Apple’s New Campus: An Exclusive Look
Norman Foster’s sketch of the building’s evolution, from propeller shape to circle.
A RING WAS not what Jobs had in mind when he first started talking about a new campus. Ive thinks it was around 2004 when he and his boss first began discussing a reimagined headquarters. “I think it was in Hyde Park,” he says. “When we used to go to London together, we’d spend a lot of time in these parks. We began talking about a campus where your primary sense was that you were in parkland, with many elements that were almost collegiate—where the connection between what was built and a parkland was immediate, no matter where you were.”
The discussions continued and widened throughout the company, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Apple was ready to actually move on the project. Though vacant land in Cupertino is rare, Apple had purchased 75 acres barely a mile from Infinite Loop, its current headquarters. The company began to seek out the right architectural firm to take on the task, and Jobs came to focus on Norman Foster, a Pritzker Prize winner whose commissions have included the Berlin Reichstag, the Hong Kong airport, and London’s infamous “Gherkin” tower. Jobs called Foster in July 2009 and told him, in Foster’s recollection, that Apple “needed some help.”
Two months later Foster arrived in Cupertino and spent an entire day with Jobs, first at his office at Infinite Loop and later at his home in Palo Alto, and discovered that his new client had a remarkably detailed vision of the glass, steel, stone, and trees that would make up Apple’s new home. As Jobs spoke, Foster furiously sketched in the A4 sketchbook he is never without, creating a “word picture” of what Jobs was envisioning. “His touchstone was the quad at Stanford,” Foster says, referring to the main part of the school’s campus where low-slung academic buildings, arranged around large, leafy outdoor areas and designed with open-air pathways where one can walk along the structures’ edges, offer the sensation of being both inside and out.
Foster soon brought in reinforcements from his London-based firm, Foster + Partners, for the first of many meetings Jobs would have with a growing team of architects. Though he always professed to loathe nostalgia, Jobs based many of his ideas on his favorite features of the Bay Area of his youth. “His briefing was all about California—his idealized California,” says Stefan Behling, a Foster partner who became one of the project leads. The site Apple had bought was an industrial park, largely covered by asphalt, but Jobs envisioned hilly terrain, with sluices of walking paths. He again turned to Stanford for inspiration by evoking the Dish, a popular hiking area near the campus where rolling hills shelter a radio telescope.
The meetings often lasted for five or six hours, consuming a significant amount of time in the last two years of Jobs’ life. He could be scary when he swooped down on a detail he demanded. At one point, Behling recalls, Jobs discussed the walls he had in mind for the offices: “He knew exactly what timber he wanted, but not just ‘I like oak’ or ‘I like maple.’ He knew it had to be quarter-cut. It had to be cut in the winter, ideally in January, to have the least amount of sap and sugar content. We were all sitting there, architects with gray hair, going, ‘Holy shit!’”
As with any Apple product, its shape would be determined by its function. This would be a workplace where people were open to each other and open to nature, and the key to that would be modular sections, known as pods, for work or collaboration. Jobs’ idea was to repeat those pods over and over: pod for office work, pod for teamwork, pod for socializing, like a piano roll playing a Philip Glass composition. They would be distributed democratically. Not even the CEO would get a suite or a similar incongruity. And while the company has long been notorious for internal secrecy, compartmentalizing its projects on a need-to-know basis, Jobs seemed to be proposing a more porous structure where ideas would be more freely shared across common spaces. Not totally open, of course—Ive’s design studio, for instance, would be shrouded by translucent glass—but more open than Infinite Loop.
“At first, we had no idea what Steve was actually talking about with these pods. But he had it all mapped out: a space where you could concentrate one minute and then bump into another group of people in the next,” Behling says. “And how many restaurants should we have? One restaurant, a huge one, forcing everyone to get together. You have to be able to bump into each other.” In part Jobs was expanding on a concept that he had developed while helping design the headquarters of another company he ran—Pixar—that nudged collaboration by forcing people to stroll longer than usual to the restrooms. (So involved was Jobs in that project that Pixar-ites call the building “Steve’s Movie.”) In this new project, Jobs was balancing an engineer’s need for intense concentration with the brainstorming that unearths innovation.
To accommodate the pods, the main building took the shape of a bloated clover leaf—people at Apple called it the propeller—with three lobes doing a Möbius around a center core. But over time Jobs realized that it wouldn’t work. “We have a crisis,” he told the architects early in the spring of 2010. “I think it is too tight on the inside and too wide on the outside.” This launched weeks of overtime among Foster’s 100-person team to figure out how to resolve the problem. (Their ranks would eventually reach 250.) In May, as he was sketching in his book, Foster wrote down a statement: “On the way to a circle.”
According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, there was another factor. When Jobs showed a drawing of the clover leaf to his son, Reed, the teenager commented that from the air, the building would look like male genitalia. The next day Jobs repeated the observation to the architects, warning them that from that point on, “you’re never going to be able to erase that vision from your mind.” (Foster and Behling say they have no recollection of this.)
By June 2010 it was a circle. No one takes full credit for the shape; all seem to feel it was inevitable all along. “Steve dug it right away,” Foster says.
By that fall Whisenhunt had heard that a former HP campus in Cupertino might be available. The 100-acre plot was just north of Apple’s planned site. What’s more, it had deep meaning for Jobs. As a young teen he had talked his way into a summer job at HP, just at the time when its founders—Jobs’ heroes—were walking that site and envisioning an office park cluster for their computer systems division. Now HP was contracting and no longer needed the space. Whisenhunt worked a deal, and Apple’s project suddenly grew to 175 acres.
Jobs had always insisted that most of the site be covered with trees; he even took the step of finding the perfect tree expert to create his corporate Arden. He loved the foliage at the Dish and found one of the arborists responsible. David Muffly, a cheerful, bearded fellow with a Lebowski-ish demeanor, was in a client’s backyard in Menlo Park when he got the call to come to Jobs’ office to talk trees. He was massively impressed with the Apple CEO’s taste and knowledge. “He had a better sense than most arborists,” Muffly says. “He could tell visually which trees looked like they had good structure.” Jobs was adamant that the new campus house indigenous flora, and in particular he wanted fruit trees from the orchards he remembered from growing up in Northern California.
Apple will ultimately plant almost 9,000 trees. Muffly was told that the landscape should be futureproof and that he should choose drought-tolerant varieties so his mini forest and meadows could survive a climate crisis. (As part of its ecological efforts to prevent such a crisis, Apple claims, its buildings will run solely on sustainable energy, most of it from solar arrays on the roofs.) Jobs’ aims were not just aesthetic. He did his best thinking during walks and was especially inspired by ambling in nature, so he envisioned how Apple workers would do that too. “Can you imagine doing your work in a national park?” says Tim Cook, who succeeded Jobs as CEO in 2011. “When I really need to think about something I’m struggling with, I get out in nature. We can do that now! It won’t feel like Silicon Valley at all.”
Cook recalls the last time he discussed the campus with his boss and friend in the fall of 2011. “It was actually the last time I spoke to him, the Friday before he passed away,” Cook says. “We were watching a movie, Remember the Titans. I loved it, but I was so surprised he liked that movie. I remember talking to him about the site then. It was something that gave him energy. I was joking with him that we were all worried about some things being difficult, but we were missing the most important one, the biggest challenge of all.”
“Deciding which employees are going to sit in the main building” and which would have to work in the outer buildings. “And he just got a big laugh out of it.”
IT’S HARD NOT to be overwhelmed by all of this. Ask me sometime about the fonts in the elevator or the hidden pipes in the bathroom commodes. And it’s hard not to return again and again to the same question: Is Apple Park the arcadia outlined by Jobs in his public farewell, or is it an anal-retentive nightmare of indulgence gone wild?
Apple’s answer is that the perfection here will inspire its workforce to match that effort in the products they create, that the environment itself is meant to motivate engineers, designers, and even café managers to aspire for ever-higher levels of quality and innovation. (Francesco Longoni, the maestro of the Apple Park café, helped Apple patent a box that will keep to-go pizzas from getting soggy.) “We’re amortizing this in an entirely different way,” Ive says. “We don’t measure this in terms of numbers of people. We think about it in terms of the future. The goal was to create an experience and an environment that felt like a reflection of who we are as a company. This is our home, and everything we make in the future is going to start here.”
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. ) That the layout of the Ring is too rigid, and that unlike Google’s planned Mountain View headquarters (which that company has described as having “lightweight blocklike structures, which can be moved around easily as we invest in new product areas”), Apple Park is not prepared to adapt to potential changes in how, where, and why people work. That there is no childcare center. “It’s an obsolete model that doesn’t address the work conditions of the future,” says Louise Mozingo, an urban design professor at UC Berkeley.
“It’s a spectacular piece of formal design, but it’s contrarian to what’s going on in corporate headquarters across the tech industry,” says Scott Wyatt, an architect at NBBJ, a prominent international firm that has designed buildings for Google, Amazon, and Tencent.
Foster will have none of it. Sitting in the gleaming café that is a model for the much larger version under construction at Apple Park, he doesn’t even wait for the question before launching into a defense of his design. “This building rose out of the passion of Steve Jobs,” he says. “The idea that a beautiful object descended on this verdant, luxurious landscape and that it will be inhabited by 12,000 people: That is a true utopian vision. So part of my job is confronting these criticisms and saying, ‘You must be mad.’”
Apple Park may be an architectural tour de force, but Foster has grasped its essential truth: At heart it is the realization of a dying man’s wish to eternally shape the workplace of the company he founded. Yes, Apple insists that by working in a place where artificial hills are dotted with pines transplanted from Christmas tree farms in the Mojave Desert, its employees will make better products. But didn’t Apple create its marvelous Apple II in a bedroom and its groundbreaking Macintosh in a low-slung office park building? The employees who work at the new campus are leaving behind the buildings that provided sufficient inspiration to invent the iPhone.