It wasn’t just tech news spreading like wildfire out of Silicon Valley in June, but advance word of Apple’s new headquarters. Steve Jobs made a presentation to Cupertino’s city council on June 7. What we know from the YouTube video—the company has remained mum on any further details, including the name of the architects (although Norman Foster is almost certainly the one)—is that there will be a single building in the shape of a perfect circle with a park in the center; that the building will be four stories tall with 3.1 million square feet of space; and that it will be set in 150 acres of tree-dotted landscape. “We’ve seen these office parks with lots of buildings, and they get pretty boring pretty fast. We’d like to do something better than that,” said Jobs to the council.
Despite the pictures and Jobs’ enthusiasm for his “spaceship,” which will enclose 13,000 people behind ethereal expanses of curved glass, it was disappointing that there wasn’t more to the concept than that. Sure, the building fit the Apple brand—if somewhat literally—and it might aspire to iconic status, but it fell very snugly into the traditional mold of the corporate campus, which is surprising considering the company’s reputation for innovation. The benefits to the design that Jobs outlined—replacing surface parking lots with underground parking, and doubling the number of trees on the already tree-lined former Hewlett-Packard campus—seemed positive but not exactly revolutionary.
The corporate campus as large private estate that turns its back on its locality is a retrograde idea, whether it’s an office park of generic concrete tilt-ups or a bespoke structure. In fact, it is that very self-segregation that other fast companies bursting at the seams—like Facebook, which recently held a charrette to brainstorm ways to connect its new campus and energize the neighboring area—are trying to avoid. When Cupertino council members asked Jobs how the local community would benefit, his response was essentially: We’re not moving out of town, so you’re lucky to have our tax revenues and wealthy employees.
It didn’t help that Apple’s plans were revealed at the same time that tech company Salesforce.com began talking about their new campus in San Francisco’s Mission Bay. Its plans display an admirable interest in civic improvement. The 14-acre Legorreta + Legorreta complex includes a large public plaza with restaurant and café tenants instead of a corporate cafeteria. This is the kind of development encouraged by cities everywhere: a deliberate mix geared to creating vibrancy and community. In the 1980s, Levi’s did it in San Francisco, when they hired Lawrence Halprin to create a public space at the center of their campus, and now Levi’s Plaza is one of the city’s best-loved parks.
A plaza like that wouldn’t make much sense in Cupertino. First, Apple’s business by nature is secretive; and second, the context isn’t a dense, pedestrian-oriented city, but low-slung suburbs. On the other hand, one expects something a little more clever from Apple: a game changer that would reimagine the corporate campus in the way the iPhone and iPad changed personal computing.
Some sort of public gesture would show that Apple is smart enough to extend its coolness brand to a bigger scale. One obvious move would be to landscape its open space in an appropriately interesting modern way, and make it accessible to the public. Or why not think pie-in-the-sky and consider how to take advantage of its velodrome-shaped roof for some sort of public display? Or something that we who are not Steve Jobs can’t even imagine. It is not Apple’s job to be the place-maker for Silicon Valley. But for such a potent champion of good design, it’s disappointing that it couldn’t set its sights a little higher.