The Outdated Thinking Behind Apple’s New Headquarters

Apple's futuristic new building is neither a new concept nor a progressive innovation.

Apple's New Headquarters in Cupertino

Judging by the artists’ impressions, Apple’s new campus in Cupertino will be stunning to look at, but only from one specific vantage point. The most popular publicity renderings have one thing in common; the building is viewed from the air.

The enormous donut-shaped ‘spaceship’ building is somewhat like the Pentagon near Washington, or Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), home of the UK intelligence services.  All of these buildings have a few common traits. They are all home to secretive organizations that are quite particular about their security, they are all isolated from surrounding communities, and they all look great from the air.  Look at them from ground level though, and they are not so impressive.  Indeed one would need to actually visit GCHQ to see what it looks like from the ground since just about every available photograph of the place in a Google image search is an aerial shot. From the street, the Pentagon looks as dull as any office block that would not look out of place in Soviet Russia. This is unsurprising since these buildings were designed to be admired by frequent flyers only, and with little consideration for how they look to the ground-based viewer. Apple most definitely does not want any neighbors admiring its handiwork since the building will be stashed behind a man made forest of 7,000 trees. The building itself will only occupy 20 percent of the site. In contrast to New York where towers rise unashamedly and unapologetically into the air in full view, this practice of treating buildings as an embarrassing blight to be hidden behind trees is common in much of Silicon Valley’s uninspiring vanilla architecture.

Planned Utopia

An example of this aerial photography-oriented architecture on a larger scale is the built-from-scratch city of Brasilia, a place that has garnered both acclaim and criticism for its utopian design.  Brasilia may be stunning to look at from your window seat after you stow your tray table and bring your seat upright, however at ground level it becomes a very different experience. The separation of pedestrians and motor vehicle traffic all sounds very safe and sensible, and the vast distances between buildings looks beautiful from afar, but from the point of view of the citizen trying to make use of the space it is an empty, barren, desolate landscape in which everything is so spread out that the car becomes the only feasible way of getting around.  The vibrant energy of the city street is completely absent. Anti-urbanist cities like Brasilia are a triumph of form over function.

In the UK in the 1960s there was a spate of construction of “new towns”, settlements designed from scratch, using the then fashionable ideas of urban planning in which amenities would be zoned and partitioned off in their neat clusters that would be separated from each other but linked by fast and efficient transport systems, mostly oversized sweeping roads that would be occupied by only a handful of cars at any one time, each powered by cheap gasoline. Milton Keynes in the south of England was one of the more successful experiments, but others did not work out so well.  Cumbernauld in Scotland has a “town center” consisting of a massive brutalist concrete shopping mall on stilts with a high speed expressway running underneath. Craigavon in Northern Ireland allows uninterrupted driving through dozens of roundabouts and tree-lined roads, but people are invisible since the roads are all isolated from where pedestrians are able to venture. The UK’s “new towns” experiment is today largely regarded as a failure.

Planned communities like these were products of a time when the settlement of the future was imagined as a tranquil garden city, a vast park with high towers jutting into the sky every so often and giant roads linking everything. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo soon put a stop to that way of thinking.

New Old Urbanism

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a seminal work that has become something of a bible for “new urbanist” advocates, a movement that pushes for a return to the basics of how cities were built for the thousands of years of civilization that existed before the invention of the automobile. Since earliest times cities were always organic entities that grew seemingly chaotically, their form dictated by the needs of the people living there on a spontaneous street-by-street and building-by-building basis. However Jacobs managed to see through the chaos and spot the patterns that made cities so successful.

Large open spaces look great on a planner’s drawing, but in practice they isolate people from one another, defeating the original purpose of a city. A large urban park far away from any buildings becomes a dangerous place at night, whereas a smaller park opposite a row of houses presents no such problems. A bicycle path running through a wooded area looks on paper like a paragon of tranquility, but in practice its isolation makes it off-limits to many people traveling alone, particularly women and particularly at night. The presence of windows overlooking the street has a positive influence on how people behave, giving people more confidence to walk along the street, even alone and at night. The presence of other people doing likewise makes the street safer still. Narrower streets are more easily traversed, and buildings that are not set back from it bring everything to within convenient walking distance. For those who do drive, a parking lot used by office workers in the day is used by people going to the movies at night, but mixed uses on the same block mean that more people can live, work, play, and get their groceries without having to use a car. Human interaction is encouraged and enhanced. The mutual proximity of citizens performing a variety of functions is what gives cities their strength.

Conversely, single-use zoning ordinances that were introduced in the post-war planning craze have forced people to drive just about everywhere just to get through a typical day.  Wider roads and buildings pushed farther away from each other by desolate parking lagoons make it all but impossible to walk anywhere. A giant parking lot in an office park becomes deserted at night while another single-purpose parking lot surrounding a movie theater is jammed by people looking for a free space. People have been isolated from each other, and the vibrancy of the city is lost.

There is a growing awareness that the single-use zoning norms of the 1960s were a mistake, and that suburban sprawl is not the result of the all-American free market in action. It is a result of numerous deliberate, if well-intentioned government policies designed to promote a certain lifestyle at the expense of others and to enforce conformity in urban planning. Zoning laws, tax incentives for home-buying, and the unbelievably naive belief that adding more traffic lanes will ease traffic, have all combined to the point where America’s inefficient land-use has turned it into the world’s largest consumer of oil, gobbling up a staggering 25 percent on behalf of 5 percent of the world’s population. The geopolitical repercussions of this oil dependency have been catastrophic.

Apple’s new headquarters are a last gasp of that era. It is an echo of a time when buildings were thought to be something that should be hidden behind trees, rather than standing proudly in the street and participating fully in civic life. It is the product of the imagination of a man who was a child of suburbia, and did not grow up experiencing the buzz of the traditional city in which creativity really thrives.

Undoing the Damage

Perhaps the supreme irony is that Apple employees have by and large rejected the kind of suburbia epitomized by the spaceship building in favor of living in traditional high density little streets, the nearest vibrant city of note being San Francisco.  Each day a huge chunk of the company’s workforce is ferried from the old city along Interstate 280 by a fleet of air-conditioned private buses, a one hour trip.

The city of Cupertino has come around to seeing the need for a vibrant urban core. A few blocks away from the new Apple campus, a high density mixed-use development is taking shape that will finally give the city a walkable central business district. The city fathers undoubtedly hope that this will be enough to attract at least some more Apple type employees to live in Cupertino, aided by its proximity to Apple and negating the need for the long commute from San Francisco.

Apple’s cohesiveness has always been a strength, but its insularity has also been a potential weakness. If the company’s workforce lives in a vibrant and diverse environment, then its creativity will continue to flourish, but it will not be because it spends the day in the giant donut-shaped isolation bubble.  It will be because it spends its evenings and weekends being exposed to the kind of cultural and social vitality that can only be found in the traditional urban setting that Steve Jobs did not seem to embrace.