A large, complex and prominently high tech city hall with instant iconic significance for the city.

  • Distinct civic presence in the core of the city
  • Vibrant city plaza
  • Accommodate a variety of public and private events indoors
  • Facilities to promote employee health and wellbeing

Now a city of a million inhabitants, San Jose has had two city halls prior to its present leviathan.

The first building was this ornate pile, erected in a once sparsely occupied center city area which, despite the presence of ornamental gardens to its back and front, appears to have been reduced to the hub of a traffic circle prior to its demolition in 1958.

Its site has been combined with the two ornamental gardens to form what is now the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, long the venue for jazz and rock concerts and other popular events.

Jazz Festival in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez

From 1958 to 2005 San Jose’s City Hall was this curvilinear building with a glass curtain wall -- something quite novel in 1958 California -- erected on a suburban lot two miles to the north of the city center and shaped to embrace, not a regathering of magnetically attracted citizens but the automobile and a crescent of one-way angled parking plaza. This view is from the early ‘60s.

The present day building and its parking plaza, mellowed by mature trees.

But the sweeping grace of its concavity endowed this second city hall with an abstract form of civic identity, nevertheless, something that came to be particularly associated with the city of San Jose and, one assumes, would not have been lost to Richard Meier and Partners, the architects for the third city hall, whose far more elaborate and fluid boundary to an emphatically pedestrian plaza seems to carry some of that 1958 DNA, brought back into downtown San Jose.

The architect’s perspective of the proposed new City Hall

This was an undertaking on an heroic scale.

The complex has a total floor area of 530,000 square feet accommodating 1,950 employees and close to 120 meeting spaces, half of which are made available to the public. There are 400 on-site and 1,128 off-site parking places. The budget was $345 million.

The site is a generous two block long double square, 680 feet x 340 feet, which required the closing of South 5th Street to assemble. Using the same Google Earth system of measurement, this is marginally longer than Gratz Park (seen in the upper right in the aerial view below), which, though preponderantly domestic in occupancy and character, is Lexington’s largest downtown open space. The San Jose site is also about 50 feet longer than Lexington’s new Courthouse Square (lower left), and a little more than double the area of Dudley’s Dig (middle left), a site at the very center of the city recently proposed as an appropriate location for a new Lexington City Hall.

Downtown Lexington from Dudley’s Dig to Gratz Park

The plan might be seen as having six major elements composed so as to open out towards the city center to the west:

  • The so-called Wing, apparently known to city employees as the West Wing, a three storey structure framing the south-western triangle of the site and chiefly containing the Council Chamber, meeting rooms and rental space along South 4th Street, currently leased to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for Silicon Valley and the West Coast Region;
  • The eighteen storey secretariat Tower closing off South 6th Street, its west front facing the Plaza being set down precisely on the centerline of the site's eastern square, and its first three levels extended out east and west to accommodate service spaces and a so-called Customer Service Center incorporating departments heavily frequented by the public;
  • I don't know what it's called in San Jose but for want of a better term, let's say The Promenades, a multilevel and multi-layered  crescent of outdoor and indoor circulation linking the West Wing to the Tower and embracing the Plaza with a deep and occasionally porous wall, simultaneously rustic sandstone, ivy covered concrete  and high tech metal, a thing of shallow, pergola-shaded outdoor stages, a broad stepped ramp leading to an elevated promenade shaded by a higher  pergola, and a well-lit  curving corridor of constantly varying radius, of sufficiently generous width as to accommodate changing exhibitions and known, I believe, as the Galleria;
  • The Plaza, a broken ellipse, opening out in a gesture of greeting to Santa Clara Street and the city, but distanced and protected from the disturbances of its traffic by the sight and sounds of its intervening cascades, fountains and "vapor flags," all no doubt rendered mute by
    the persistent drought of recent years;
  • The glass Rotunda, in the exact center of the composition, designed before the days of recession, major staff reductions and perpetual anti-terrorist lock-down, as the enclosed portion of the Plaza, the internal public gathering space and the ceremonial anteroom to the Council Chamber, visible to and variously interactive with the Plaza outside its walls;
  • A secondary court in the south-east corner of the site, providing access to the Tower from the south.


The images below will follow this order of enumeration.

Ground Floor Plan, shown here with North ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ to relate to the longitudinal section seen below

A typical Tower Floor Plan. Compare the two metal sun screens: the half dome ‘parasol protecting the Rotunda from the south-western sun, both functional and ornamental, and the more rhetorical than functional brise soleil suspended within a diaphanous frame from the western face of the Tower, its curved surfaces attempting to mediate between the the soft curvature of the Plaza enclosure and the assertive frontal plane of the Tower.

Longitudinal Section, looking South. Note the east-west extension of the lower floors of the tower to accommodate building services and the Customer Service Center. The Offices of the Mayor and Council Members are on the eighteenth floor

The Wing

The rental space on South 4th Street

The Council Chamber has an area of 7,000 square feet and accommodates 330 public seats with overflow seating available in the community meeting rooms directly behind the dais. The Chamber receives natural light from a skylight supported on a 40 ton beam running the entire 90 foot length of its south wall, seen here on the left. A city employee has observed that: ‘One of the nicest and most comfortable features of City Hall is the Council Chamber, which, unlike the old City Hall, places the audience above the elected officials.’

School Visit.

Minimum Wage Hearing.

The dais is at the same level as the speaking podium to encourage open dialog between the Council and constituents. The Chamber is fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The committee meeting rooms may be scheduled for community use and can be configured to accommodate groups of various sizes.

The Tower

The secretariat Tower seen from South 4th Street. The prominent vertical element at its north end is the elevator tower containing the six main elevators which, I understand, can now be operated only with a key card.

Detail of the sun screen on the Plaza facade.

The Tower seen from the East side surface parking and from the intersection of South 6th Street and Santa Clara Street.

Ramps to and from the sub-grade parking level at the south end of the Tower on 6th Street. The footpath leads to the South Court.

Accommodation for deliveries and city service vehicles at the south end of the Tower.

Staff entry at the north end of the Tower

Public entry at the north end of the Tower. Clutching his hard-won survey of the Leeward Islands to his chest, an embarrassed Christopher Columbus is wondering how he’s come to inhabit the lobbies of two San Jose City Halls since 1958, 4,0000 miles and three centuries away from the place to which he once gave the name of Guadeloupe.

Entry from the South Court

Entries from the Plaza and the second level promenade

The information desk

A view over the Customer Service Center looking toward the south entry.

The booths in the Service Center bring the representatives of multiple city agencies together at the same public interface to offer what the City snappily refers to as its ‘One -Start Service’

The Promenades

View across the Plaza during a Flag Raising Ceremony to the shallow stepped stage shaded by a pergola and behind it, the ivy covered stepped ramp leading to the second level promenade running around the perimeter of the Plaza.

The stepped ramp embracing the stage.

The view from the top of the stepped ramp to the bridges between the Rotunda and the Council Chamber, with the secretariat Tower beyond.

View from the junction of the second level promenade and the bridge from the Rotunda to the Council Chamber, looking down on the Plaza stage-cum-bench-seating.

View from the Rotunda bridge to the Tower. The Galleria is seen behind the railings, hugging the curvature of the Promenade.

The Galleria, an echo of the corridors in the former City Hall, but hosting changing exhibitions, such as those mounted by History San José, to inform and delight those who walk in it.

The Galleria seen from the South Court, with the hint of a photographic exhibition on its inner wall and the illuminated dome of the Rotunda in the Plaza beyond.

The termination of the second level promenade at the elevator tower and the second floor entry to the Customer Service Center.

The Plaza

The approach from South 4th Street

Separation of the sidewalk from the Plaza by the paired cascades centered at mid site on the Rotunda.

A view over the cascades from the Tower, with the water vapor flag poles in the middle ground and the flag poles proper beyond.

Cascade and fountain outlet details

Plaza rocks offering themselves as seats and tables, and a San Jose Sister Cities direction and distance marker inscribed in the plaza paving

The vapor flags in operation

The Plaza is a 2½ acre space and the scene of endless community activity. Here are a few of its manifestations:

Traditional dance at a Korean Flag Raising ceremony

Hiyas Philippine Folk Dance

Bike rally

Police Cadet Graduation Parade and celebration

Trayvon Martin vigil

Womens’ Rights Rally

Gay marriage celebration

School visits

Equal rights rally

Prayer Vigil for Victims of Violence

Parade of Flags Ceremony

Ujam Dance

Hispanic Community demonstration

Immigration reform demonstration

Audio Ballerina performance

An open air market?

An evening gathering in and around the Rotunda

In a tenth anniversary review of City Hall in the San Jose Mercury News for July 16, 2015, Scott Herhold had this to say about the City Hall and its Plaza:

City Hall has fulfilled the job of creating a destination: When people in San Jose protest a decision or commemorate a moment, they gather at City Hall plaza.

The Rotunda

Intended to serve as the ceremonial entryway to City Hall, as the anteroom to its Council Chamber and a venue for indoor events, the lofty Rotunda occupies the center of the site on axis with 5th Street -- closed to assemble the City Hall’s double square site -- and dominates the composition in a manner not unlike that of the Baptistery at Pisa, which magisterially commands the framed double square of the Campo Santo.

This gives rise to a diversionary but maybe useful little tale about Le Corbusier, and the sketchbooks from which he was inseparable.

Early in his first study tour of northern Italy in the Fall of 1907 he had come to Pisa to find one of the two buildings that his much admired John Ruskin had, himself, most admired: Pisa’s basilican church of Santa Maria Assunta, commenced by Buscheto in 1064, establishing the Pisan manner of Romanesque architecture, and the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, commenced in 1340. On arrival, and with Ruskinian fervor, the earnest twenty-year-old architect-cum-interior designer, a decade away from becoming Le Corbusier, studied all the intricacies of the charming tiered arcades on the west front of the cathedral.

Nearly three decades later, in June 1934, a journey by train carried the mature architect-urbanist Le Corbusier through Pisa, where he glimpsed the distinctive cupola of the Baptistery above the passing rooftops.

The sight must certainly have recalled the architectural details to which he had given such devoted attention in 1907, but now he also recollected the dominant role of the Baptistery in the massing of the Campo Santo plan, a moment of recognition prompting this entry in his sketchbook. It was an observation made with respect to the long-debated massing of his own submission in the ill-fated Palace of the Soviets Competition of 1931, set down together with the famous precept from the Abbé Laugier’s Observations sur l’Architecture of 1765: ‘Unity in the details, tumult in the whole.’

His sustained efforts to apply this dictum to the composition of the elements of the Place of the Soviets would have been perfectly familiar to Richard Meier, a lifelong student of Le Corbusier who, as it happens, had also developed a distinct penchant for circles, cylinders and rotundas, and who had at San Jose, moreover, a site demanding comparison with Pisa.

Richard Meier and Partners, the Getty Center, Los Angeles, completed in 1997. The Abbe Laugier would surely have been delighted.

But in contrast to Diotisalvi’s massive, somberly resonant and introverted rotunda at Pisa with its stark banded marble endlessly rotating around the baptismal font at its center, Meier’s rotunda at San Jose has no such singular focus.

It is a transparent domed cylinder, protected from the sun by opaque surfaces and grilles as necessary, its glass walls opening out in a near seamless unification of its gray terrazzo floor with the paving of the Plaza.

The Rotunda is approximately 90 feet in diameter, with a total area of 6,950 square feet, capable of accommodating a group of 350 people at a standing reception or 300 seated. Over the past ten years the Rotunda has hosted roughly 150 events annually, including about 40 private gatherings catered under contract by The Fairmont Hotel, located a few blocks away on the Plaza de Cesar Chavez.

To those who consult its website, the City says this about its building:

The San José City Hall is a landmark building that reflects the City's stature as one of the country's major cities and the pride and stature of our community. ……. City Hall stands as a symbol of our city's cultural and historical roots as well as its technological savvy. More importantly, the new facility brings city services together, resulting in better customer service for our residents and businesses.

…………….More than a building, the new San José City Hall represents our commitment to efficiency, service, and pride.

Project Benefits: San José will save approximately $189 million (net present value) over the next 50 years as a result of the consolidation of city services in one location that minimizes the costs for leased office space in multiple locations throughout the community. As an added benefit, the local economic impact from the project is estimated at $121 million.

With regard to its attributes as a landmark, David Vossbrink, a spokesman for the city, says:

Here’s a place, “a recognizable place” that shows up in postcards and television shots in a way we never had before. All in all, the building is a plus.

Among the programmatic modifications made to the building over the first decade of its occupancy are two to accommodate an increasingly active lifestyle among the employees: a workout room has been installed in the basement and covered bicycle storage area has been added along Sixth Street.

No doubt seeking peace with local businessmen and expecting its employees to patronize the surrounding restaurants, the city made no provisions for a cafeteria in its space requirements for the new building. This appears to have been a mistake. Less than three years after it began work in the new building, the nation plunged into a punishing recession which reduced San Jose's workforce from around 7,500 to 5,000. Finally, in 2011, most of the surviving employees had to take a 10 percent pay cut, which has engendered a significant ‘brown-bag’ lunchtime population whose needs are now at least acknowledged by the replacement of the Bamboo Grove in the South Court with umbrella-shaded outdoor tables. But it’s not a ‘place’, not the sidewalk or piazza cafe that it might have been.

And responding to the human need to memorialize significant people and events close to home, efforts are being made to raise money for a monument to two police officers, Simpson and Silva, who were shot to death with one of their own weapons on February 20, 1989, in the parking lot of the former Winchell's Donut House on this site, at East Santa Clara Street near Fifth Street, now occupied by one of the cascades.