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Nvidia's Massive Techno Palace May Have You Questioning Remote Work

Nvidia Voyager building stairway
A stairway leads up the front face of the "mountain" at the center of Nvidia's Voyager building in Santa Clara, California.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

What's happening

Nvidia has opened up a new building at its Santa Clara, California, headquarters. Voyager's unusual architecture is designed to keep company workers happy and productive.

Why it matters

Imposing and lavishly appointed campuses aren't just for impressing employees and competitors these days. After COVID, they also have to lure employees back into the office.

On Feb. 14, after four years of construction, Nvidia welcomed its employees into Voyager, a colossal new building at its Santa Clara, California, headquarters. Like the earlier Endeavor building next door, it's named after a Star Trek starship, and visiting them is clearly intended to feel like a step into the future. 

Now, even if you're not employed by the graphics and AI chip giant, you can check out Voyager, too, thanks to CNET's exclusive look at the new building. 

Voyager is an imposing, 750,000-square-foot structure that illustrates Silicon Valley's might. Imagine a building big enough to hold a mountain -- Nvidia's name for the hulking central structure that you can walk up and work inside. A slightly domed roof pierced with triangular skylights lofts far overhead, more like an artificial sky than a ceiling. With such a vast, airy volume, it feels like you're both indoors and out.

But Voyager also embodies the uncertainty of work after COVID. Thanks in part to the kind of gear powered by Nvidia chips, you can be productive anywhere with Wi-Fi. Between better hardware and the pandemic, many are questioning whether to come into the office at all.  During my Voyager tour, I saw many unoccupied tables, conference rooms and cafes. It's clear corporate campuses have a new job: to give workers a reason to show up.

"You want some kind of memorable wow factor for recruiting, because there's such a war for talent," said Dyer Brown architect Ashley Dunn. Once a corporation has lured a recruit on board, it's time to outdo the comforts of home: "You're competing with people's dogs and their sweatpants."

For millennia, the rich and powerful have shown off their status with ziggurats, pyramids, castles, cathedrals, palaces, museums and skyscrapers. The tech magnates of today have replaced the pharaohs of yesteryear. Ideally, though, these buildings can be more than ostentatious. They can become architectural icons marrying artistry and engineering as they accommodate the humans working, worshiping and living inside.

Those humans are central to Voyager's design, said Hugo Ojeda, Nvidia's senior director of design and construction. Living walls, natural light and towering windows are a big improvement on soul-sucking cubicle farms. Chief Executive Jensen Huang requested a design that didn't box employees in.

"He wants all the employees to have views," Ojeda said. All offices face outside windows, and there's lots of casual space on the mountain so people can work outside their offices.

Silicon Valley grandeur

Nvidia's Endeavor and Voyager, both designed by architecture firm Gensler and Huang's most common haunt, are the newest attempt at architectural grandeur in Silicon Valley.

Google's headquarters, called the Googleplex, is gaining a lozenge shaped, arena-size building. Its roof looks like an enormous piece of fabric draped across a grid of tent poles.

The gleaming cylinders of Oracle's Redwood Shores campus -- rumored to mirror the drum-shaped symbol for databases in computer flowcharts -- are futuristic enough that movie makers used them as a backdrop in Robin Williams' 1999 movie Bicentennial Man.

Nvidia Voyager Building's Volcanic Plug

A multifaceted black structure reminiscent of a basalt from an extinct volcano perches at the top of the Voyager building's mountain. Nvidia had to reshape it several times to get the facets to show properly.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Samsung in San Jose occupies a rounded-corner trapezoid clad in dark blue glass enclosing a big interior courtyard. 

And then there's the biggest of all, Apple Park in Cupertino, the 2.8 million-square-foot ring shaped "spaceship" that was one of Chief Executive Steve Jobs' passions.

Mountain in the middle

Voyager's entrance way is a wall of glass dozens of feet tall. Inside it, a reception area called base camp stands at the foot of Voyager's central feature, the multistory "mountain." A pathway zigzags up it, leading past vertical gardens covered with green plants and viewing platforms.

The mountain is covered with tables, chairs, cafes and nooks where employees can meet or work alone outside their offices. The mountain is big, but it doesn't reach the roof, preserving that feeling of airiness. "Valleys" on either side separate the mountain from more conventional offices.

Creating appealing gathering spots is important to strike the right balance between work and life, said James Mann, an architect at Harrison French & Associates.

"These communal spaces help to promote a sense of place and belonging while providing a collaborative environment between colleagues," Mann said. "This is especially true with today's generations who go to an in-person work environment more to enrich their social lives rather than to achieve monetary success as a primary goal."

Toward the mountain's top is a near-black faceted structure that looks like a plug of basalt from an extinct volcano. On the back of the mountain, several tiers step down in an amphitheater configuration where hundreds can attend company meetings and other events.

Outside, a 4-acre garden connects Voyager and Endeavor. Reaching overhead from steel columns is a branching structure called the "trellis." It's coated with solar panels but has enough gaps to offer dappled shade. Perched higher up are circular areas, the "bird nests." All the outdoor areas have benches, tables and Wi-Fi to let people work outside.

It's a nice place to hang out, especially with Silicon Valley's mild climate, but even at the heart of a company with more than 22,000 employees, it was as sparsely populated as Voyager's interior. It's not yet clear how Nvidia's campus will balance working remotely and in person. It's not the only company wrestling with the question.

Silicon Valley's experimental culture will try more ideas for reshaping the workplace than conservative industries like finance and law, Dunn predicted. "The evolution of the workplace will accelerate, with more over the next two years than in the last 100."