a site, funding, and a design. Arena Green in Guadalupe River Park was thought to be the ideal location for the project. At the confluence of two rivers and in proximity to downtown San Jose, this was an easy choice.


   As for the design, they understood that a competition not only would be the natural road to arrive at a suitable design for such an ambitious project, but generate a maximum amount of publicity on the way to seeing the project built. One change occurred along the way: After some input from various parties, it was determined that placing sole emphasis on the tower as the design solution was too narrow as a concept, and that a more flexible challenge would generate more interest. Thus the project took on the name of the site at the confluence of the two rivers, Urban Confluence Silicon Valley Competition.


   The competition was launched in the summer of 2019, and the entries were to be juried after a submission deadline of October 15, 2019. This deadline was ultimately extended, as a surge of comments apparently led to some modifications in the brief. Moreover, the ugly appearance of Covid-19 resulted in using Zoom for most of the meetings, most importantly for the later jury sessions. The final deadline was set for July 1, 2020, and the response was the receipt of 963 entries! The program stated that three finalists would be shortlisted and each would receive $150,000 to fine-tune their designs before the final presentations were to occur and a final decision had been reached.


   The delay by eight-plus months in the scheduled document submissions apparently had to do with some shortcomings in the competition brief at that time—aside from deemphasizing the tower. Based on our conversations with a competition participant, some essential items such as a site section were missing from the document; and the project managers indicated that questions from numerous potential participants had necessitated the rescheduling. All this suggested that the sponsors were dealing with a rather significant learning curve on the way to their ultimate goal. In the end, it would appear that the final adjustments to the competition brief bore fruit; for the quality of the entries is certainly a testament to the efforts of the sponsors.


   Since funding for the project had not yet been established, the client undertook a very sophisticated PR campaign, with various online presentations, partially serving as vehicles for fundraising. With several Forbes 500 firms located in Silicon Valley, some might assume that the funding of such a project might not pose much of a problem. But the sponsors were obviously not taking any chances with the budget still an unknown, and was well advised not to do so.



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Jeffrey Ollswang – In Memoriam




If there was ever one to see the brighter side of life, it was Jeffrey Ollswang, architect, teacher and a glowing light in our firmament, who passed away last week at the age of 80. His personality can be summed up in a quote from the book he authored, together with his partner in design, Larry Witzling, The Planning and Administration of Design Competitions:


“No man who has once heartily
and wholly laughed can be
altogether irreclaimably bad.”
                  -Thomas Carlyle


We at COMPETITIONS first encountered Jeffrey shortly after he was involved in the administration of the Matteson Public Library competition back in 1990 (below). This was shortly after plans were being made to launch the first issue of our quarterly magazine, COMPETITIONS. In that very first issue, Jeffrey agreed to write about the Matteson competition, choosing to frame the article around the theme of organization, choice of jury, and role of the client.
Subsequently, he was gracious enough as to allow me to be present at the jurying of various competitions where he was competition adviser. Although I had already learned much about competitions during my stay in Europe, it was through advisers like Jeffrey that it became a necessary learning curve from some of the best.

Without his knowledge and personality, we would be without many of the projects that Jeffrey was involved in, and which will benefit many communities for generations.


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