The reviews of Apple's proposed headquarters in Cupertino, California, are coming in, and they're the opposite of the accolades that the company's consumer products receive.
Though plenty of people are ecstatic about the iPod and the iPad, few knowledgeable individuals are impressed with Apple's facilities planning, which seems decades out of date. Architecture critics such as Alan Hess at the San Jose Mercury News and Christopher Hawthorne at The Los Angeles Times have recently given the headquarters—a gigantic glass donut of a building—a much-deserved drubbing.
Steve Jobs, before he stepped down as Apple's CEO, released renderings of the building, which is to have four-story walls of glass that curve continuously to form an enormous circle, over four stories of underground parking. The perimeter of the 150-acre property is to be fenced to keep the public away.
"It's a little like a spaceship landed," The Times quoted Jobs as saying of the building, which is intended to hold 12,000 employees and have its own power plant, fueled by natural gas. Jobs expressed pride that Apple had chosen the design despite the fact that a curved building "is not the cheapest way to build something."
But why, in the second decade of the 21st century, would a company choose to erect a building that reminds us of spaceships from corny movies produced in the 1950s? And why would a high-tech employer want to isolate its workplace from everything except nature—this at the very time when knowledge workers in their twenties and thirties are demonstrating a strong desire for stimulating urban settings?
Some aspects of the choice surely reflect the predilections of the architect, Foster + Partners. Norman Foster's firm, though celebrated, has repeatedly paid inadequate attention to human scale and urban context. About a mile from where I live in New Haven, Yale University is now erecting a glassy new home for the School of Management. That project, Edward P. Evans Hall, incited vociferous community opposition because of its giant scale and because of the refusal to use materials that would complement traditional brick buildngs nearby. Many New Haveners complained that it was gargantuan, but Yale used its clout to overcome zoning restrictions and a public outcry. The university was going to have a building by the famous Londoner, by golly.
Hess, who has often written appreciatively about Modern buildings, finds much that's troubling about Foster and the Apple headquarters. He noted in his Mercury News appraisal that not far up the road from Cupertino stands another Foster building, Stanford University's Clark Center. Though "impressive visually," that building from 2003 "is uncomfortably proportioned and out of human scale," in Hess's estimation. "The exaggerated height of each floor and the aggressively sharp airfoil sunshades hovering overhead would make it a great sci-fi movie set, but not necessarily a great place to work or study."
Foster repeats many of his motifs. That is an architect's prerogative, but it's unfortunate when the motifs are at odds with the qualities that make a building humanly appealing. Fortaleza Hall, a recent Foster building for Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, is, Hess pointed out, another example of a structure that's out of sync with a neighbor—in this case the beloved Johnson Wax buildng that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1936.
If I seem to be harping on Foster, it's because he has such high standing in the architectural world. The faults that mar too many of his buildings reveal the peculiar defects in the dominant architectural culture of our time. But an architect is powerless without a client, and at Apple, corporate desires are at odds with the making of satisfying, walkable communities.
Some might argue that Silicon Valley has never been about dense, walkable settings; it's been a low-rise region heavily dependent on the automobile. But places evolve. They must. The old patterns of development are becoming dysfunctional—wasting too much fuel and too much of people's time, while failing to deliver sufficiently convivial environments.
Hawthorne, in his Times piece, nails this issue. The interesting question, he says, "is whether a place like Cupertino can maintain its low-density sprawl in future decades, as the Bay Area's population continues to grow." The Cupertino City Council's eagerness to accommodate the proposed Apple headquarters "can be read," he says, "as an endorsement of a car-dependent approach to city and regional planning that might have made sense in the 1970s but will seem irresponsible or worse by 2050."
Hawthorne traces the lineage of Apple's 2.8-million-square-foot stand-alone building, set in its private landscape, to a "pastoral capitalism" that Louise Mozingo of the University of California-Berkeley plumbs in a forthcoming MIT Press book by that name. For much of the postwar period, large, highly successful companies indulged themselves in a pursuit of expansive suburban campuses—places where a company could be alone, in a soothing expanse of nature.
The problem with that kind of corporate thinking, Mozingo argues, with Hawthorne's endorsement, is that it "precludes the concentration of population that makes public transportation feasible for governments and users."
Quite a few of the outlying business complexes built in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have suffered a loss of allure, as New Urban Network reported in June 2010. It's hard to convert a mammoth, stand-offish corporate compound to use by multiple new, smaller users. A notorious example of this is the massive Union Carbide headquarters that was built in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1982. Union Carbide did not live much longer, and by 2007 the complex, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, was worth less than half what it had cost to construct it.
Apple may be making the same white-elephant mistake as Union Carbide. Even the dimensions of the park-like space inside the circle of the building are going to be unwieldy; Hess points out that "a one-third mile walk will be required to cross it from one meeting to another."
Is it possible for Apple to choose a more urban, flexible, open, and well-modulated means of housing its business? A traditional urban approach, in which a company erects a series of smaller buildings that are close together, yet capable of being converted to other uses as conditions change, could be a smarter concept for the long term.
One objection to what I'm suggesting is that many companies in technical fields feel they need a huge amount of privacy and security. They are intent on keeping outsiders away.
When I went a few years ago to see the New London, Connecticut, neighborhood where Susette Kelo was famously fighting to prevent the seizure of her home through eminent domain, I at one point shot a few photos of a big Pfizer pharmaceutical complex that was Kelo's new, privacy-obsessed neighbor. I was photographing with a cheap little Nikon from a public right-of-way, a considerable distance from the buildings, but in no time at all a security guard drove up and asked what I was doing. Big companies in fields like pharmaceuticals and electronics seem extremely anxious about potential threats to their operations.
Now we are entering a time in which corporate sprawl and removal from city and town streets are both bad public policy and at odds with the desires of much of the workforce. Is there some way that companies like these can achieve the security they need without being insistently, wastefully anti-urban? I don't know the answer, but I sense that Apple—in many ways an extraordinarily forward-looking company—is letting us down.
There's a new, more physically connected community trying desperately to come into being. We write about manifestations of this on New Urban Network day after day, month after month. It's a shame that some of the most dynamic and prosperous companies in America refuse to be part of the great social enterprise of our time.
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