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As Apple Park opens, history shows that glitzy corporate digs don't always pan out

An aerial view of the new Apple headquarters on April 28, 2017 in Cupertino, California.
Getty Images
An aerial view of the new Apple headquarters on April 28, 2017 in Cupertino, California.

Sun Microsystems was a high-flying tech titan, seemingly at the peak of its powers, when it moved into a gleaming new, 11-building campus on 57 acres of prime Silicon Valley property in the mid-1990s.

The future seemed limitless — Sun flirted with buying a then-struggling Apple — and it grew dramatically with sales of computer servers and storage to web start-ups during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s.

Then the bubble burst in 2000. By 2010, Sun was forced to sell to Oracle for $7.4 billion, a slice of its former valuation.

The lesson of Sun's Icarus-like fall has not been lost on its current tenant: Facebook, which expanded to the Menlo Park, Calif., site, left Sun's sign visible on glass doors as a reminder to employees of the risks of becoming comfortable with success.

Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com Inc., stands in front of a poster during a topping off ceremony for the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, April 6, 2017.
Michael Short | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com Inc., stands in front of a poster during a topping off ceremony for the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, April 6, 2017.

Such as the potential pitfalls in corporate America: Not every trophy campus is a monument to a company's success. In fact, it can have just the opposite effect, reflecting a sour turn in fortunes.

The cautionary tale of Sun is a historical side note as Apple, Salesforce and Amazon move into opulent new architectural projects at a time when their businesses are booming and market valuations are soaring to record heights.

Apple's 175-acre, space-age architectural marvel believed to have cost $5 billion to construct, just opened its doors — drawing parallels to some of the most iconic corporate headquarters ever and exhibiting the riches of the world's most-valued company ($800 billion and climbing).

Apple Park is "a proof point, if you will, that Apple is untouchable and poised to outlive almost anything," says Joe Franscella, senior vice president of Bhava Communications, a public relations, marketing and branding agency. "I mean that building, based on photos I've seen, has the same aura as the Pentagon."

Salesforce is moving into a new, 61-story tower that will be the tallest building in San Francisco to be near its customers and consolidate operations in a vertical, urban campus. The software-services company on Saturday opened the 48-story Salesforce Tower Indianapolis, the largest building in Indiana, and it occupies a 41-story building in midtown Manhattan.

Amazon is constructing three giant glass spheres containing an indoor forest in Seattle. And Facebook and Alphabet have tapped top architects Frank Gehry and Bjarke Ingels, respectively, for expansion projects. For Alphabet, the owner of Google and YouTube, the extended Googleplex would involve public walkway that cuts through a building topped by a glass canopy.

Amazon.com Biosphere in Seattle.
David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Amazon.com Biosphere in Seattle.

Palatial corporate digs

The rise of glitzy tech structures marks a radical departure for an industry that has favored nondescript, low-slung office buildings and left corporate palaces to the likes of banks and oil giants.

Palatial corporate digs aren't merely paeans to executive ambitions but out-sized symbols of a company's brand and identity, say marketing experts.

French shipping group CMA CGM's tower in Marseilles is shaped as a ship's tail. BMW's Welt exhibition center in Munich resembles a futuristic auto show room. Samsung properties in its native Seoul and San Jose, Calif., offer sweeping vistas from glass-and-steel towers. Shoe company Adidas' LACES building is part of a sports-themed corporate headquarters in Bavaria, Germany.

"We always thought the campus had so many amenities so it would inspire us to stay longer and work more hours," says Rick Bakas, a former Nike employee who helped design the Denver Broncos and Oregon Ducks brands. The athletic-wear giant plans an expansion of 3.2 million square feet of stunning office space at its Beaverton, Ore., headquarters by 2018.

The evolution of tech campuses into showy monuments with perks underscores a shift in the economy to intellectual companies where talented minds require social amenities to collaborate and innovate, says Brad Hinthorne, an architect in Seattle.

The last vision of Steve Jobs

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' last great product is on vivid display at a 2.8-million-square-foot circular building in Cupertino, Calif., called the Ring — a testament to his vision for a space-age campus. In 2009, Jobs enlisted British architect Norman Foster, designer of the Hearst Tower in Manhattan. Plans were unveiled in 2011.

The Apple Campus 2 is seen under construction in Cupertino, California in this aerial photo taken January 13, 2017.
Noah Berger | Reuters
The Apple Campus 2 is seen under construction in Cupertino, California in this aerial photo taken January 13, 2017.

The curved-glass Ring, centerpiece of Apple Park, will house 12,000 employees and a 1,000-seat Steve Jobs Theater that looks like a MacBook Air.

Apple Park is a wonderland of high-mindedness and cutting-edge design. Its 9,000 trees are drought-tolerant. The Apple Cafe, which can serve as many as 4,000 people at once, has two glass doors four stories high. A 100,000-square-foot fitness center, covered in distressed stone from a quarry in Kansas, has a two-story yoga room. More than 800,000 square feet of solar arrays dot the campus. Notably absent, however, is a child-care facility, reported online magazine Quartz.

"It captures and reflects the wealth and power of Apple," says Devin Gharakhanian, an environmental and experience designer who specializes in augmented and virtual reality. "It feels like a Steve Jobs or Walt Disney inspiration, though it also feels like a forced design. It's as much about an aesthetic creation."

Apple declined comment. Foster + Partners had no comment.

There is function beyond the form of Apple's aesthetic monument: The campus allows Apple to hire more people and have them work close together, say tech analysts.

"I think it's mostly important (because) it will finally allow far more of the key people at Apple headquarters to work in the same building rather than being spread all over the valley," says Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research. "That's a vastly underestimated problem at Apple. It's been running out of space, which has also constrained hiring at a time when it should have been expanding significantly."

"This was a 100-year decision," Apple CEO Tim Cook told Wired.

Yet tech moves in fast and unpredictable ways. A sudden jolt in the market could hinder the ability of companies to pivot, whether through relocation or innovation, if they are tied to pricey new headquarters. Excite@Home, a high-speed Internet service provider that was the result of a $6.7 billion merger in early 1999, was in the midst of moving into a sparkling new facility in Redwood City, Calif., when the dot-com bubble burst. It shut down in early 2002.

Or there's the case of Zynga, which sunk millions of dollars into a San Francisco location when its Facebook-centered Farmville game was the hot thing in games.

An iconic illuminated tunnel, with flashing lights and music, welcomed visitors and employees to Zynga's multi-story headquarters in the city's South of Market neighborhood. But mobile games like King Digital Entertainment's Candy Crush Saga came along, upending the market and plunging Zynga into a prolonged tailspin.

Zynga still occupies its flashy headquarters, but last year put it up for sale.