Courtesy Apple

Most press coverage of the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., designed by Foster + Partners, has not been kind. There are stories about people bumping into glass walls, and employees complaining about the open-plan offices. Why are the parking garages so big, the critics have complained? Why is the building so isolated from its surroundings? “There’s too much that makes [the project] incredibly backward thinking (and not just its lack of child-care facilities),” wrote Allison Arieff in The New York Times. The media reporting was necessarily second hand because, with the exception of Steven Levy, who wrote a long piece for Wired, no journalist has actually visited the place. My own request was politely turned down. “We’re not hosting any tours at the moment,” I was told. “You’re more than welcome to stop by the Visitor Center and see the augmented reality experience of the campus.” Augmented reality? That wasn’t very helpful. But if I couldn’t see the real thing, I could at least talk to someone who had.

The landscape architect Laurie Olin, Hon. AIA, has spent the last seven years working on what has become known as Apple Park. (Full disclosure: Olin is a University of Pennsylvania colleague and we have written a book together.) The landscape did not get much attention in the early press coverage—partly because the planting was incomplete, partly because the reporting was based on drone views taken from 100 feet up in the air, and partly because the architecture critics were not that interested in what Alexandra Lange in Curbed called “the landscaped ring of trees around the architecture that buffered it from the traffic on the multi-lane roads all around it.” But according to Olin, the landscape was one of the things that was uppermost in Steve Jobs’ mind.

The ripple pool at Apple Park
Apple The ripple pool at Apple Park

Looking for the Next Olmsted
Olin was approached by Apple in the spring of 2011. By then, the Foster office had been working on the building for almost three years, but apart from a local arborist who had been advising on tree planting, no landscape architect had been appointed. Olin, whose firm is based in Philadelphia, flew out to Cupertino and met Jobs.

Olin recounted the meeting to me. “I’ve been looking for the young landscape architect who is the next Olmsted,” Jobs told him, referring to the great 19th-century park builder. Olin, who was 73 at the time, wasn’t sure how to respond and said something about Olmsted being unique. The name came up several times in their conversation. Olmsted had laid out the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, where Jobs lived, and Jobs referred repeatedly to Stanford’s Main Quad. At one point, after Jobs had talked about what he liked in a landscape, Olin asked him what sorts of things he didn’t like in a landscape. “Anything modern,” said Jobs. “But you’re the most modern person there is,” a surprised Olin replied. Jobs didn’t elaborate; he just threw his hands up in the air and repeated, “Anything modern.”

A view from the oval of the Main Quad at Stanford University; Olmsted designed the campus's master plan
King of Hearts A view from the oval of the Main Quad at Stanford University; Olmsted designed the campus's master plan
Stanford’s campus (the Main Quad is immediately below the green oval)
Aerial Archives Stanford’s campus (the Main Quad is immediately below the green oval)

When Olin met Jobs, the 56-year-old business magnate was undergoing treatment for cancer—he would die in October of that year. Olin describes their relationship as “a brief encounter, but very intense.” They met in Jobs’ home—his medical condition prevented him from going to the office—and one of the first things that Olin noticed was a large portfolio of Ansel Adams landscape photographs on a table in the living room. Jobs, who was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, fondly recalled the apple orchards of his youth. Olin was impressed by Jobs’ deep knowledge of the local landscape, for he himself was no stranger to northern California. He had grown up in Alaska and studied architecture in Seattle, but he had done his military service at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay, and later had worked on many projects in the Bay Area, most recently the master plan for Mission Bay in San Francisco.

Olin’s firm got the Apple commission. At Jobs’ suggestion, Olin himself moved to Palo Alto for four months. This was an opportunity not only to familiarize himself with the project and the site but also to revisit the many landscapes of northern California, both natural and manmade: oak forests and orchards, grazing lands and meadows, pine groves and gardens. He and Jobs determined that the landscape of the site would function as a retreat for Apple employees, and the design would be guided by two main principles. “Health, in terms of mental and physical stimuli and ecology, and the regional landscape of northern California, in terms of history, fact, and myth,” Olin says. He stresses that Apple Park is a representation of this landscape, not a copy. This was one of Olmsted’s great discoveries: that parks could be designed like landscape paintings, but whereas the painter used oil paint as a medium, the park builder used nature itself. This conflation of medium and content has been a source of confusion for the public ever since. Park-goers assume that a landscape such as Central Park is “natural” because it is created using natural means, whereas in reality the park is as manmade as one of Albert Bierstadt’s monumental canvases of Yosemite.

A sketch by Laurie Olin of the Apple Park central garden
Laurie Olin A sketch by Laurie Olin of the Apple Park central garden

In the same way, Apple employees walking to the auditorium or the fitness center, or jogging on the trails surrounding their new workplace, may well imagine that they are surrounded by “nature,” whereas in fact the hilly topography of Apple Park is entirely manmade. When Apple acquired the property, which Jobs remembered from his childhood as an apricot orchard, it was perfectly flat, a Hewlett-Packard office campus. Once the buildings, access roads, and parking lots were removed, the site was turned into a park—at 150 acres, a substantial one. The court inside the circular building alone covers 20 acres which, as Olin pointed out to me, is larger than the entire Stanford Quad.

The logistics of creating a manmade landscape are challenging. Apple Park required more than 8,000 new trees (some fully grown) and many more shrubs, which nurseries had to grow well in advance. The emphasis was on native plants, but anticipating a changing climate, the Olin team included non-native species that would better survive warmer summers, colder winters, and more serious storms. A 2.5-mile pipeline was built to enable irrigation with reclaimed water from a Santa Clara Valley treatment plant. In line with Jobs’ vision, hundreds of fruit trees were planted, not only apple orchards but also apricot, pear, plum, and cherry trees. (The harvested fruit will be served in Apple’s cafeteria.)

Meadows with grasses and wildflowers are usually planted from seed and take several years to establish; with Apple’s support, the Olin team built test plots and developed a method of planting some meadows with sod to jump-start the process. One of the landscape features initially proposed by Foster + Partners was a 160-foot-diameter circular pool in the court. Olin decided to make what he calls a “ripple pool,” and his firm developed a mechanism that created a tiny concentric wave motion over the surface of the water. “Apple being Apple, they decided to build a full-size mock-up of a portion of the pool to study different kinds of pebbles and wave effects,” he told me. He pointed out that unlike the extensive landscapes of the suburban corporate parks of the 1960s, which were chiefly decorative—designed to be looked at—the Apple landscape was designed to be used: 2 miles of walking paths, bicycling and jogging trails, sitting areas beside the pool, and two freestanding terrace cafés in the interior court.

Clips from a recent Apple commercial
Apple Clips from a recent Apple commercial

If you’re not an Apple employee you can get a partial idea of the ground-level experience of the place from a recent Apple commercial filmed on the property: a young woman sprints through the building, splashes across the shallow ripple pool, and runs up a long meadow to breathlessly deliver a suitcase to CEO Tim Cook as he prepares to unveil a new Apple product. All the people in the video are company employees—Apple Park is not open to the public, although with 12,000 individuals using the site it’s not exactly private either. Olin, who has designed large public parks, including the 445-acre Hermann Park in Houston, reminds me that Olmsted’s final project was a private park, the immense Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. Apple may not be Olin’s last project but there is another parallel: like Biltmore, it is a personal meditation on the art of landscape design by a seasoned master.

The visitor center at Apple Park
Courtesy Apple The visitor center at Apple Park

An Unfortunate Meme
Back in 2011, when Steve Jobs presented the plans for Apple’s new headquarters to the Cupertino City Council, he showed an aerial view of the vast circular building. “It’s a little like a spaceship landed,” he joked. The metaphor stuck and became a meme—but not in a good way. Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times mentioned the project’s “futuristic gleam” but found it “a doggedly old-fashioned proposal” and compared it unfavorably to the suburban corporate architecture of the 1960s and ’70s. “Buildings aren’t spaceships,” wrote Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, in The New Yorker. He questioned the scale of the design and found it “troubling, maybe even a bit scary.”

I asked Olin what he thought of Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA’s building. “There are some architecture firms that could do a project of this size but not as refined, and there are firms that could produce as refined a design but could not handle the scale,” he responded. “Foster is one of the few firms in the world that can do both.”

Olin describes the project as more like a piece of infrastructure than architecture. “It’s so large that you never see more than a small piece at a time.” This is where some of the criticisms miss the mark. Relying on aerial views, they describe Foster’s building as a gigantic flying saucer. But judging from the photos that Olin showed me, the ground-level perception is quite different: snatched glimpses of a continuous four-story curved glass façade among the trees, and in much of the large wooded site no views of the building at all. The chief experience on the site, both from outside and inside the building—whose circulation, at Jobs’ insistence, is along the glazed exterior—is of the landscape, a landscape composed of naturalistic elements. There are no grand axes, no allées or parterres, none of those stylish geometric curves that are so fashionable these days. Instead there are clumps of trees, rolling greensward, wildflower meadows, and functioning orchards.

A very Olmstedian landscape, or rather, Olinian. “Apple Park should end up as one of the most significant works of my career,” he emailed me. No small statement, coming from the designer responsible for the makeover of Bryant Park in New York, the gardens of the Getty Center, and the grounds of the Washington Monument.