Alexandra Lange | Essays

New Apple HQ, 1957

On Tuesday, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's latest seamless, white, glowing product before the Cupertino City Council: the company's proposed new headquarters, a four-story, glass-walled circular building intended to house 12,000 employees. "It's a little like a spaceship landed," Jobs said. And the blurry, sunstruck renderings (architect pointedly unspecified) did indeed remind me of early Spielberg.

But after marveling at the idea of an endless corridor of offices, and speculating on Twitter about which firm could handle all that curved glass, I realized Apple's ring reminded me of something else. And it wasn't the future.
It was 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 wnough 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.

Foster + Partners (the name most frequently suggested for the plans) seems like today's equivalent of SOM in the 1950s. Connecticut General had endless modular grids, Apple will have an endless spiral. Both transfer urban paradigms (Lever House, the Gherkin) to a suburban setting. Both use the latest building and communications technology. Jobs could do worse than to choose the contemporary equivalent of Isamu Noguchi, who designed the courtyards, to provide some corporate art. Noguchi did courtyards for one of SOM's own knock-offs of this plan, for IBM, expansionist in the 1960s, in Armonk. Another knock off, this time by John Bolles, is the founding building of Silicon Valley: IBM's Building 25 in San Jose.

Wouldn't it have been more radical for Apple to double down on an actual town? To act more like J. Irwin Miller in Columbus than CG chairman Frazar Wilde in Bloomfield. Miller hired Alexander Girard to spiff up Main Street, and masterminded adaptive reuse of the old storefronts to provide his employees and his neighbors what they needed in town. Cupertino leaders fell all over themselves in their desire to keep Apple's taxes in town, but wouldn't it be better to benefit from some of its knowledge and physical assets?

As Alissa Walker asked on Gelatobaby:
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? Would you be willing to help us with our own energy issues by teaching us how you’re making your own renewable power plant?
A recent New Yorker profile of John Lasseter and Pixar, once owned by Jobs, emphasized the importance for their corporate culture of chance encounters. But in these corporate motherships, and on these corporate campuses, those chance encounters are only employee to employee. What about chance encounters with the rest of the world? Apple's employees are already in a number of existing Cupertino buildings, and Jobs indicated the room for 12,000 in the ring would not be enough. A) This sounds like they are about to willfully create second-class citizens outside the ring and B) couldn't strategic architectural insertions, renovations, reuses be made in Cupertino or some other town so that Apple employess might still dwell among us?

The intent at Connecticut General was utopian. When it opened, civic leaders converged on the building as if it might provide the key to America's growing pains. And if it had been a one- or two-off it might have been OK. But the all-in-one model was too tempting, and corporations fleeing cities to their own boxes-on-stilts-on-100-acres emptied out downtowns. Finally, companies have realized it is in their interests to stay in the city. Why is Apple thinking different?

Posted in: Architecture, Business, Planning, Social Good

Comments [19]

I think you have to go out to Cupertino, breathe the orange blossoms mixed with diesel air and be in that space to understand..the east coast template of city vs suburbs—a la NYC vs Connecticut—really doesn't apply. There is no 'downtown' Cupertino. The current Apple campus is a lot closer to the ad hoc collection of buildings in an industrial park that is pretty much the standard of Silicon Valley. For those in their industry, downtown is kind of a mashup of the streets of Palo Alto leading to the Stanford campus and the far-off canyons of San Francisco, where they go for annual conferences. And yes, it does tend to be insular and secretive. (As is Pixar's compound in Emeryville.) I think there is, however, a power in staying in the place where you started—which is what they're doing....no matter what that place has become.

Most of these complaints come off as nothing more than urban snobbery. Your lifestyle isn't ideal for every person or every company. Apple thrives being in control of information, product releases, the market and the user experience. Seclusion is ideal for their corporate culture. Who are you argue that the corporate culture that leads to a company valuing in the billions should be changed? That's absurd. Most of the rest of this story is misplaced liberalism. Apple doesn't owe Cupertino, or anyone, anything. They built themselves through hard work and smart decisions. Let's keep government and the private sector as seperate as possible. There will be consequences if we don't.

Apple proud to announce their next
best OS soon in July http://oslioncomingsoon.blogspot.com/
janith ekanayake

I would suggest rolling this interesting analysis back to Sept 1941 and the ground-breaking of the Pentagon, a building that, in shape and mission, seems even more related to Apple's tightly sealed form and culture.

And, it cannot be ignored or dismissed as "urban snobbery": this is a supremely anti-urban building, a structure that promotes, celebrates, and depends upon sprawl - Ms. Lange's insight is dead-on, a critique that is independent of Corporate Policies (which, as thousands of corporations demonstrate, can be made to work in dense arrangements that include interaction with the public).

Which is not to say this design is inexplicable, only to suggest that there is nothing green or environmentally sound about the approach in comparison to an urban design.

But of course urban design is messy, inclusive, open, and adaptable to change by planners and users alike - all things Apple is most expressly hostile to.
Mr. Downer

It pays to watch the Cupertino city council presentation by Jobs.
I grew up around that area and I too had initial reactions like how will Apple give back to the "city", and who will use the parkland, etc.?
But, you know, Apple can do whatever it wants to do. It is a company and they make good stuff and they try their best to do the best at whatever it may be. Not all companies do that. Apple needs space. It has a good plan that saves land and reduces carbon emissions. No one can complain or has a right too.

Indeed, there is no there, there in Cupertino. It blends right in with Sunnyvale and San Jose (or whatever other towns it borders). Most of the office parks are nondescript cement walled blocks. Forget, for the most part, about walking (although, I am sure it has gotten somewhat better since I lived there). You need a car. So if Apple employees drive in or take the Apple bus from a transit hub or bike in, the design is pretty progressive for the area. It preserves much land, much more than is there now. It brings back native species but also a little history (the apricot orchards). It provides Apple with the kind of space it needs. Clearly, they have thought it out. As Jobs said, Apple pays the city taxes. If the city needs a park or a public space, use some of that money to build it or buy it.

Apple is also keeping its old campus, which it needs with expected growth.

Like a lot of things Apple does, I do not think this is anything like the Pentagon (surrounded by parking lots and roads) or Modernist Connecticut countryside campus plans (these were built more for the convenience of the executives than the workers).

The valley is hemmed in by mountains on one side, the bay on the other, and heading North it narrows and then does become more urban. To the South is another large city which is already filled and sprawling out south until more mountains appear. Apple wants to stay in the Bay Area and in Cupertino. That is a big deal when a company wants to stay in an expensive area. It shows they are thinking of the passion, the expertise, and the place needed to be innovative and less about cheap labor or land. (Kind of sounds like the reasons companies stay in New York, doesn't it?)

I wish more large American companies were this way.

Missed part of a sentence in fourth paragraph: “Like a lot of things Apple does” should go on to say “it is innovative, seems too simple, and might make some people wonder why, until they use it.”

I have to agree with jcburns that the East/Midwest concept of city vs. suburb does not apply here. If you've ever been in this area you know that the San Francicso penninsula is one 30-mile long "suburb" stretching from San Francisco to San Jose with not a legitimate downtown to be seen between them. Apple will not be any more isolated than it is already, which is to say, not. "Silicon Valley" is nothing more than a collection of small- to medium-sized municipalities whose proximity to Stanford University has fostered within and amongst them a technological incubator. There is no place more isolated withing this area than any other place.

Yes, the video illustrates the site as being some sort of utopian Eden but in reality the property is hemmed in on all sides with strip shopping centers, low rise business parks, condos, and single story houses. It is actually in the center of a vast urban sprawl.

I do appreciate that someone is at least questioning of the form of the building. As one who lives and works in Silicon Valley, I was curious about what Apple would build on that site when they first announced the land purchase a few years ago. I was kind of hoping for an urban village of some sort - higher density buildings tight to the streets with a lively row of restaurants and services perhaps. A company with Apple's design sense and resources could have made something spectacular.

There's no question that their proposal would serve Apple's corporate campus culture well, and I'm sure it will end up looking stunning. But I can't help wondering what could have been, by a change in form. (And I can't imagine how they are going to handle the traffic - Already it's complete gridlock around the existing knot of Apple's buildings in the mornings).
Kevin Perera

I agree that watching Mr. Jobs present to the city council is instructive - it is hard to imagine a more fawning audience, and the gentle, casual demeanor of Mr. Jobs in light of the genuflecting shows true restraint; one suspects he could have asked the mayor to kiss his feet and he would have obliged.

But I digress.

I fear the Pentagon example is more apt than other might care to acknowledge; as Steve-O himself admits, they'll still need surface parking to accommodate the 4,000lb machines each employee will bring, and the Pentagon also features the underground parking and independent power sources the Apple highlights as green features. Ringed by freeways and open space, they both have the spatial moat of expensive modernist housing, soccer stadiums or prisons - take your pick.

Imagine if, instead of a spaceship, Apple had proposed the equivalent space in the form of something that actually fought back against the sprawl - that those beautiful glass facades ("we know how to do glass from our retail stores") had been set up along the road and engaged the public. That might have spurred local businesses to set up cafes. That could have encouraged private industry of all sorts to support their activities.

Rather, they've proposed the equivalent of the soccer stadium with the good sense to hide the acres of parking below grade (a section thru the site will likely reveal multiple layers of concrete below all of that "landscape"); the crowds flow in, the crowds flow out, oompa loompa doompaty doo.

And, hey, Willy Wonka is free to do whatever he wants, and his chocolate bars are damn good, but even he came to realize that little Charlie Bucket's hovel had a level of civilization and humanity that all of his giant factory sorely lacked.
Mr. Downer

I know I am getting schooled on the facts on the ground in Cupertino (where I haven't been) and Silicon Valley (where I have), but I stand by my analysis of the building as an insular and ungenerous form. And I really want to know how the offices are to be organized.

Kevin Perera's comment about the possibility of an urban village sounds the closest to other models I imagined. BCJ, the architects of all those glassy stores, have done wonderful projects stringing high-tech cabins together and has experience with Pixar, urban projects and college campuses.

What about something that bridged this apparently unbridgeable gap between the urban and the rural and the sprawl? Steven says: "There is no place more isolated within this area than any other place." Joe says: "There is no there there." None of the descriptions of what it is like there convince me that adding to the status quo is a good thing.

There's an interesting tension in the negative comments between a libertarian position, Apple is beholden to no one, and a communitarian position, they should get credit for sticking close to their roots. I may not agree with either but I am happy to have sparked a discussion of this project beyond marvelling at the shape.
Alexandra Lange

Alexandra, it appears that Foster + Partners are indeed architects of the new Apple HQ. Of course the confirmation came from neither Foster nor Jobs, but it has finally reached credible mass with reports from the San Jose Mercury News (http://j.mp/l3hNlJ) and Chicago Tribune (http://j.mp/jwAJVS).

Like you, I think the design looks more retro than futuristic. Check out Gensler's GCHQ building constructed in 2003 for the British equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, a descendent of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park: http://j.mp/mGhnxa. The building is informally known as "The Donut." Phil Patton wrote a great article about it for I.D.
Julie Lasky

My first question is why does Apple need radical architecture? My second is who are we to tell Steve Jobs what it is to be radical?

The "ring" seems like a very Apple design to me. It appears to be a fully resolved and wholly contained object but in reality it is just an interface to a formless network. You could write an article about how because of Apple's technologies, this building is nothing like the Connecticut General Life Insurance Headquarters in Bloomfield. "Inward looking" behavior is just as likely in architecture that looks outward.

Compare this with what Amazon recently did in Seattle. By consolidating numerous buildings into a forgotten edge of the city core they have revitalized an entire neighborhood. Now restaurants, housing and new transit options are popping up daily and Seattle has a new destination neighborhood well on it's way.


How energy efficient is that thing? We can do buildings, offices included, that require no AC or heat. Does this one? Does it include photovoltaics on the roof? Does anyone care?

For efficiency ideas, go to RMI.org, where Amory Lovins, et al, outline great efficient building ideas that work today.

Jim Welke

Well written story, btw. Thanks!

my blog: http://www.completelybaked.blogspot.com
Jim Welke

Skyscrapers = too loaded with negative symbolism—top down thinking, ego, etc.

Suburban Compounds = the future. In 1957. But the urban sprawl phenomena has taken it's toll ever since.

hummm. What else is there...

This is a terrible use of space. It's not urban snobbery, like someone said, but useless sprawl. Apple should revitalize a decaying part of a city and inject much-needed capital into a dying area. Most importantly, employees can take public transit to work whether they live in the city or suburbs.

As a native east coaster currently living in LA, I find the sprawl of California cities to be reprehensible. Everything is too big and spread out. You need to drive everywhere. It's a waste of time and resources and it's destroying the environment.

MK's Amazon comment is perfect.

Great piece, noted in my own blog piece on this subject here:


Yetsuh Frank

My problem is not with the architecture, but the urbanism. Workers and residents in Silicon Valley have enormous carbon footprints, because of the attitude many have expressed here, namely "suburbs are good."

Old walkable suburbs can be good, and some parts of Silicon Valley have their charms (and enormous chunks do not), but it is practically the poster boy for the American way of life that we can no longer afford, unless we want to throw away the world of our children and grandchildren.

Official California policy is to lower auto use and carbon use. The Governator started that and Governor Moonbeam has expanded the policy. The Apple HQ could be a model development. I don't know the site well, but among the possible ideas are: tieing into the town center, which I've been told is not far away; improving and expanding the town center into a walkable center (which would benefit from hundreds or even thousands of units of housing built by Apple); and creating housing that Apple employees who are not at the top of the food chain could afford. Most Apple employees do not have large stock options and can not afford to live anywhere near the HQ - and there is no workable mass transit.

The company has a $76 billion cash reserve. They could afford make a model place - and it should be added that they could make money on that at the same time. There is an enormous demand in Silicon Valley for affordable housing.
john massengale

Jobs | July 19