There was something almost princely in the way Steve Jobs went about selecting the shape and location of the proposed new Apple headquarters, announced in June to the city council of Cupertino, California, in Silicon Valley. Usually a large project like this—even a small project—develops gradually amidst endless consultations with a hundred stakeholders who bicker about the most pragmatic (and usually unimaginative) way to proceed. Far otherwise did the emperors Augustus and Hadrian plan their massive mausoleums, which can still be seen along the banks of the Tiber. They wanted something round, and they pointed to where they wanted it to rise. And so it did.
And so it was when Jobs announced, to a stunned and dazzled city council, that he had decided to build a similarly round structure (let us hope it is not a mausoleum) on the other side of Interstate 280, across from where the present Apple headquarters now stands. Granted, he had to go before the city council; but the way he phrased it (“We’ve got a plan that lets us stay in Cupertino!”) made quite clear that, if he did not get his way, he might just pack up and leave. (He has, of course, since resigned as CEO.)
As Mayor Gilbert Wong told reporters, “There’s no chance we’ll say no.”
Though the form of the proposed building is similar to those two monuments on the Tiber, its origins are very different. Whereas Augustus and Hadrian had been looking at the Hellenistic mausoleums of Asia Minor, Steve Jobs seems to have been watching the SyFy Channel. “It looks a little like a spaceship landed,” he told the council as he presented the renderings. Now, the canonic mothership, as we all know, is necessarily round in order more easily to navigate the intergalactic winds. Its saucer shape is the very one that Jobs has chosen, and if built, it promises to stand out against the dull corporate architecture of Silicon Valley, not least the present Apple headquarters.
As Jobs enthused to the council, “There is not a straight piece of glass in this building.”
It will serve as an indication of Steve Jobs’s pertinacity that he has been nurturing the idea of a corporate headquarters in the shape of a flying saucer for almost 30 years. Initially it was to be designed by I. M. Pei. But back then, Apple was hardly the powerhouse that it is today. At the time, in fact, Jobs was little more than a year away from being kicked out of the company—in 1985, returning only in 1997—but now, with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad under his belt, he gets whatever he asks for, and there is every likelihood that his newest architectural whim (this time designed by Sir Norman Foster) will become reality. And Sir Norman appears to be the perfect choice since, as he has displayed in several noteworthy projects—London’s Swiss Re (or Gherkin) Building and the Great Court of the British Museum, as well as the refurbished Reichstag in Berlin—he is most conversant with curvature.
Some of the first reactions to the proposed building have been dismissive, questioning the necessity and practicality of a torus-shaped structure, and pointing out that there is something regressive, not to say infantile, in wanting to construct a building that resembles a spaceship. But this misses the point. The history of architecture has long been dominated by such follies, from the Sepulchre of Mausolus in Halicarnassus and the Pantheon in Rome to the Taj Mahal and the Cathedral of Saint-Denis in Paris, all the way down to the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Though architects and patrons have always talked about functionality as though this were the driving force behind their designs, in fact they are more apt to be driven by a formal whim for which, after the fact, they find some justification.
Whatever functional arguments Steve Jobs might care to make, it seems pretty clear that he just really liked the idea of a four-story structure that looks like a spaceship and could house up to 12,000 employees. The world of personal computing is, perhaps, unique in the history of human enterprise in that it was almost entirely conceived and developed by Baby Boomers, the pot-headed hobbyists of the sixties and their sundry progeny in the succeeding micro-generations. They were unique in that the ethos of their activities seemed to be rooted in play, in leisure, rather than in the buttoned-down values of the previous generation.
The very names they give their enterprises are expressive of these ludic roots: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, LimeWire, Napster, and all the rest are a far cry from International Business Machines (IBM), or even Xerox, and seem to invoke the gonzoid spirit of the drug culture. This is evident as well in the very language of computing: spam, ping, Mozilla, Java. All of them suggest the same fundamentally unserious quality that is attested in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the ’60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry: “[B]ecause people [Jobs] knew well had not tried psychedelics, there were things about him they couldn’t understand. He also said that his countercultural roots often left him feeling like an outsider in the corporate world of which he was now a leader.”
Thus far, the people who brought us the personal computer have shown little interest in architecture, not excluding Jobs, for all his obsession with design. Just as the main movers and shakers of this revolution seem entirely indifferent to sartorial style, they have tended to seem equally indifferent to the buildings they inhabit—notwithstanding a few dazzling homes that are less about architecture than conspicuous consumption. Terminally square corporations like IBM and Johnson & Johnson might erect sleek architectonic projections of their corporate ethos, but the careers of Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates began in their parents’ garages, and in an architectural sense, they never left.
James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).