9 January 2012

THE PRIVATE CIRCLE

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An article from the Architect's Newspaper by Sean Daly describes the design philosophy and the critical reaction to the new Apple world headquarters in Cupertino, California. Anything Apple does in the design world attracts a lot of attention.  They have a well earned design continuousness, and for this endeavor they have teamed with the architect Norman Foster, king of the creations of sublime 'machines for living', or in this case, working.  Daly's article ponders Apple's Steve Jobs Zen Buddhist beliefs and how that help to form the design, opposed to what the critics imagined as being appropriate from the company that participated in so much reworking of the creative world.  

Sean Daly:

The ensō, or “circle,” is perhaps the most enduring motif in the Zen tradition, one that first appears in Japanese monasteries in the mid-1600s. The Zen circle is not a linguistic character, but rather a symbol that conveys a host of things—the universe, the cyclical nature of existence, enlightenment, strength, and poised contemplation. It suggests the Heart Sutra, which explains that “form is void and void is form,” as well as the path to Bodhisattva-hood.



On the other hand, the critics had a hard time with a shape so utterly simplistic, and a public face that seems so at odds with the innovative and welcoming user interface that Apple presents with its products and in its stores.  Here's Daly's take on what the critic Paul Goldberger wrote:

...He mocked the building as a “gigantic donut” that was “scary” in its lack of functionality and human scale. Though he typically will not judge an unbuilt design based on renderings, in this case Goldberger felt he must: "It’s said that Steve Jobs considers this building to be a key part of his legacy, which would be unfortunate, because it would mean that his last contribution to his company might well be his least meaningful."



Daly is right that the project critics have only offered up a quickie critique.  The private work environment and the grounds (what i call the semi-private) around the new Apple campus will be sublime.  I believe that this new complex will be flexible and egalitarian, encouraging the chance encounter between colleagues, as intended; no one will be disappointed that they are working in a doughnut.   I believe that it will be an efficient corporate edifice and a great place to work. This new campus may not be the greatest legacy of Jobs, but it will be a suitable envelope to what is his greatest legacy, the people who comprise the Apple Corporation itself.  

The 'Private' space, the space where all the work gets done will have done its job. Anyone who has done a serious space planning will see that the section through any part of the floor plate allows for plenty of flexibility for the building to reconfigure over time.  Work teams may expand or contract at will in either direction along the curb. And there is plenty of natural light and views from every location.

The surrounding grounds will isolate the inhabitants from the banality of the surrounding Cupertino area. It will be a beautiful place to look at, walk around, and think about whatever problem you are trying to solve.  
(I've written about the pleasures of a natural environment in the urban space here). The 'Semi Private', the transitional outside space that makes the inside work area comfortable and inspiring, is well provided in this design.

What the complex is lacking is the proper 'Public' interface, along with 'Semi Public' transition space, the things that give the complex meaning within the surrounding community.  It is completely unplugged from these things, and because it is so large, the Pentagon comparison (very large building with a courtyard in the middle in a suburban environment).  A complex completely dependent on the private automobile, offering little or nothing to the surrounding urban fabric speaks to all that has been wrong with common zoning practices from the last 70 years.

You could take that same internal zen environment, intact, and make the public interface something that make an outreach to public transportation, and makes more of an interface to the surrounding community, say in the form of a commercial district that would support the employees that work in the new campus.

A well thought through public and transitional semi-public spaces, a village within the Cupertino suburban community, with some housing, recreational, shopping, and community gathering programmed in, and done in the thoughtful way
(like Apple does with their stores), would provide an excellent venues for those who use or visitor just want to come by the Apple campus.

The Public
The Semi-Public
The Semi-Private
The Private

You don't have good urban design, you don't have architecture without all four. Don't cast away the project because it dimly resembles some government building, or that it relays on exhausted planning models. Simply recognize that its missing two of the four things that would make it great.


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