8 June 2011
I recently spent a few weeks at a new house my brother and his partner built on Martha’s Vineyard. One of the things that struck me as I wandered the house and grounds was how much the spaces exposed of my brothers mind. I felt like he was turned inside out and spread on the walls and gardens for me to see, his values and dreams gleaming in the light of day, suffering the wash of rain. This was not easy, in fact I was a bit spooked and am still processing what I learned or failed to learn on this visit, but it was an extraordinary chance to get to know my brother better.
Today I had a similar, if much less intense, response as I watched Steve Jobs present Apple’s vision for a new corporate headquarters to the Cupertino city council. The vision is pretty spectacular, many commentators describe it as the “mothership landing.” Indeed, the circular building designed to house 12,000 employees does look like a spaceship landed in the old HP haunts of Cupertino. The 20 minute video of Steve presenting the plan and responding to questions is well worth the time for the glimpse it gives of Steve’s values and how those have become part of the corporate culture he shepherds.
Steve has been simplifying Apple since he arrived again in 1996. From simplifying product lines to simplifying products, Apple has been about doing as much as possible with as little as possible. This building is an expression of that simplicity. We build our world from fundamental forms: points and lines. We push these into curves and intersections. But there are few expressions more basic than the circle. This new headquarters would simply be a circle. Not only a circle, but a circle with an empty center: a zero, a null. It expresses the essential of Apple’s genius and Steve’s vision: what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
In fact, the center of the building is not empty, it is full of trees. This reveals another value held dear: trying to create a sustainable organization. In this case the building plan calls for more than doubling the number of trees on the site, reducing surface parking by 90% and building footprint by 30% from what exists now, while increasing the number of people by 40% and office space by 20%. More with less. The amount of land devoted to landscape increases by 350%. Steve also mentions his hope that the natural gas energy plant the build on site will be the primary power source for the campus, relegating the “grid” to backup power status. More trees, more landscape, less building, more people, quite a powerful set of contradictions, but who doubts Apple could pull this off?
Still, I wonder about the blindspots in this vision. One city council member asked about safety, and I’m sure Apple will build a facility that keeps its staff safe. But the question raised a vision in my head of a fire on site, a segment of the circle destroyed and needing to be rebuilt, a seam in the perfect fabric of its symmetry. Has the building been designed to age? Pull out your old laptops, look at the cracks, the missing keys, the broken hinges, the clean lines and breathtaking design that is Apple does not always age well. The iPhone 4 glass breaks. Building small retail sites to this standard of perfection and clean line works, because those can also be redesigned and renovated in 10 years or so, we don’t expect them to last decades. But a building of the scale of Apple’s new campus? That is more like my brother’s “hundred year house.” What will time, failure, renovation, and patching do to it? Will it seem alive and loved or faded and dull? I hope some of the spirit of Pixar where the people who live in the spaces get to fill them with expressions of their own dreams and creativity.