The Apple HQ: Modernism on Valium
Renderings for Apple's new building.Photo: ZDNet
If the iPad was a building, what would it look like? Apple seems to have given its own answer to that question last week with the unveiling of the new company headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. With his customary bravura, Steve Jobs revealed to his neighbors in a City Council meeting—a giant saucer sitting on 150 acres. Of course, what else could it be? With his equally customary reticence, he did not tell the world much more beyond that. We know that he structure will be four stories tall, be as green as an office building can be, house 12,000 employees, and have all the kinds of goodies you would expect in any self-respecting Silicon Valley HQ. That is about it, except for the fact that it will be designed by Norman Foster.
What we can see in the rather blurry renderings is a circular building sitting in a landscape of what I assume are the ubiquitous California scrub oaks. It seems to be a glassy and gleaming thing, this new Apple Mega-Pod. Extrapolating from Foster’s other work, including the nearby labs at Stanford University, you can expect the kind of building Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill would have designed in their heyday: meticulously detailed, polished to within an inch of its life, modular and repetitive, and without any quirks, exceptions, or sense of human scale or presence.
Since I am making a habit lately of talking about buildings that aren’t here yet, let me just say that given what I have seen come out of Lord Foster’s mega-office in the last decade, I am pretty much sure I am going to hate this building as much as I love all my Apple paraphernalia. Yet Jonathan Ives and Foster seem like a logical match, at least in terms of aesthetics. Which does nothing so much as make me realize that, in falling for the gleaming, rounded, and machined world that Ives has spread out over computers, telephones, music devices and now the iPad, I have let myself be seduced by design that might not be as good as it could be. You could say that Ives is today’s Dieter Rams, but that great designer, like the old SOM, at least had a sense that technology was made of something, that you could manipulate it, and that it could become a constituent part of a modern environment. Apple is against all that existed before it or that is around it. It sinks in everything, including your wallet and your time, and gives only smooth functioning back. It is Modernism on Valium.
So it will be, I am pretty sure, with the Apple building. It sits in splendid, suburban isolation. You will never get in as an outsider, it will not be part of its environment, and it will pleasant in a soothing enough manner once you have agreed to enter its realm and give yourself over to its aesthetic.
Imagine what would have happened in Apple had instead found the few million square feet of space it needed in existing buildings and had renovated them into a campus. Imagine if it had done that in a location outside of Silicon Valley where such an act would be transformational. Imagine if its headquarters were integrated with a community. Imagine, in other words, if Apple World was as hip, urban, and connective as it would have us believe its products will make us be.
I would like to remind Apple of an old Silicon Valley law: the moment a fast-growing company abandons its cobbled-together shacks, garages, lofts, and renovated warehouses, and creates a purpose-built monument itself, that is the moment to sell its stock. Remember Silicon Graphics? Its headquarters is now the Googleplex. I can’t wait to see who will one day move into the abandoned spaceship from Planet Apple.