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We hear so much about groundbreaking, new software and devices being developed by U.S. technology firms. But high-tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook are breaking actual ground. This past year, the three Silicon Valley companies have been designing and building new corporate offices. Amazon is doing the same in Seattle.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Perhaps the most talked about and architecturally ambitious project that broke ground this year is the Apple headquarters building in Cupertino, Calif. It was a project near and dear to the late Steve Jobs.

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STEVE JOBS: It's a pretty amazing building. Let me show it to you. It's a little like a spaceship landed, but there it is.

KAUFMAN: The Apple CEO unveiled the drawings at a local city council meeting back in 2011.

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JOBS: It's got this gorgeous courtyard in the middle, but a lot more. It's a circle, and so it's curved all the way around. As you know, if you build things, this is not the cheapest way to build something. There's not a straight piece of glass on this building.

KAUFMAN: The four-story doughnut, with its walls of glass, curves for nearly a mile. The price tag? Several billion dollars.

David Gissen, an architect and architectural historian at the California College of the Arts, says the building looks like something that Apple would have created.

DAVID GISSEN: That building is so fascinating. The purity of that design - it invokes or recalls the types of products that Apple releases. It's seamless; it's beautiful.

KAUFMAN: But others suggest that its vast scale might not be so user-friendly. For example, workers slated to move in, in 2016, might have quite a hike to meet colleagues in another part of the building.

In contrast, plans for the new Google facility, which is still being designed, call for no one to be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from anyone else. The architectural firm NBBJ is designing Google's new headquarters as well as those for Samsung North America and Amazon.

DR. NAOMI STANFORD: What they're asking for is a building that reflects an identity and a personality.

KAUFMAN: And, says NBBJ's Naomi Stanford...

STANFORD: They want the space to reflect their organizational values.

KAUFMAN: Stanford says historically, companies often viewed buildings as simply a cost. Now, they're beginning to think about them as an asset - something they can use to drive creativity and performance, and help attract and retain talent.

Nature plays a prominent role in all of these new buildings, says architect and historian David Gissen. He notes there will be three immense, plant-filled spheres at Amazon's new Seattle headquarters.

GISSEN: We - literally - see imagery that you would normally associate with a botanical garden. That is a very unusual and striking image for a corporate office building in a major American city.

KAUFMAN: The faceted, clear-glass structures will face the street with an open plaza, and green space connecting them to three large office towers. Architect John Savo, of NBBJ, explains that the idea of a plant-filled conservatory was to create a place where Amazon employees could think and work more productively and creatively.

JOHN SAVO: There's ample studies out there that indicate that people walking in an urban street are thinking and feeling very differently than people walking in a park. In the park land, they're both more relaxed and can concentrate better.

KAUFMAN: The spheres are slated for completion at the end of 2016. The entire three-block project will be finished a year after that.

SAVO: You can see the first site that's under construction.

KAUFMAN: Amazon's John Schoettler, who oversees the company's global real estate, has taken us to a nearby rooftop for a bird's-eye view. He says the project will allow Amazon to add 12,000 new employees in Seattle. And he emphasizes the company's decision to build in the heart of the city rather than in the suburbs.

JOHN SCHOETTLER: I think it differentiates us from other companies, and allows us to attract the type of employee that wants to be urban and live in an urban environment.

KAUFMAN: Architecture critic Allison Arieff, who writes for The New York Times and others, says tech companies talk a lot about serendipitous exchanges fostering new ideas. But she's not convinced that the deliberately self-contained suburban buildings will facilitate that.

ALLISON ARIEFF: The only people that you're really running into are your co-workers. And at a certain point, that leads to a certain level of naval-gazing, I think, because you're only ever talking to people who sort of agree with what you're saying.

KAUFMAN: Of course, all these projects are still in their early stages, so we don't know how they will actually turn out. But make no mistake: 2013 was a banner year for architecture and design at high-tech companies.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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