Open letter to Steve Jobs
Apple's proposed new campus at Cupertino
an opportunity for urbanism (2011)
Dear Mr Jobs,
Due to the wonders of the iPad, I came across your June 7th presentation to the Cupertino council of the plans for the new Apple campus. My excitement at the start of your presentation -- expecting Apple's cutting edge tradition to appear in the Architecture and Planning -- soon turned to a profound disappointment.
You were absolutely right to state that the intended capacity of 12,000 people in a single building is "rather odd". It is certainly not unique. Each of the destroyed WTC “twin towers” had a larger capacity. However, the idea of a single circular building in the park and, indeed, a "campus" is odd in more than one aspect. It is odd because, since Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of the Great American Cities" (published in 1961) every one knows that dividing the city to single function zones, a practice known as "Zoning", is bad urban practice. Industrial "parks", which is essentially what you are planning at Cupertino, are inhabited on working hours and abandoned at night inviting all kinds of security hazards. They are tremendous generators of traffic congestion at peak hours, morning and afternoon, requiring supper wide roads that stay empty during most of both, day and night.
It is odd because, while humanity must find ways to reduce CO emissions by private cars and invest in efficient means of human mobility, Apple is planning huge parking facilities that will encourage its employees to drive to work. You may think of an alternative to the costly construction of under or over ground parking in the shape of encouraging your staff to live next door and walk to work or; for those who live a little further, you could buy them a Segway. And for those who are even further away you could pay their bus ticket. The overall cost for society will be far lower and even more so for Apple.
It is odd because even in the USA people are beginning to realize the ills of suburbia and urban sprawl, both concepts belonging to the middle of the last Century. A project the size of yours could mark the beginning of a new era in American urbanism, an era that puts human beings before the car, pedestrians before drivers. It could invest in creating a lively public realm, in the shape of streets rather than roads, where the people of Cupertino, including Apple employees, could meet, connect, do business and interact for their mutual benefit. Instead, your project replaces parking lot placelessness with "green" placelessness.
If, as you said, your existing campus is boring, you obviously don't have the means to imagine how boring your circular "spaceship" building will be. It will simply look the same from every angle. Even the curved glass will look the same all around. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.
The circular plan is not new. It was tried before and revealed that it creates real problems of orientation. No matter where you are, it all looks the same. When next in Washington DC don't miss a visit to the Hirshhorn museum (1974) and it's fine collection of modern Art. If they haven’t altered it since my last visit, you will at some point ask yourself: have I been here before? Have I reached the end of the exhibit? Did I already see this painting? You may also want to travel to Paris, France, where you can visit the once admired but always-disorienting circular terminal 1 at Charles De Gaulle airport (also 1974 vintage!).
Moreover, also the idea of the building in the park is not new. It's the disastrous idea of Le Corbusier that swept the world in the 30's and seems to have a hold on you still. You can visit the urban wasteland of Brasilia, planned in the mid 50's in Le Corbusier's spirit, to realize the magnitude of the disaster.
In your presentation you used the all too often misused term of "human scale", saying that the projected buildings on site will not exceed four stories in height, as if the height of a building is the single factor defining "human scale". I have never been to Cupertino, but I bet you there is not a single street, there, that feels as good (for humans, not cars) as most streets in Manhattan -- which is, despite its tall buildings, far more "human scaled" than Cupertino.
You avoided naming your excellent architects. At some point, Sir Norman Foster was mentioned, but you might have selected any other “starchitect.” This is not surprising. Foster’s is a big name, fit for the big job of a conservative client. He is also a great technician who can easily cope with a few kilometers of bent glass and exciting structure. These qualifications are all very important, but to conceive "the best office building in the world," you need more. True, today’s world looks for excitement and extravaganza, but misses on quality. Not just quality of construction and detail (which is very important, of course) but quality of living. One could have hoped that a visionary like you would understand that there is more to a building than just serving its occupants’ functional needs. A good building serves its surrounding community first.
A suburban community, housed by private homes within private gardens, does not need another super-sized park. Its members need to be able to mingle on the street, sit in a sidewalk cafe, buy something at a corner shop, and do all that while walking outdoors along a street -- not among the wastelands of Stevens Creek Blvd. Apple's staff needs more. Your employees should be able to select where and what to eat during their lunch break, and also, yes, whom they meet. The best 3,000 sq.m. In-house café, in which workers are forced to eat every single day, just won't do.
I've seen great buildings, mediocre ones and even bad ones visited by student of architecture. Only very exceptional few are visited more then 10 years after they were built. Your "odd" spaceship will not last that long.
Having, so far, been critical of the proposed Apple campus, let me end on a positive and hopeful note. "APPLE CITY" is what you want for Apple and Cupertino. Your current site is a perfect start. You might begin by looking at the surrounding roads with the intention to turn them into lively streets. These public spaces would be your anchors to Cupertino. Your exciting, state-of-the-art buildings, most probably built along these streets, could allow for commercial uses at ground level with mixed uses of offices and housing in the floors above. In order to encourage people to walk, you should examine the dimension of the street grid in the adjacent area and align new streets with those, so that people from the surrounding residential areas would be encouraged to walk across your site to other locations in the vicinity. You might allocate some plots for public buildings like an “Apple School,” Apple “iSport,” or an Apple “iShow” theatre to be used for Apple's events, presentations, and (also) for public performances. You will still have ample area for a public park for the recreation of both Apple staff and Cupertino’s citizens.
Apple, Google, and Facebook capitalize on the basic human need for contact. Urban habitation – the City -- predates them by few millennia. Like them, a city’s raison d'être is to provide each individual with a huge network of potential contacts. However advanced and powerful, Apple, Google, Facebook (and others yet to come) will never replace the City; they will always complement it. You have a unique opportunity to lead urban planning and development in America and all over the world towards new horizons. A pioneering project such as this will draw visitors from all over the globe. Grab it!