Behind the hoopla of the awkwardly named iPad, not much attention has turned to the pending redesign of the Apple stores. To be designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (who did all the by now canonical stores), the first of these will open in San Jose later this year. It will take the transparent look Apple has developed even further, and introduce such obviously necessary amenities, such as, uh, trees. It will be, according to Apple, “a commons for the applicants’ community to gather.”
Now, “commons” is a pretty heavy word for a retail establishment. It refers to the unfenced meadows of pre-industrial revolution England, where everyone was free to let their sheep roam. The fencing in of these areas in the second half of the 18th century, which was replicated in the United States in the late 19th century (leading to intense warfare between farmers and cowboys), was a victory for capitalism. Apple is thus laying claim to a communitarian tradition with deep roots and a rather romantic sensibility—and this for a company that asks you to spend hundreds of dollars for almost nothing.
During the announcement of the iPad today, the New York Times’ David Carr commented that “The gadget itself is transparent, a window into software.” The object disappears. And so does the store. That disappearing act has been going on for a while, both on the object and in the store. Starting about a year ago, Apple began doing away with all the remaining objects in their outlets that still made them look like, well, stores. No more cases displaying objects, no more counters with salespeople, no more nooks for different products. Instead, there is now only the transparent façade, with its floor-to-ceiling glass, which allows you to look through into a rectangular, uninflected box whose only distinguishing feature is the backlit Apple icon on the front window or the back wall.
Sales are performed on EasyPay pads the roaming staff carries with them, product appears from the back, and the only remaining accoutrements are wood veneer tables on which demonstration products sit. You can lean on them if you want some reassurance, and if you really want a receipt, one will appear from a little printer hidden under the tabletop.
The table is the commons writ small. It is a version of the common work surface that is becoming all the rage in workplaces in Europe. It derives from the hollow core door designers used to prop up on sawhorses as their drafting surface, and is meant to be the ultimate neutral surface on which you can work, relax, or socialize. The technology is mobile (laptops and iPhones), as is the espresso, and the organization that works around the surface is becoming more and more flat, virtual, and evanescent as well. Only the horizontal neutral plan remains to receive and disseminate information, social relations, and economic production.
The table in the Apple Store is the spatial equivalent of the touchscreen, the disappearing surface that mediates (for once, that word is appropriate) our relationship with an invisible technology that, in turn, pretends to be a commons but is in fact a highly charged and highly charging piece of private property. The true commons of the internet is being replaced by the iTunes stores. Let 100,000 apps bloom; they will all lead to a digital revolution owned by Apple.
But isn’t it beautiful, that almost nothing? Isn’t it what we always wanted? Isn’t the Apple store almost as good as the Barcelona Pavilion? No, not quite. But it is as close as we will get to the open space that modernism always promised us. It is an illusion of a commons, an almost nothing that shimmers with the tantalizing allure that only capitalism seems to be able to produce.