Apple Is Missing A Major Opportunity To Build A Better Neighborhood

design for Apple's new HQ (courtesy of city of Cupertino)

What Cupertino, California is getting

illustrative rendering of Levanons' alternative (courtesy of Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon)

What Cupertino, California needs

by Kaid Benfield, via NRDC’s Switchboard

I never intended to become so knowledgeable about Apple, Inc.’s new “spaceship” headquarters being developed in Cupertino, California.  Really, I didn’t.  But the design seemed to me to be way overscaled for humans and particularly wrong for a classic slice of California sprawl that is begging to be retrofitted into a more walkable and people-oriented environment.  Apple is already a world leader in consumer technology; this was its chance to be a world leader also for community-oriented sustainability.

The corporation has already shown a commendable ability to support transit and walkability in certain neighborhoods where it has retail outlets.  Another high-tech giant with a need for security, Amazon, is showing how to revive an older neighborhood for its new, highly walkable headquarters in Seattle.  Google has signaled its strong desire to position its future headquarters amid a mixed-use, housing- and transit-rich environment.  So the potential was there.

Instead, Apple chose to design its new headquarters as if it were a new consumer product, an “iBuilding” of sorts with a clean, high-concept design that reinforces the company’s futuristic corporate brand.  In that sense, it probably succeeded:  the building is cool-looking in an abstract sort of way, the kind of structure that will make people go “wow.”  But it does nothing to make Silicon Valley a better environment for people, and might even make it harder to improve the walkability of Cupertino by sealing off potential walking routes.

the existing site, with big-box suburban buildings highlighted (courtesy of Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon) Apple's design (courtesy of city of Cupertino)

So I called them on it, twice.  And, man, did I get hammered by an army of Apple loyalists.  “You’re just a hater and a loser” was one of the comments, and I think the writer probably spoke for 90 percent of the people who bothered to write.  It didn’t help that one of the sites that publishes my work decided to run a headline that said “Why Apple’s new headquarters is bad for America.”  That wasn’t quite what I said or believed, but I do believe the design is bad for Cupertino, and a poor representative of how suburban communities should be evolving in the twenty-first century.

I stand by that assessment, which was shared by other architecture and city thinkers.  Instead of creating a look-at-me “statement” sort of building that stands alone, Apple should be increasing the connectivity of its site to the surrounding community.  It should be building affordable housing integrated into its design.  It should be transit-ready, facing the street, to make walking to and from buses and perhaps a future light rail line more logical and direct when more transit comes to Cupertino, as it surely will in some form.  It should reduce the size of its ten thousand-vehicle parking garage.

Remarkably, two architecture students in Tel Aviv, Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon, have now issued a comprehensive report showing Apple exactly how to do just those things.  Drawing from international examples of walkable places, and from sprawling suburban sites being retrofitted to become less car-oriented and more people-oriented, the students demonstrate how Apple could be making a powerful corporate design statement in favor of community and connectedness.  Galena Tachieva, an expert in suburban architecture whom I believe was consulted on the project, puts it this way:

“Even without comparing this project to the very suburban and over- scaled proposal for Cupertino by [architects] Foster + Partners, one can easily observe the excellent qualities of this project. It is a rational and common-sense response to a real challenge – how to incorporate an office campus of a world famous company within the context of a sprawling suburb.  As I have argued before, the Foster plan missed an opportunity to correct past mistakes in the way the region grew, and to infuse sprawling Cupertino with a piece of real urbanism.

“Shay and Amir’s project is doing exactly this:  it creates simple and predictable urban fabric, but which is a decent, walkable human environment, instead of a spaceship isolated and disconnected from its surrounding . . . they came up with many creative ideas of how Apple can become a real positive force in the community of Cupertino, not only through excellent urbanism but also through innovative funding, branding and implementation”

That is extremely well put.

The students’ alternative plan, which was developed with the support of Professor Hillel Schocken, includes a multi-building concept for Apple’s own offices; a new, walkable street grid; human-scaled rental housing of various types; space for local businesses; neighborhood parks and gardens; places for retail; daycare and kindergarten facilities, not just for Apple employees but for the community; and nightlife and entertainment.  Housing and mixed-use facilities would enable some employees to live and shop near work, as many Silicon Valley icons are advocating.  The idea would be to create, in the students’ words, an “Apple Greenhouse for innovation, research and technology.”

illustrative rendering of student proposal (courtesy of Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon)

Apple would be given the most prominent locations in the new neighborhood for its own buildings, which still could feature iconic design.  (The renderings show rather ordinary California architecture, but they are just illustrative.)  The difference for Cupertino would be that the community would have not just a new and prestigious corporate headquarters, but also a new neighborhood along with it.

All this is ambitious, to be sure.  But Apple is exactly the kind of corporate giant with the clout and resources to pull it off.

key ingredients (courtesy of Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon)

If the shortcoming of Apple’s “spaceship” concept is that it neglects the community, a shortcoming of the students’ design is that it could have done much more for the environment.  The students apply traditional urbanist design principles to the site, vastly improving it, but make no mention of such potential innovations as energy-saving district heating and cooling systems, green building materials and technology, use of native vegetation for landscaping, water efficiency, advanced waste management, or green infrastructure for streets, sidewalks, and rooftops.  (Actually, these omissions are also a shortcoming of traditional urbanist design principles in general.)  Maybe that’s a possibility for Professor Schocken’s next group of students?

Meanwhile, congratulations to the Levanons for a great piece of work that shows how a corporation with a suburban campus – but also with a strong will to have its design improve its community – might proceed.

Apple's gain from the alternative proposal (courtesy of Shay Levanon and Amir Levanon)

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard and was reprinted with permission.


13 Responses to Apple Is Missing A Major Opportunity To Build A Better Neighborhood

  1. Peter M says:

    apple seems to have lost its way- transcending into a new level of arrogance & pretension. Its new campus seems totally ostentatious.

  2. Lionel A says:

    Looks like Apple is becoming environmentally rudderless as it withdraws products from EPEAT

  3. You are exactly right.

    Let me add that the building was designed by the celebrity starchitect, Norman Foster.

    It is the same old story: starchitect designs an icon meant to attract attention to itself, and ignores both the environment and the human scale.

  4. Apple never was environmental friendly.

  5. Len Conly says:

    The lack of bicycle infrastructure in the Apple design is also noteworthy. It appears to be a large “campus” and it would seem that biking would be an excellent way to move around such a large space.

  6. Len Conly says:

    Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA is a notorious example. It might as well be in the middle of a desert as far as a walkable neighborhood is concerned.

  7. Ian says:

    Not sure I agree with your argument, while some of it is true, Apple is putting in what is essentially a huge park, with tree and local wildflower plantings. This is not what I would call environmentally unfriendly.

    My city is in the midst of a green building plan and urban diversification. While it is doing this it is busy covering almost every square foot of land with a green structure.

    I am starting to wonder where all the green went.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    Showcasing the better alternatives — Amazon’s walkable, urban HQ, plus the two students’ detailed, thoughtful plan, helps make this a great, helpful article.

    Clean energy has many parts, and good architecture is a crucial one.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Big statement, intrusive, architecture vs fitting in. The pretty form vs function.

    Just what is costing Apple to feed the ego of a high profile architect?

  10. Tango says:

    Not everyone is a fan of “urban districts”. If you read about what the ideas behind Apple’s building was one of the primary functions of this building was to being very one under the same roof. Principe that Steve Jobs borrowed from a similar concept at Pixar. There is one big difference between Amazon and Apple is that apple is in Cupertino. Theres literally no point is creating an urban look and feel in Cupertino. If yo do manage to create it you will be creating something fake and not natural. Just look at the Campuses of Cisco in Milpitas OR Google in Mountain view. These are HUGE urban campuses that are mostly a waste of space with low density buildings with mostly parking spaces. Apple idea I think is much better. What cupertino (as a resident) needs is more green spaces not a made up street that pretends to be like San Francisco or Seattle.

  11. Jody says:

    I don’t think this is arrogant, it’s functional and doesn’t affect the skyline as the natural trees will for the most part hide the building from a distance. To me it has the feeling of a peaceful park with a wondrous technological center that would be impressive to walk upon and relaxing to look out of. No matter which side you’re on/in, you are looking at nature.

    A big park, nonintrusive skyline, natural surroundings and it’s own decently enviro-friendly power source all makes this an argument between philosophies, neither of which is particularly wrong. The “better” design fails in that it is only a single viewpoint, and incomplete in certain areas. It is just different than apple’s design and isn’t better for a company like apple that is tightly integrated, given that it would be spread throughout an urban area.

  12. Larry Gilman says:

    My life is loaded with Apple products, but corporate loyalism is nowheresville. So: You’re spot on about why show-off corporate megastructures are no good for humans on the ground — though they are very, very good for some architects.

    Shaded, street-level, walking-scale, human-oriented urban design is the only sane way to go, I believe. We have enough sterile, wearisomely huge urban environments and objects already. Impressive megastructures are for corporate egos, not people on the ground. We humans are actually happiest in a richly textured urban environment full of walkable spaces, bikable spaces, sittable spaces in complex proximity to jobs, services, diverse retail, etc. Sure, a “campus” could be done in a bad, sterile way or a creepy, totalitarian way (think Disney) — and perhaps Apple might be too likely to tilt to the latter, given its control-freak corporate personality — but the _opportunity_ is in that direction.

    I think Apple’s design is creepily reminiscent of the Pentagon. Sort of a cross between the Pentagon and an iPod Classic control wheel.

    Would anyone dare to mar that futuristic roof with panels for solar water and power? They don’t appear in the rendering . . .

  13. Taycon says:

    I would wager that hardly anyone in Cupertino really cares about walkability at the Apple campus, because they all live on the other side of the 280 freeway from the campus.

    Sunnyvale is the town being affected. Apple will have a beautiful park with a huge flying saucer in the middle that is private with fences all around. They are even planning on blocking Pruneridge Ave. so that all east-west traffic will have to move to Homestead. Definitely not friendly!