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The one that got away

An architecture critic reflects on Apple Park, the most-hyped building of 2017

Dan Frommer

If I were allowed to visit Apple Park, the first thing I would do is take off my shoes.

In the most famous photographs of Steve Jobs, he sits, shoeless and cross-legged, on the hardwood floor of his Menlo Park bungalow, lit by the glow of a Tiffany lamp. The implication is simultaneously that he is above material things and that only the best will do. Why have an ugly sofa for the sake of having a sofa? Particularly when you have such a nice floor.

Barefoot, you feel the world through your feet. You are far more connected to texture, to transition, to temperature, without resorting to running your fingers along a wall, or leaving sweaty handprints on pristine surfaces.

Apple Park, so they say, has been designed to be seamless: the office building is a circle; the Hilltop Theater, a glass cylinder; the four-story, 440,000 pound glass doors slide noiselessly; a white-tile tunnel takes you to your car. Once you’re inside, nothing should interrupt your progress or disrupt the view. Glass fins protect the glass walls from unsightly streaking.

Dan Frommer

The triumph of Apple Park, it would seem, is in these obsessive details, which elevate it above the common sorrows of architecture (that concrete pour that went wonky, that threshold that won’t lie flat) and into the realm of product design. Small things can be perfect, big things cannot, they are just too much. Unless, it seems, you have the money of Jobs.

In 2017, I wanted to experience this mirage for myself. But so far, Apple has let in journalists only to ooh and aah, not to pick or contextualize. They want you to admire the glass back of the new iPhone 8 but not drop it.

I would take this highly aesthetic approach, the soft creep of the connoisseur, because the obvious critique of Apple Park—using a macro lens—was already written before the campus opened its ultra-clear doors. It is retrograde. It is anti-urban. It is greenwashed. It may even be bad office politics. From the moment Jobs presented his spaceship to the Cupertino City Council, the Spielbergian rendering produced a series of appraisals that the construction of the real object has done nothing to overturn.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Absent an invitation, critics have taken Apple Park to task from afar, relying on the renderings, the drone videos, the rumors. And the chorus is not saying anything different than what I and many others (including Paul Goldberger, Christopher Hawthorne, and Mimi Zeiger) have been saying for years. One might also dip into architectural historian Louise Mozingo’s excellent book, Pastoral Capitalism, on where low-lying modernist office parks come from.

It is deeply boring to rewrite oneself. It is also deeply boring to have a building present itself, on the surface, as no different from its six-year-old rendering.

I wrote about this phenomenon in 2011, just after Jobs’s initial announcement of the project:

Apple's ring reminds me of something else. And it isn't the future. It is 1957. That was the year Skidmore, Owings & Merrill completed the Connecticut General Life Insurance Headquarters in Bloomfield, a suburb of Hartford. Sure, it is a box rather than a ring, but the concept is strikingly similar: an inward-looking, hermetic, heterotopic corporate world. An architecturally distinguished, technologically advanced retreat from the city, one complete enough to include its own grounds, its own restaurant, its own artworks, its own store, its own bowling alley, and its own clubs. Employees weaned from urban life by recreating its social qualities outside the city. But obviously, for employees only.…

My colleague Alissa Walker asked (and so far the answer to all of her questions is “no”):

Is Apple going to make the grounds open to the public so they can enjoy the fifty billion trees that he’ll be planting? Will there be any kind of programming in the new auditorium that can expose the next generation to careers in technology and science? Could you share your awesome private transit system with the public?

Dan Frommer

A few months later, in 2012, I went out to Silicon Valley to experience the current state of Apple urbanism for myself. Apple declined all my requests for a tour or comment, so I just showed up on their doorstep at One Infinite Loop.

On Infinite Loop, the company’s power center resides in six buildings in stentorian atrium modern, each one split down the middle by a multi-storey, skylit passage leading to a shared courtyard. They look separate … In reality they are already a loop within a loop. Foster + Partners’s ring-like Apple 2 campus may be a reinterpretation and aestheticization of a spatial pattern that already exists.

In the Apple Company Store I contemplated buying a t-shirt that said: “I visited the Apple campus. But that’s all I am allowed to say.” Except the t-shirt wasn’t a joke.

Besides its anti-urban singularity, the other aspect of Apple Park that attracted attention was its park: the landscaped ring of trees around the architecture that buffered it from the traffic on the multi-lane roads all around it.

Here again we must turn to Jobs mythology: Jobs worked at a communal apple orchard in Oregon in his early twenties, supposedly inspiring the name of his company and the desire to turn Cupertino back into the fruited paradise it once was. He hired arborist David Muffly to select the 9,000 trees for the 175-acre campus (the landscape design is by OLIN). But again, the park is private, closer to the British than the American meaning of the word, as well as deeply nostalgic.

The green corporate campus is also a retro idea, one from the 1970s, a decade after Connecticut General. From 2014:

Two recent dispatches from the frontiers of office design: a drone video of the vast circular excavations for Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters, and the news that Weyerhaeuser, the tree- and forest-products company, was selling its own earthwork-like 1971 building to move to Pioneer Square, in downtown Seattle. These projects have more in common—for better and for worse—than you might think. Weyerhaeuser (shrinking) is giving up the suburbs of Federal Way, Washington, for the dream of urban connection, even as growing companies drape themselves in vines to make their out-of-town locations seem like the earth-friendly choice.…

The crucial difference is communication with the outside world. In the 1971 version, Weyerhaeuser’s grounds, including a botanical garden, were open to the public, along with trails for hiking and running. The pastoralism was not for badge-wearing employees alone, and the symbolism could be experienced with your own eyes, not just via drone. Instead, Apple Store visitors get trees centered in leather-covered ottomans designed, at least in the new Brooklyn store, only for perching. The benches are too hard, and too high, to comfortably settle in.

Perhaps Apple aspires to the same corporate benevolence—but I’ll never know unless I make it past the orchard’s edge.

Dan Frommer

What has been presented to the public is the equivalent of cooing over the iPhone’s form factor, when what is actually revolutionary about the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad is how they feel (the freedom of the touchscreen, the liberation from the button) and how they work, skeuomorphism and all. When I read about the leather seats in the Steve Jobs Theater, all I could think of was the digital stitching on the iPhone first generation icons. Likewise, descriptions of the distressed stone and timber veneers used on the interiors of Apple Park, the sabi to the wabi white, also reminds me of those denatured digital materials, nature made regular to fit the grid.

Finally, as I wrote of the Apple aesthetic last year:

The pinched end of my MacBook gives the visual illusion of levitating. My Apple monitor floats on its bent-aluminum stand. The corners of my overlarge iPhone draw no blood. Their collective uncolor stands in contrast to everything else in my house, and their material imparts a subtle sense of luxury. Thorstein Veblen wrote, over a century ago, about the handmade silver spoon, free of decoration, as a symbol of "inconspicuous consumption." The iPhone, as a luxury that seems to be everywhere, partakes of the same soothing, shiny uniformity. Only the maker knows what’s under the hood.

What should be interesting about the headquarters is how it works—the pressing question for the work environment of today: Does it foster more creativity, more wellness, less friction, less stress? Could the perfected environment make us, as workers, better? That’s a software question rather than a hardware one, unanswerable without some time and space to pad and poke and push—to assess the interaction design.

Dan Frommer

Jonathan Ive would seem to agree, but only for an exclusive audience. “We didn’t make Apple Park for other people,” Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive told an audience at the Hirshhorn Museum last month. “And so a lot of the other criticisms I think are utterly bizarre—because it wasn’t made for you. And I know how we work, and you don’t.”

In time, maybe Apple will release a beautifully graphic designed report, with lots of ring-shaped pie charts, showing how much has been spent, how much saved in their park. We can ooh and ahh over the charts.

I still think I could learn more walking around barefoot.

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