One Ring to Bring Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them: Apple's New Headquarters

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IBM's Watson Research Center by Eero Saarinen, 1961. It was also a curvy icon in a park. Image Credit Wikipedia
Albert Camus said "All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant's revolving door".

So what is one to say about Apple's proposed new headquarters, a building with no corners and no streets? That is it anti-urban, anti-social, anti-environmental and probably anti-Apple. And, that it could signal the end of Apple as a creative juggernaut.

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Apple has done so much for design, crafting beautiful objects that have changed our expections of what electronics should look like and how they should work. Their stores have reinvented retailing.

But I have serious issues with the design of this project. It turns its back on its community. It addresses the street with a wall of parking garages.

Steve Jobs likens the building to a spaceship, but the only buildings that operate like spaceships are filled with spooks and spies and secrets, or with prisoners. (see British Spy Agency Headquarters)

In Masdar, Norman Foster designed a city that is an interconnection of buildings and outdoor spaces; he made a point of learning from indigenous architecture, looking at how cities work and emulating them. In Cupertino, he has done the opposite; no matter that it is sitting in an orchard, everything is internalized, there are no streets, there is no recognizable pattern. It tosses everthing we ever knew about community out the window.

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Jane Jacobs said "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings." That's because they are found in cities that attract the young and the creative. That's why we get New York and San Francisco and Richard Florida's spiky cities where the creative class meet; because creative people like hanging out with other creative people. Putting them all into a spaceship is so...suburban. The antithesis of Apple. So somebody left an iphone in a bar once, that doesn't mean that you have to put everyone into a gleaming white panopticon, isolated from the rest of the world.

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In 1961, IBM moved its research operations from a building near Columbia University in New York into Eero Saarinen's curved Thomas Watson Research Center, way out in the country, surrounded by orchards. It was called an "Industrial Versailles." Fifty years later IBM is still around, and is still big, but it is no longer considered cutting-edge creative. What will Apple be like after a couple of decades of hiding in its orchard, disconnected from the community it serves? Will Apple turn into Big Blue?

Apple's iconic retail stores have been great examples of city-building, often glorious renovations of existing structures in downtown locations, because that is where their customers are. What a shame that Apple missed the opportunity to do some city-building, instead of just the 21st century version of a 1960s suburban office park.

I can't help but think of the inscription on the ring:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

More on Apple and Cupertino:
Steve Jobs Unveils New 'Mothership' Apple HQ
Norman Foster To Design Apple City In Cupertino

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Alexandra Lange wonders much the same thing at Design Observer, calling it a throwback to 1957.

That was the year Skidmore, Owings & Merrill completed the Connecticut General Life Insurance Headquarters in Bloomfield, a suburb of Hartford. Sure, it is a box rather than a ring, but the concept is strikingly similar: an inward-looking, hermetic, heterotopic corporate world. An architecturally distinguished, technologically advanced retreat from the city, one complete enough to include its own grounds, its own restaurant, its own artworks, its own store, its own bowling alley, and its own clubs. Employees weaned from urban life by recreating its social qualities outside the city. But obviously, for employees only.