Apple Park would have made Le Corbusier happy

And I don’t mean that in a good way

Jony Ive (supported by the ghost of Steve Jobs) carries the open office, anywhereism, airspace aesthetics of the modern workplace to their gleaming, rootless apotheosis in Apple Park.

Apple Park will be the high-water mark of a certain era of shiny, high-tech brutalism. A suburban mall writ large, set off by parking lots as large as the building space itself, divorced from anything like an organic integration into a larger community of people, and one which actively turns its back on millennia of urban experience.

I’m predicting more than griping from developers who want quiet space, but a deep hatred by everyone of the dreadful, wearying sameness imposed by a Borgesian labyrinth on a Star Wars scale [editorial comments mine]:

Christina Passariello | How Jony Ive Masterminded Apple’s New Headquarters

The desire for light and air, crossed with the need for enough density to house 12,000 employees, gave shape to Apple Park’s main building. Ive, tracing an infinity sign in the air, says they considered complex forms, including a trilobal design, a sort of giant fidget spinner. Ultimately they decided that only a ring shape could give the feeling of being close to the elements.

[And why is a ring shape ‘close to the elements’?]

The design called for four stories of office space, more than Ive had hoped, but few enough that “it means that you don’t need to use elevators, you can walk to visit people, you can walk for meetings,” he says. Blueprints and photos capturing the designs wallpaper a building across the street from the campus that serves as a headquarters for the construction project. (At the height of activity in February, 6,200 construction workers were on-site daily.) A diagram lays out where the different divisions will be located in the main building: The fourth floor will be home to the executive suites (including Ive’s design studio), the watch team and part of the group working on Siri, which will also occupy a fraction of the third floor. The Mac and iPad divisions will be interspersed with software teams on the middle levels.

[Of course the excutives are on top.]

Having settled on an overall shape, the team then broke it down into smaller parts. “One of the advantages of this ring is the repetition of a number of segments,” says Ive. “We could put enormous care and attention to detail into what is essentially a slice that is then repeated. So there’s tremendous pragmatism in the building.” The ring would be made up of pods — units of workspace — built around a central area, like a spoke pointing toward the center of the ring, and a row of customizable seating within each site: 80 pods per floor, 320 in total, but only one to prototype and get right.

[I guess sameness is a synonym for pragmatism.]

The first prototype was ready in the summer of 2010, with pictures of trees on either end of the central area to evoke the landscaping and proximity to the outdoors. Jobs himself set the precise dimensions of the openings from one end of the central area to the other. The team quickly discovered that early versions of the small offices on each side of the central area were noisy — sound bounced off the flat wood walls. Foster’s architects suggested perforating the walls with millions of tiny holes and lining them with an absorbent material. In the completed section of workspace, Ive snaps his fingers to demonstrate the warm sound it creates.

[Oh yes, picture of trees ‘evoke’ proximity to the outdoors, as opposed to ironically demonstrating that they are far away from your tiny desk in a world of aluminum.]

[…]

The thousands of employees at Apple Park will need to bend slightly to Ive’s vision of the workplace. [Slightly? Totally, is more like it.] Many will be seated in open space, not the small offices they’re used to. Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting. Whiteboards — synonymous with Silicon Valley brainstorming — are built into floor-to-ceiling sliding doors in the central area of each pod, but “some of the engineers are freaking out” that it isn’t enough, says Whisenhunt.

Apple Park will be the high-water mark of a certain era of shiny, high-tech brutalism. A suburban mall writ large, set off by parking lots as large as the building space itself, divorced from anything like an organic integration into a larger community of people, and one which actively turns its back on millennia of urban experience. It’s a Disneyworld, a Pentagon, a Death Star, a gargantuan, crushing design that would have made Le Corbusier proud. And it lacks any child care.

We live in occupied territory. The mandate is we can (and must) work anywhere, that there can be no boundaries between work and non-work, and everywhere we work (which is anywhere) should look and feel like everywhere else.

As I wrote last year,

The aesthetics and cultural underpinnings of Anywhereism — the inherent rootlessness and interchangeability of places, parts, and people — is now deeply engrained in work culture. We live in occupied territory. The mandate is we can (and must) work anywhere, that there can be no boundaries between work and non-work, and everywhere we work (which is anywhere) should look and feel like everywhere else.

This is not a good thing, and we can hope that it is only an intermediate state, and not a final one.

As Tokumitsu and Mol said in Life at the Nowhere Office, these aesthetics center on openness and impersonality:

‘The new office presents itself as the interior design equivalent of everyone’s friend. It is comfortable and always available, a temporary platform onto which workers alight for meetings and some deskwork before fluttering off to another meeting, the home office, another job. But importantly, leave no trace behind. Remember: You have never been here.’

Can we make places to work and live where we leave actually traces behind, even after we have left?

Image for post
Above, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for the Reconstruction of Paris (1925)

Adam Rogers pulls no punches in IF YOU CARE ABOUT CITIES, APPLE’S NEW CAMPUS SUCKS, saying:

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

Apple is not alone in its efforts to build a monument to company glory. Google, Facebook, and a long list of second tier players are doing it too:

Alexandra Suich | Versailles in the valley

These firms’ visions for what they want to erect may differ, but they share common elements. They are designing functional, open-plan offices to increase collaboration among employees: “activity-based” working, which involves people doing their jobs from different places within an office, including outdoor benches, on-site coffee shops, napping pods and meeting rooms, is becoming the norm. They are also softening the buildings — and the whiff of corporate might — with greenery. Apple is using renewable energy to power its spaceship and is planting 9,000 trees. At nine acres, the roof garden on top of Facebook’s Building 20 feels vast. There is a juice bar and food carts, and sprinkled throughout it are map legends, designed to look like those consulted by backpackers in a state park.

But while this wave of construction captures the optimism and wealth of a cohort of companies that are imagining and packaging our digital future, Silicon Valley could lose something in the long term. The Valley thrived because people met and shared ideas in office parks, restaurants and cafés, and talent has historically moved around easily within and between companies. As firms build self-enclosed universes, that mixing may stop. Innovative architecture may attract talent and tourists initially, but it also risks altering an environment that has fostered world-beating ideas and products. Cupertino and other Silicon Valley towns may come to long for the time when they had no interesting buildings to distinguish them.

There is *no* evidence that open plan offices increase collaboration, but instead there are endless reports of worker disaffection for the noise and overcrowding. The cheery aspirational goal of collaboration is always touted instead of the naked economics of a small real estate footprint.

And, of course, these gigantic ‘campuses’ are monuments, glorifying the corporate leaders that made the companies great. So, as much as anything else, Apple Park is a headstone for Jobs, and perhaps a foreshadowing of a world where Silicon Valley is not the center of everything.

And maybe Jobs was influenced by the Jetsons, and he wanted to build Spacely Sprockets’ headquarters.

Image for post
Spacely Sprockets

Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store