Apple bought a huge piece of Bay Area property for a new corporate campus, promising to develop the land into an enormous project that would allow thousands of company employees to live, work, shop and play without ever having to leave company property. It would be the perfect community for staffers who are allowed to work any 80 hours per week they choose. This may sound a lot like Apple’s plan to redevelop the old Hewlett-Packard Cupertino campus about a mile from current Apple headquarters on Infinite Loop, but it isn’t. What I’ve just described was Apple Computer’s plan to develop 640 acres in Coyote Valley south of San Jose, circa 1985.

What goes around comes around.

Back in the early 1980s, Apple Computer Chairman Steve Jobs drove the company to buy a big chunk of the pristine Coyote Valley, at that time devoted to agriculture, and turn it into a world class live-work environment for up to 25,000 of Apple’s rabidly loyal employees. The land was purchased but the building never started because Jobs lost his job in a political battle with then-CEO John Sculley sending Apple into its own Dark Ages.

With the 2010 Apple building project, reportedly to be designed by noted modern architect Norman Foster, Jobs may be returning to that 25 year-old dream which Apple can easily afford given its profitability and huge cash cache. The bigger question, though, is whether the plan bodes ill for Apple’s future as a company? Silicon Valley history suggests that such big building projects are not a good thing.

It is usually referred to as an Edifice Complex, this need for successful technology companies to plow huge amounts of cash into elaborate over-designed building projects. Borland, Exodus, Excite@Home, Netscape, WebTV, SGI, Palm and Yahoo all built ultra-modern state-of-the-art office and lab complexes shortly before they went into decline or dropped out of business entirely. Borland spent $90 million on an amazing development in Scotts Valley that never completely opened, the company crashed so fast. SGI’s striking campus today houses the best-known pieces of Google, the search giant getting credit for Jim Clarke’s architectural vision.

Only Oracle with its silver cylinders in Redwood Shores seems to have been able to defeat the build-then-fade syndrome which goes far beyond the list of companies in my last paragraph.

It’s not clear exactly what kind of corporate hubris makes this happen, but almost every dramatic corporate HQ in the Bay Area that was originally owned, not rented, tends to have been built by a company that no longer exists. Maybe they were too busy building to keep minding the store. Whatever the case, its enough to tell me that real estate is probably a bad investment for any high tech company.

When I last worked at Apple in the early 1980s the only building the company actually owned was a fiberglass barn erected in a farmer’s field back in rural Pescadero, CA used to test Apple products for FCC compliance. And then Jobs bought Coyote Valley followed shortly thereafter by the end of his first career.

Maybe this new HQ is not such a good idea, Steve.