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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

In its dedication to existing corporate landscape of Silicon Valley, the planned Apple headquarters is a classic example of what Louise A. Mozingo, in a book due out next month from MIT Press, calls "pastoral capitalism." Tracing the history of the postwar suburban corporate campus, Mozingo, an associate professor in the landscape architecture department at UC Berkeley, calls it very much a product of its era, symbolizing "a particular moment of American economic history" when our corporations were gaining in wealth and global reach and increasingly fleeing the city for the privacy and elbow room of the suburbs.

The rise of the corporate estate, she writes, also reflected the Jeffersonian mores of a nation that from its earliest decades loved "to turn its back on cities and stake a claim on the suburban pastoral idyll — isolated, proprietary, verdant, and disengaged from civic space." Those adjectives, of course, perfectly describe the planned Apple headquarters. There are unmistakable echoes in Apple's new building of the headquarters of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, in suburban New Jersey, a campus designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.

Even more than low-density tract housing, Mozingo argues, the pastoral corporate campus "precludes the concentration of population that makes public transportation feasible for governments and users." And even if suburbs like Cupertino decide to make tentative moves in the direction of greater density and better transit, the architecture of the corporate estate — the land it eats up and the automobile infrastructure it requires — helps fix in place land-use patterns that are tough to dislodge.

Mozingo wraps up her book with an extended critique of the mind-set that corporate architecture of this kind seems to promote. "If all you see in your workday are your co-workers and all you see out your window is the green perimeter of your carefully tended property," she writes, and you drive to and from work in the cocoon of your private car, "the notion of a shared responsibility in the collective metropolitan realm is predictably distant."

It's always dangerous to draw too neatly the distinction between the endlessly sprawling suburbs and the dense, vertical city; more and more the lines between the categories are blurred. The rise of Los Angeles over the last century is itself a powerful argument against the idea that low-rise development precludes the kind of vitality or diversity we associate with the most progressive cities.

Still, the new Apple campus, which the company describes as "a serene and secure environment" for its employees, keeps itself aloof from the world around it to a degree that is unusual even in a part of California dominated by office parks. The proposed building is essentially one very long hallway connecting endlessly with itself.

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