The Apple store on New York's Fifth Avenue
Flickr user Justin Brown The Apple store on New York's Fifth Avenue

Can architecture be copyrighted? Apple certainly thinks so, and has joined a number of other commercial enterprises in filing for, and receiving, protection for its distinctive retail environments.

Years ago, when I was a student, one of my teachers, an architect of few accomplishments but great intensity, tried to sue a fellow designer. My professor's supposed imitator had created a gridded façade for a bakery that he felt was too similar to a grid he had designed. This in turn mimicked, he said, New York’s (un-copyrighted) skyline, for a clothing store. He lost.

Years later, an architect called me into his office, showed me a rendering of a pair of conjoined skyscrapers a rival firm had designed, and set to arise above a European city. He then pointed to his own design for something vaguely—very vaguely—similar. “They’re copying me. It’s outrageous; You have to do something about it,” he practically screamed. There was nothing I could or wanted to do.

If Thomas Jefferson had a trademark on Monticello, his estate would be rich from the countless ersatz versions dotting suburbia. If Mies van der Rohe had only trademarked the Seagram building, just think of how many gridded slabs might have been too expensive—because of royalties—and would never have been built.

You cannot protect architecture as it appears in buildings. Unlike art, its realization is not only so complex, but so intertwined with social processes, that its final appearance is not autonomous. Like art, what comes out is an original that you might replicate, but cannot duplicate.

It is also difficult to know who came up with what. Who created the first grid? Jeffrey Kipnis gives amusing lectures showing the development and spread of architectural tics like the vertical S-curve you now see on developer buildings everywhere. Who first came up with it? MVRDV, OMA, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, or some unknown student? It doesn’t matter. What is important is how and why the trick is used. In the Educatorium by OMA, it works; In a building I saw in suburban Spain, it is a joke.

The Apple case is slightly different. The company has trademarked the glass cube as a retail entrance pavilion. Fair enough, that certainly has become one of their emblems, and the ruling’s wording still would let any architect use Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s technology and design refinements to create a cubical house or office space. Not good for the architect’s pocketbook and ego, but may be good for both Apple and any architecture that wants to be light and airy.

The company also has received protection for their store design, to wit empty spaces filled with plain wooden tables, painted white, with retail display on the side. This to me seems a bit more questionable, but I am sure that you could create, without too much trouble, quite a few offices or restaurants like that (it seems to me I have even been to a few, though, remarkably, they are so without affect I have forgotten them). Or, maybe if you wanted to do a store like Apple’s, you could just paint it pink?

What is more interesting to me is that Apple is protecting architecture as not just a Miesian “almost nothing,” but as something much closer to nothing. The entrance cube is empty, and its innovation is to make the structure disappear. The stores are even more of a radical answer to architecture as the expression of firmness, commodity, and delight. They are the translation of a real estate slot into a place where objects and people hover, connected through electronic transactions that produce bags of goods that appear after that exchange from some hidden area in the back and disappear beyond the transparent plane into the shopping mall or street.

What Apple has trademarked, in other words, is not some system of construction, manner of appearance, or spatial invention, but the denial of all three of those. 

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Image used via a Creative Commons License with Flickr user Justin Brown.

Note: This story has been updated since first publication to indicate that Apple trademarked, but did not patent, the store design.