It isn’t often that a story comes along that combines my original profession, architecture, with my current, computers. This was one.
Steve Jobs arrived the day after Apple’s WWDC11 conference, with very short notice, at the Cupertino City Council meeting. No surprise, they added him to the agenda. His purpose? To display to the city council and the world, the plans for Apple’s new world headquarters. The new headquarters is a short distance from their current location in Cupertino, which is planned to remain open. Having seen many other developer-comes-to-the-city-council-for-approval occurrences, this one was refreshing in that both sides knew who had the power, and it clearly was not the city council. Succinctly put:
“I think we’ve found a way to stay in Cupertino. Since we’re your largest taxpayers, we thought you’d be happy about it.”
Steve Jobs explained that the company had long ago outgrew the roughly 2800 person capacity of its current headquarters and was having to lease or buy space at an ever-increasing distance away. In addition Jobs talked with pride about the design and materials of their stores, but that their headquarters wasn’t living up to Apple’s current image.
As seen in this image from Google Earth, the existing headquarters followed the ‘campus’ model that has been popular in suburban office park develoment for decades. The early tech companies wanted to give the feel of a college campus, thinking that it was the way to stave off ‘corporate rigidity’ and thus encourage creativity. However, you could also confuse the design with that of a community college or a hospital. Additionally, the design requires an ocean of surrounding parking.
The single ring structure will hold 12 thousand employees in 3.1 million square feet. With the exception of a parking structure along the freeway edge of the site all of the parking is moved underground, allowing the site to be densely covered in over six thousand trees. Steve Jobs boasted that there was not a single flat plane of glass in the building. But, with a diameter of roughly a third of a mile, would anybody notice if there were flat panes with a tiny fraction of one degree angle from one to the next? Jobs said that “it was not an inexpensive way to build’ which would seem to be the entire point. This is a building to project wealth and power, rather than simply contain workers. It is a Versailles surrounded by its gardens, except with a hall of windows rather than a hall of mirrors. It is the castle of the king of Silicon Valley.
Except castles, in addition to their walls and courtyards, have gatehouses to welcome the subjects into the realm of the castle. In contrast, Apple’s new structure has no gatehouse. This is a monastic cloister in glass and enamel. This is a fortress without an apparent entrance. It is the Pentagon. Actually measured by the length of the exterior perimeter it is larger than the Pentagon!
During my architectural training I remember hearing over and over from professors “How does this building relate to its neighbors?” Well it is pretty clear that this building deliberately and completely relates to them in absolutely no way whatsoever. All of those trees are a welcome infusion of nature, but it is equally clear that they are functioning as a way to shut the rest of the world from view in either in or out. For a company that often is thought to be a little to insular and cultish, this may not be the best public image or the best self-image. It is also sad to think that it might spawn a new generation of corporate architecture focused on isolating itself.
Maybe they should go back and adjust the design to give it a focus and to remind Apple that they are supposed to be a creative and imaginative company with a sense of humor. I suggest the following: