PHOTOGRAPHY: MARK MAHANEY
INTERVIEW: NICK COMPTON
This was the first up-close mass sighting of the most talked-about new building in the world, a $5bn, or so it’s said, Foster + Partners-designed loop of glass, aluminium, limestone and concrete and Apple’s new HQ. Guests worked their way up an artificial hill, part of 175 acres of undulating new landscape where once was dead-flat parking facility and dull corporate sheds, most of it owned by Hewlett-Packard. This engineered topography, a fantasy of California, gentle and abundant, was borne of the earth removed to make way for the new building’s earthquake-proof foundations, and has been planted with 9,000 trees, including cherry, apricot, apple, persimmon and pear.
All those trees, as was the intention, mean that the 2.8 million sq ft new building never fully reveals itself. You see only sections and its giant curve is never apparent. Nor, given the elevation, are two of its four storeys. Drones have buzzed over this site during much of its construction, and of course there were renders. Still, nothing prepares you for its audacious mass. Or its sci-fi drama. It is, as was promised, a giant starship landed in Cupertino.
The keynote is taking place in the new Steve Jobs Theater, itself a small marvel of engineering, ingenuity and attention to detail. ‘If the overall project is a small town, then this is the town hall, and jewel,’ says Stefan Behling, a Foster + Partners partner and one of the lead architects on Apple Park. Above ground, the theatre is essentially a 165ft-diameter glass rotunda with no visible support. ‘In the beginning there was just this idea: “Let’s have a hovering roof”, just this sliver of roof floating in the landscape,’ says Behling. ‘And it has been the most difficult building of my career.’
A network of 44 conduits, carrying electricity, data and sprinkler systems, is housed in three-quarter-inch strips of aluminium in-between the theatre’s glass surrounds. The carbon-fibre roof, tested, built and unbuilt in Dubai, was made the same way you make the hulls of racing yachts and weighs just 80 tons. ‘This is the first time in the history of mankind that this has been done,’ says Behling. ‘It’s the biggest carbon-fibre roof of its kind in the world. If you are serious about achieving something like this, and making it look effortless, you have to go all out. And that does mean doing something that has never been done before.’
Behling’s excitement and pride in the theatre and its big brother are palpable and genuine. But he is quick to acknowledge that at every stage this was a collaborative project. ‘Everything in this theatre, every detail, everything you see around you, is a totally integrated collaboration with Jony Ive [Apple’s chief design officer] and his design studio. Over the last nine years, we have become almost one. We talk together all the time, sit and sketch. This is not a Foster + Partners building.’
From the open space above ground, you descend to the auditorium on a curving limestone staircase with a carved, recessed handrail on one side and a gently angular stone slab on the other. ‘This whole space should feel carved and it is a carved handrail in a carved space,’ Behling says. (Something like the recessed handrail appears in the redesign of Apple’s Regent Street store in London, and Behling says that other ideas and details from the theatre and main building are filtering out into more Foster + Partners-designed Apple flagship stores.) The 1,000-seat auditorium itself boasts Poltrona Frau light-tan leather chairs, curved wooden floorboards and as much space behind stage as in front of it. It is built to display whatever Apple throws at it in the future. And that will be worked out in the new infinite loop down the hill.
A couple of weeks later, the press are gone and the main building, dubbed The Ring, is still the hub of a huge construction effort, though work is now definitely on finishing touches. The building is essentially a 50 to 60 storey tower tipped on its side and twisted into a circle. But the tipping and twisting are everything.
What you are left with is four storeys of horizontal flow. The Ring is also less than 200ft deep, which means what might look looming and ominous from the outside is full of natural light on the inside and spirit-liftingly open to its surroundings. The building will house 12,000 employees in identical segments; it structurally repeats itself eight times as you move around it. And you can move around it along a three-quarter mile internal corridor on the inside edge of The Ring. The 800, 45ft-tall panels of curved glass on the building’s façade, made by German company Seele, mean it offers views of the park and the Santa Cruz mountains looking out and, as you look in, a 30-acre courtyard that will feature orchards and oak trees, a large pond, and pergolas for outside dining. The view of the building’s inner rim also takes in the solar panelling on the roof, which will provide for 80 per cent of the building’s energy needs. Those panels, along with a natural ventilation system which, except in extreme conditions, keeps the building somewhere comfortably between 68 and 77°F, and other factors such as the use of recycled wood, mean the building has been certified LEED Platinum.
At times, the project pulled in 250 Foster + Partners architects, involving plenty of transatlantic travel and the set-up of a permanent outpost, working alongside Ive’s industrial design team. But if the details were worked out with Ive, the big vision also belonged to Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs, who first met with Norman Foster in 2009 and was much consumed by Apple Park during the last two years of his life (he passed away in 2011). That vision was of making work as much like a walk in the park as possible. More pragmatically, it was about bringing together a workforce housed in 100 separate buildings, then choreographing levels of integration and collaboration.
The office space in The Ring is, within limits, configurable. Teams can choose if they want to work in individual offices or open spaces. Each floor in each segment has a central area with an oak meeting table and glass whiteboards that open to reveal huge TV screens. More random interaction is intended and engineered to happen in the circling corridor and on the staircases (there are 32 in the building and they are a particular point of pride for Ive and the Foster + Partners architects). Each segment also houses a central atrium. The true hub of the building, though, is the café, with seating for 4,000 and one the biggest kitchens in the US. At the outside edge two 85 x 54ft moveable glass doors are designed to open the space up to the Bay Area’s natural benevolence.
A day later, Apple’s design chief is in a suite in the Carlyle hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the most un-Appley of places, all white-gloved lift operators and early 20th-century swank. Now 50, Ive is physically imposing but soft-spoken and as warm and likeable as his reputation suggests. He is, by his own admission, giddily excited about the new building and its possibilities. And those carefully framed views.
He is also understandably sensitive about carping from certain quarters that the building is already outmoded, a single, inflexible, fixed hulk, when the future is all about transparent, reconfigurable campuses: buildings able to adapt and change, and more open to their surroundings and the community they sit in (see Frank Gehry’s HQ for Facebook, Google’s in-the-works collaboration with Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, and Amazon’s urban campus in Seattle). For Ive, Apple Park’s flexibility is built in and it doesn’t have to make a show of it. ‘I don’t think it is necessary to be explicit about its flexibility,’ he says, ‘but that flexibility is absolutely as powerful as in buildings where the primary story, is “Hey, you can reconfigure this”. Our building is very configurable and you can very quickly create large open spaces or you can configure lots of smaller private offices. The building will change and it will evolve. And I’m sure in 20 years’ time we will be designing and developing very different products, and just that alone will drive the campus to evolve and change. And actually, I’m much more interested in being able to see the landscape, that is a much more important capability.’
Where Infinite Loop, Apple’s previous home, is a sprawl of separate buildings, The Ring is a unified whole. And it would be easy to see this new closed loop as Apple’s culture of secrecy made physical. It’s a culture that Ive is quick to defend. There is no ‘moon shot’ division at Apple, publicly declaring its ambitions to cure cancer or establish a new Eden on Mars.‘The way that we work is quietly,’ Ive says. ‘We are conspicuously different in that and it is an important part of who we are.’
And criticism of the building’s hunkering insularity seems to misunderstand what it is there to do. It is a building about process. And Ive is clear that for his design studio as for all Apple employees, it will mean a new way of working. ‘That’s one of the things that I am absurdly excited about. At the moment, there are a number of physically really disconnected design studios, and now we can share the same studio. We can have industrial designers sat next to a font designer, sat next to a sound designer, who is sat next to a motion graphics expert, who is sat next to colour designer, who is sat next to somebody who is developing objects in soft materials. And adjacent to every set of closed offices there is a very large open area of collaboration. It’s not just a corridor; these are large spaces that are repeated all the way around the building.’
The Ring is also a building that constantly reminds you that you are in a connected space, flat and flowing. ‘We have managed to keep it to four storeys and you very much have a sense of space and a relationship with the built structure. That is one of the reasons we have spent so much time on the stairs. There are so many connections between the floors. There are the light wells that go all the way down. You have visual connections to the floors and connections by the stairs.’
The building, though, is not a metaphor for open systems, or creative flow made concrete. It is a made object. Apple’s success has been built on higher-order industrialisation; not just designing beautiful objects that do all manner of new things but producing them in incredible numbers and at consistent quality. Its new building is, in some ways, the ultimate Apple product, in places using the same materials the company uses in its laptops and phones.
Ive, above all else, is a maker, thrilled to have his CNC milling machines close at hand. This culture of making was at the heart of what Behling calls the ‘hybrid studio’ forged by the Apple and Foster + Partners teams. ‘One of the connections that we made very quickly was that their approach to problem solving was uncannily similar to ours,’ Ive says. ‘We both make lots and lots of models and prototypes. We made full-size prototypes of parts of the building, we made prototypes to examine and explore a material. The prototyping took many forms.’
But if Ive is a maker and industrial designer in the classic mould – in love with materialising a particular curve, the tactility of a particular stone or brushed aluminium, the correct weight and balance of an object in your hand – he is also the man most responsible for making our new most essential objects all but disappear. ‘As a design team our goal has been, in some ways, to get design out of the way. We try to define a solution that seems so inevitable that it does recede.’
The most advanced iteration of the iPhone, the X, launched with great hoopla at the keynote address, is all screen. Except that’s the wrong way to look at it. The point is that, at least in the way we use it and understand it, it is entirely unfixed and fluid.
I wonder, then, if Ive misses the physical click and scroll of the first iPods, that fixed mono-functionality, the obvious working parts, the elegance of the design solution. But I’ve got him all wrong. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by these products that are more general purpose. What I think is remarkable about the iPhone X is that its functionality is so determined by software. And because of the fluid nature of software, this product is going to change and evolve. In 12 months’ time, this object will be able to do things that it can’t now. I think that is extraordinary. I think we will look back on it and see it as a very significant point in terms of the products we have been developing.
‘So while I’m completely seduced by the coherence and simplicity and how easy it is to comprehend something like the first iPod, I am quite honestly more fascinated and intrigued by an object that changes its function profoundly and evolves. That is rare. That didn’t happen 50 years ago.’
People say all kinds of things about the iPhone (though other Apple products have done things ‘indistinguishable from magic’, to borrow from Arthur C Clarke; as a mobile content vault, the iPad still feels more fundamentally miraculous and life-enhancing, the MacBook is really the tool of the creative professional, and the Apple Watch will gradually move further towards centre stage and embed itself in our behaviour). But the thing that has made the iPhone the absolute game-changer is its multi-touch screen – it’s a point that many missed at its launch, including Blackberry, much to its cost. Multi-touch technology meant that a single object could be a million different things at the same time.
‘If you think of what multi-touch afforded, on the one hand it was so powerfully intuitive, because you could directly manipulate content,’ says Ive. ‘But because it wasn’t effected by physical buttons, you could create an interface that was very specific to an application. That’s why the App Store could be and you could have such an extraordinary range of applications and user interfaces.’
Constantly under pressure to pull another iPhone-sized rabbit out of the hat, Apple now seems to be betting big on augmented reality as the shiny new toy for developers and consumers. So Ive is now designing products that not only have little in terms of fixed functionality, but that will simply be the platform for outsized, outside-the-box experiences and educations. The physical thing will be left behind. They seem like difficult times for a product designer, but for Ive, everything has been leading to this point.
‘I remember being at college; there was this new development and a new set of challenges for designers, really starting with the launch of the Mac in 1984. The fundamental function of an object could change in seconds and the orthodoxy around expressing function or having the physical object defined by its function wasn’t relevant any more. To me this was extraordinary.’
Now Ive and his team have to work out where that challenge takes them next. ‘We are a fairly tenacious group of designers who are absurdly curious and constantly looking for alternatives. Some of them we can understand right here, right now. Some of them are beyond the technology of the moment. They exist as ideas, they exist to galvanise the development of technology. And some will bear fruit and others won’t.’
In truth, there is little point speculating about what Apple will do next, or whether it will finally silence those who insist it needs to come up with another game-changing product. And less point asking Ive. I tried. Did the company lose something fundamental with the passing of Steve Jobs? Of course. And the completion of Apple Park at once memorialises Jobs and looks to embed the most positive parts of his terrible ambition, making them corporate muscle memory and learnt behaviour. Ive would be as fundamental a loss but he is still there, at the heart of the machine, still building, still making, still learning.
‘When I look back over the last 25 years, in some ways what seems most precious is not what we have made but how we have made it and what we have learned as a consequence of that,’ he says. ‘I always think that there are two products at the end of a programme; there is the physical product or the service, the thing that you have managed to make, and then there is all that you have learned. The power of what you have learned enables you to do the next thing and it enables you to do the next thing better.’