Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Inside Apple Park

Apple is clearly excited about Apple Park; they’ve been showing it off to journalists at a regular clip. In March, they gave Steven Levy a tour, and he published his account of it today in Wired:

Of course I’ve seen images of it, architectural equivalents of movie trailers for a much-awaited blockbuster. From the day Jobs presented to the Cupertino City Council, digital renderings of the Ring, as Apple calls the main building, have circulated widely. As construction progressed, enterprising drone pilots began flying their aircraft overhead, capturing aerial views in slickly edited YouTube videos accompanied by New Agey soundtracks. Amid all the fanboy anticipation, though, Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death. Apple executives want us to know how cool its new campus is — that’s why they invited me. But this has also led some people to sniff that too much of its mojo has been devoted to giant glass panels, custom-built door handles, and a 100,000-square-foot fitness and wellness center complete with a two-story yoga room covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’ favorite hotel in Yosemite.

Investors who prioritize lining their own pockets over improvements for employees are gigantic assholes, but this is a pretty indulgent project, even by Silicon Valley standards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as I’ve written before, it’s as much an Apple product as the stuff that you can find in a retail store, just on a vastly larger scale. It wouldn’t be very Apple-y to build their new office without considering every way of making it more elegant.

There’s an anecdote Levy shares midway through the article where he and Jony Ive are looking at the concrete structure of some of the parking garages. Ive points out that many of the utility needs — plumbing, wiring, and so on — were incorporated into the beams instead of being left exposed, as is typical. It’s the kind of detail that, when repeated across all of the buildings at Apple Park, probably increased construction costs considerably. As a result, most companies would have probably nixed it early on. But Apple’s treatment is far more considered and resolved.

I was intrigued by some of the criticisms of the building that Levy chose to include in his article:

As Apple Park inches toward completion, its critics are getting louder, and what began with aesthetic judgments of the digital renderings — the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic called the Ring a “retrograde cocoon” — has lately turned to social and cultural critiques. That the campus is a snobby isolated preserve, at odds with the trendy urbanist school of corporate headquarters. (Amazon, Twitter, and Airbnb are all part of a movement that hopes to integrate tech employees into cities as opposed to having them commute via fuel-gobbling cars or numbing Wi-Fi-equipped buses.)

I don’t necessarily object to these criticisms, but I have three observations:

  1. The rise of employees working from home or in remote locations means that the physical location of any corporate headquarters isn’t necessarily as impactful as it once was.

  2. I live in a city with a well-defined downtown core full of office towers, surrounded by largely-residential neighbourhoods. At night and on the weekend, the downtown core can feel apocalyptic.1 Corporate campuses outside of a city centre are kind of like an inverted version of that: their employees return to the city centre on weeknights and weekends, rather than leaving it.

  3. Apple Park really isn’t that far away from major commercial strips in Cupertino and San Jose, and it’s surrounded by residential neighbourhoods. If employees wish, they can live within walking or cycling distance of Apple Park.

Levy also notes that Apple Park lacks childcare facilities. In a 2014 Fortune story, Apple explained that their paternity leave policies extend to a total of eighteen weeks for expectant mothers, and up to six weeks for other expectant parents. Is that really enough support for new parents?

  1. This is changing. I’ve lived in the downtown core for about three years and I’ve noticed loads more people lately spending their evenings and weekends in the commercial core than I used to see. ↩︎