The search for San Jose’s landmark narrows: Here are top three finalists
Welcome to Wonderland, designed by Rish Saito, is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley ideas competition. Image courtesy of UCSV.

And then there were three.

After years of planning, fundraising and community input, Urban Confluence Silicon Valley finally named the finalists  in its international ideas competition to build an an iconic landmark in San Jose expected to draw tourists from around the world.

Chosen from more than 900 entries originating in 70 countries, 13 expert jurors selected Nebula Tower by Qinrong LuiWelcome to Wonderland by Rish Saito and Breeze of Innovation by Fer Jerez as finalists in the design contest. The winning proposal will eventually be constructed at Arena Green in San Jose’s Guadalupe River Park.

The virtual announcement event, which was broadcast live Sept. 18, also served as a 21st century telethon that raised more than $830,000 for the cause. Each designer will receive $150,000 to develop their project proposals for the rest of 2020.

The 13-person jury will select a winner in the first quarter of 2021 and the proposal will be built by the designer, paid for by the philanthropists and donated to San Jose. The jury includes Jon Cicirelli, San Jose’s director of Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services and Jodi Starbird, president of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy Board of Directors.

Nebula Tower

Lui recently finished his master’s thesis at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Lui took inspiration for Nebula Tower from San Jose’s original icon, the electric light tower built in 1881. That tower — which collapsed more than 100 years ago — was 207 feet tall and adorned with electric light bulbs, which were still novel on a such a large scale.

The design places a “neutral cube with (a) vaguely defined boundary” at the Arena Green West. The cube is 180 feet long and composed of a lattice grid with a hollow tower embedded inside, according to the project’s description. In the daytime, the lattice grid and the nebulous figure of the tower offers changing images in different perspectives.

At night, the tower appears faintly with visual forms within the grid.

The Nebula Tower was designed by Qinrong Lui. Image courtesy of UCSV.

Welcome to Wonderland

Saito is also a recent graduate, having just finished a master’s program at Southern California Institute of Architecture. His Welcome to Wonderland submission is inspired by the novels of Lewis Carroll.

His project consists of a massive container — 700 feet long, 200 feet tall and 100 feet wide — filled with giant white fiberglass flowers on which light and images can be projected.

It also includes space inside for people to experience the sensation of shrinking to the size of a bee or a butterfly, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “While Silicon Valley and San Jose is known for its technological advancements, “Welcome to Wonderland” celebrates the idea that it has been through imagination and wonder that has driven Silicon Valley’s innovative spirit,” the project description says.

Welcome to Wonderland is a finalist in the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley ideas competition. Image courtesy of UCSV.

Breeze of Innovation

Fernando Jerez, the director of SMAR Architecture Studio, which has offices in Australia and Spain, designed Breeze of Innovation.

It consists of 500 flexible rods, each 200-feet-high, that sway in the breeze. The energy created by that motion will be used to provide electricity to the building. According to the proposal, “the hundreds of rods represent the hundreds of different companies and individuals working together in Silicon Valley.”

“The conical void allows people to enjoy an extraordinary vertical space while using the different floors of the tower,” the project description said.

Breeze of Innovation, designed by FerJerez, is a finalist in a design competition to create an iconic landmark in San Jose. Image courtesy of UCSV.

Last summer a group of Silicon Valley philanthropists announced a contest to build a landmark to represent the region’s spirit of innovation.

“From the beginning, we’ve been looking for something that will be enduring, not trendy,” said Jon Ball, who represents the San Jose Light Tower Corporation on the jury. “It has got to have a timelessness to it so that in a few years or decades will not be obsolete or feel dated.”

The contest received more than 960 submissions from all over the globe. Every juror reviewed at least 500 submissions each and the majority of the panel reviewed more than 90 percent of all the submissions.

Urban Confluence Executive Director Steve Borkenhagen told San José Spotlight last year the landmark will be a source of civic pride, something that is sorely lacking, conspicuous by its absence in a place with an oversized ego in many other ways.

“Silicon Valley has great self-esteem in certain areas,” Borkenhagen said. “Intellectually and technologically, but we don’t have a place that causes people to have that feeling of awe that these great icons and landmarks do. That was our original motivation.”

Ball said the jury wants the landmark to be “something reflective of our values as a society, and memorable in appearance so it will be recognizable as symbolic of Silicon Valley and San Jose.”

That said, the nonprofit is not looking for an artist’s interpretation of the tech industry.

“We are in Silicon Valley, but we don’t want this to be an homage to the microchip or bro-culture or coding or any of that stuff,” Borkenhagen said.

Lawmakers such as Councilmember Raul Peralez, Mayor Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez lauded the project during the live reveal event Friday, saying it would draw visitors from around the world and present new opportunities in Downtown San Jose.

A final design will be chosen in 2021 and it could take up to three more years before it’s completed.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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