Or is it a late Renaissance fortress, or another Swiss Collider…
The building of Apple’s vast new circular Campus 2 in Cupertino, CA — an architectural riff on their original 1 Infinite Loop address, as my colleague Jin Woo Shin observed — is generating online excitement as various drone’s eye
views show how a construction project can sometimes be as sleekly elegant and mesmerizing as an iMac or an iPhone (photo courtesy 9to6mac.com). Indeed, the building is shaping up to be the latest, largest, and most lapidary Apple
product: 2.8 million sq. ft. for 12,000 employees. Also perhaps the most expensive, with a cost that has reputedly risen from an estimated $500 million to nearly $5 billion. The work of eminent British modernist Sir Norman Foster (of Foster + Partners), who designed the “Gherkin” highrise in London and the Hearst Tower in New York, the new Apple Campus, which is called “the Spaceship” will be completed in 2016. I originally thought this project was a missed opportunity in that a new Apple campus could have revitalized a whole neighborhood of downtown San Jose, for example. But now, understanding a little more about the nature of the Apple culture of control after reading the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, I can see that such an approach would never have been possible. This new building seems a perfect expression of Apple’s design ethos: a brave new world of possibility hermetically sealed within an elegant container — the iHQ.
The design makes the historian in me look for precedents and it turns out there are many. Sir Norman explained the genesis of the design himself in an interview with Architectural Record: “First of all, there was a smaller site. Then, as the project developed, and the Hewlett-Packard site became available, the scale of the project changed. Meanwhile, the reference point for Steve [Jobs] was always the large space on the Stanford campus—the Main Quad—which Steve knew intimately. Also, he would reminisce about the time when he was young, and California was still the fruit bowl of the United States. It was still orchards. We did a continuous series of base planning studies. One idea which came out of it is that you can get high density by building around the perimeter of a site, as in the squares of London. And in the case of a London square, you create a mini-park in the center.”
With those helpful hints, I started looking around. As it happens, the Stanford Quad, built between 1887 and 1906 and designed by Shepley Rutan & Coolidge, the Boston firm founded by H. H. Richardson, surrounds a plaza with eight
circular plant islands running down the middle: circles in the square! (photo courtesy Wikipedia) And here’s one of the most famous examples of London squares: the plan of Regent’s Park by architect John Nash, from around 1833.
And wouldn’t you know — there is a circle in the center (identified as “Jenkins Nursery”), just waiting to steal the show! So, if we want to analyze the DNA of the Apple design it’s part Stanford Quad, part London square, part Apple i-pod, er pad. But there are other possible antecedents. The most obvious comparable geometric self-enclosed environment is The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, designed by Bergstrom and Witmer and completed in 1943 (photo
courtesy Wikipedia). Planned as an irregular pentagon following the shape of its original site, it was regularized when the project moved to the final more open plot of land. According to Wikipedia: “The building retained its pentagonal layout because a major redesign at that stage would have been costly, and Roosevelt liked the design. Freed of the constraints of the asymmetric Arlington Farms site, it was modified into a regular pentagon which resembled the star forts of the gunpowder age.” What better metaphor for the Defense Department
than a fortress — like this example, built between 1834 and 1851 at Castle Island in Boston Harbor (photo courtesy timeout.com).
It turns out that the great French modern architect le Corbusier was a huge fan of The Pentagon after touring it in 1946, as Mardges Bacon explains in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Bacon quotes Corbu saying it embodied “all that I could design in my projects so implacably rejected until now: silence, efficiency, brilliantly lit interior streets, enlivened with shops expanding into restaurants, cafes; sparkling clean; ramps, hallways, etc.” Wow. That also captures the spirit of the Apple building! [I love Corbu’s use of “implacably rejected.” You can tell he was irritated and yearning to build big. He was soon to design his famous Unite d’Habitation apartment block in Marseilles and was evidently influenced by the Pentagon and various TVA dam projects he saw on his American tour.] But I digress. The point is two wealthy entities working on complex and often secret development programs were drawn to a simple, almost scaleless abstract shape.
So-called star forts have a long history not only as fortifications, but also as
towns, like this Italian Renaissance plan for Palmanova, an idealized city
that was actually built by the Venetians around 1593 (both images courtesy Wikipedia). The Apple design is simply a little more abstract and minimalist, and will almost function as a kind of town since workers will be eating most of their meals there, presumably. The company intends to plant a lot of apricot trees to echo the region’s earlier history as a major fruit-growing region, as Sir Norman mentioned.
Perhaps a more telling prototype for the Apple Spaceship is the Large Hadron
Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator (photo courtesy CERN). Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research and completed in 2008, it’s a circular underground tunnel with a circumference of 27 kilometers. Lead ions known as hadrons are accelerated so physicists can study the origin of mass and why some particles are very heavy while others have no mass at all. That sounds increasingly like the once and future Apple product. The new Apple campus is a remarkable and lavish use of land (albeit park-like) and material — there will be roughly six kilometers of ultra clear glass alone — so I guess you could call the it the world’s largest product accelerator: a futuristic place to invent the future.