Computer moguls conspicuously construct Wash. cyber-barons build compound-size homes


MEDINA, Wash. -- Some chilly nights, after his computer turns off every light bulb, the fireplace and the infrared heat over the patio, and before it adjusts the blinds, Charles Simonyi, Microsoft's chief programming wizard, stands on a cantilevered terrace of his 20,500-square-foot lake-side home, marveling at what he calls "the absolute magic," the quiet perfection of it all.

To the southwest is Mercer Island, where a co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, has built a Scandinavian-inspired compound with 74,000 square feet of buildings including an indoor basketball court, a recording studio, an office tower and a made-to-order grotto.

To the northwest is the Gates House, the most famous $30 million, 45,000-square-foot construction site in the world. Ensconced in its hillside like the funerary temple of Hatshepsut, this oasis-in-progress has already become a public showpiece for the Bill Gates legend (buy the book; tour it on CD-ROM).

It is the techno-future at its grandest; guests will enter a dazzling reception hall lined with 24 video monitors, each with a 40-inch picture tube. Don't even try keeping up with the Gateses.

The computer heads are nesting. Like William K. Vanderbilt, whose turn-of-the-century "cottage" in Newport, R.I., was inspired by Louis XIV, they have been gripped with "la manie de batir," the fever to build. And like those prolific house-raising robber barons, today's cyber-barons are engaged in acts of conspicuous construction.

Few would call them architectural taste-makers. But they are turning affluent communities like Medina, outside Seattle -- not far from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond -- and Woodside and Atherton in Silicon Valley into born-again Newports.

In Woodside, a mink-and-manure enclave where "Equestrian Crossing" signs dot woolly byways, the sheer size of Xanadus like the 18,000-square-foot chateau that A. C. "Mike" Markkula, vice chairman and a co-founder of Apple, wants to build has resulted in several highly publicized tete-a-tetes between CEOs and local planning boards.

Earlier this summer, the billionaire Lawrence J. Ellison, founder of the Oracle Corp., finally received the blessing of the Woodside Planning Department to build a $40 million, 23-acre Japanese retreat. It will involve airlifting a house by Julia Morgan, the architect of San Simeon, to Stanford University in California from the spot where Ellison wants to put one of two meditative ponds.

The new Techno-Pile Style ranges from Kamp Kyoto to Cyber-Baronial and Techno-Nouveau. But these houses share certain traits, among them an emphasis on privacy and state-of-the-art gadgetry.

Wizards who as teen-agers may have sequestered themselves in their bedrooms with their computers are now locking themselves in their compounds. Computers, which don't have ears, are the new butlers, and in place of ormolu and marble, there are ISDN phone lines, which whisk their way to the Internet at nearly five times the speed of plain old telephone systems (POTS).

These compounds -- some grand, some suburban -- are "a sign that the computer industry is getting older and that money is the ultimate fantasy amplifier," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute of the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It's a creation thing," said Joe Vetter, 40, vice president for western regional sales at Microsoft and an amateur musician, explaining why he had built a miniature version of the fabled outdoor amphitheater at Epidaurus in his California backyard. "Building something around themselves is an experience people want to have."

To spend an afternoon at the Villa Simonyi on Lake Washington is to sample hermetically sealed, mathematical precision. The glinting, sprawling structure, designed by the Seattle architect Wendell Lovett for about $10 million, tilts at a seven-degree angle and looks like a slight earthquake hit it.

A 48-year-old bachelor, Simonyi compares the house -- which contains a glass-enclosed 60-foot-long swimming pool and networks of stainless-steel trusses -- to silicon crystal, an unyielding material into which "impurities can be introduced to add an element of interest."

The building is so vast that a visitor can feel like a lonely asteroid rattling around the solar system. It contains his own atelier, a computer lab with magnetized walls where colleagues can brainstorm. Gold and brass finishes don't pass aesthetic muster. Neither do clocks, because "there aren't any good-looking ones."

And before he drifts off to sleep, in a bed that he can pivot to take in the view, he adjusts the computerized security system, heating and cooling system, entertainment system, phone system, lighting system and lawn-watering system. "Like a submarine," he explained, "they all have to be green before you submerge."

To Patterson Sims, a former associate director of the Seattle Art Museum who is now a deputy director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the villas that now make up Microsoft-by-the-Sea share certain qualities with their forebears: "a passion for size and the American fantasy of unabashed, unself-conscious expenditure."

Mark Alan Hewitt, an architectural historian, said, "American culture does repeat itself," adding that for corporate moguls, "houses are perhaps the most important status symbols."

But unlike the consciously public robber baron builders, whose palaces shamelessly borrowed aediculae, pediments and landscaping ideas from French chateaux, today's cyber-barons, many of whom are engineers, are making their wired wonderlands private and inward-looking.

"They symbolize the conspicuous consumption of technology," Hewitt said. "These houses are about the interior self."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.