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Critic's Notebook: Apple's new campus will be a retrograde cocoon

The proposed headquarters wraps its workers in a suburban setting, removing the feeling of a collective metropolitan realm.

September 10, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Apple Inc. has submitted a development proposal to replace existing office and research buildings to create its new Apple Campus 2.
Apple Inc. has submitted a development proposal to replace existing office… (Foster Partners / cupertino.org )

In early June, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made what amounted to an extended architectural sales pitch when he appeared before the City Council in Cupertino to present the details of a planned new headquarters for the company he co-founded in 1976. Jobs showed renderings of a sleek, glimmering building, ring-shaped and four stories high, set gently into a lush green landscape.

The members of the council found the pitch persuasive, to say the least. ("The word 'spectacular' would be an understatement," one said.) As Gawker put it, their enthusiastic, borderline sycophantic reaction was proof that "politicians respond as readily to Jobs' techniques as computer geeks."

You can understand why the city, especially in this economy, would want to maintain the happiest of relationships with Apple, based in Cupertino on a parcel of land — known as the Infinite Loop campus — less than a mile west of the new headquarters. Still, had the members of the council been in an even slightly more inquisitive mood, there are a number of questions they might have asked Jobs about the forthcoming building, which will hold 12,000 Apple employees. The piece of architecture he was describing for them, after all, is practically bursting with contradictions.

Though the planned building has a futuristic gleam — Jobs told the council "it's a little like a spaceship landed" — in many ways it is a doggedly old-fashioned proposal, recalling the 1943 Pentagon building as well as much of the suburban corporate architecture of the 1960s and '70s. And though Apple has touted the new campus as green, its sprawling form and dependence on the car make a different argument.

Now that Jobs, who underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant two years ago, has announced he is stepping down as Apple CEO, the new headquarters building has taken on the symbolism of an architectural curtain call. It is the last of Apple's products that Jobs — whose influence on contemporary design is wide-ranging and justifiably celebrated — is likely to help shape. As such it seems ripe for the kind of analysis that he and the company are eager to forestall.

One question the council members might have asked Jobs is simple: Who's your architect? Jobs likes to promote the notion that he is personally involved in designing virtually all of Apple's buildings — including the impressive Apple retail stores that first opened in 2001 and were largely produced by the architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. In his appearance before the City Council he said Apple had "hired some great architects to work with — some of the best in the world, I think." But he never mentioned the high-wattage name of Norman Foster or the London firm Foster + Partners, whose logo is stamped on the preliminary plans for the campus. (Those plans are available for download on Cupertino's website, cupertino.org.)

It is a measure of Jobs' tight grip on Apple's reputation for in-house design innovation that even after hiring a celebrity architect like Foster he would keep that architect's name under wraps; even now, three months after Jobs took the plans public in that council meeting, the Apple press office refuses to confirm that Foster + Partners indeed designed the project.

In a broader sense, the council might have engaged Jobs in a conversation about the role this massive proposed building — holding 2.8 million square feet of interior space — promises to play in Cupertino's civic future. When the designs first surfaced online, and a few critics noted their strikingly detached and anti-urban character, defenders of Apple responded by saying that those comments suggested a misreading of Silicon Valley's history.

That's a fair point: The legendary 1939 founding of Hewlett-Packard happened in the garage of a single-family house on a quiet street in Palo Alto, and in fact Apple bought the land for its new campus from that company. Jobs spent much of his childhood in Cupertino. Apple, even more than most high-tech companies, makes products lusted over by young urbanites around the world from deep within a quiet, low-rise realm, far from any skyscraper or subway line. Its Infinite Loop campus, like most Silicon Valley headquarters, is a relatively undistinguished collection of modestly sized buildings.

The more interesting question is whether a place like Cupertino can maintain its low-density sprawl in future decades, as the Bay Area's population continues to grow, and whether the council's enthusiasm for the new Apple headquarters can be read 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.

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