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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

The opportunity that Apple is missing to build a better neighborhood

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 10, 2012

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  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

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 - the students' street grid, with green spaces (courtesy of Shay and Amir Levanon)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)

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Rhonin DkJul 10 2012 11:47 AM

The sad / comical thing about their (Apple) design relates well to a comment I saw on one of the tech blogs when the design was announced: "This compliments their walled OS design approach. Well done Apple for your consistency."

steve coyleJul 10 2012 04:09 PM

It is a fine thing to be honest, but it is also very important to be right. Winston Churchill.
You're correct on both counts, Ken. Steve

Levi SchoenfeldJul 10 2012 05:06 PM

You mention the new plans for Amazon, and Google campuses, but some really interesting new stuff is going on in Las Vegas surrounding the Zappos offices. is heading up some of those efforts to make the area surrounding their new campus more integrated with the surrounding community and encourage a walkable, small business focused environment.

Tony NovelliJul 11 2012 01:26 PM

Picked this up off of Utne. I'm all for well thought out critiques, but the thrust of this is off target. Apple didn't get to where they are by diffusing their energy into community development off-campus. They've done their share of that, and the tip-of-the-hat from the city council is a testimonial to their presence and love for Cupertino. But as both a Mac user and a community activist, the project still thrills me. There is little mention of the vast resources being put into energy efficiency (this campus will be able to largely operate normally if the grid goes down), the new industries it is spawning in the revolutionary glass that Apple has developed for the exterior, or the now 5 massive alternative energy power plants the company is building. The need for secrecy is also not just a footnote. This is the top company in the most competitive range of technologies anywhere. Apple is both an industry and an economy unto itself. It creates massive community within the confines of their campus, and has always supported local economies to the extent it is reasonable. To just paste a New Urbanist approach to what you prioritize as their goals is naive. Apple has a hugely decentralized presence right now, and the constraints on growth it represents, as well as the practicality of trying to rebuild an entire community would be contrary to the mission of the company. Community development is really, REALLY easy to talk about. Retrofitting the disastrous development patterns of the last century is enormously complicated and expensive, and if Apple were to take it on, it would be something as all consuming as being the best and biggest technology company on the planet.

RandyDJul 12 2012 01:53 PM

Actually I struck by the amazing resemblence to Britain's GCHQ (their version of the National Security Agency), where they call their main building the Doughnut. Please see this link

David SucherJul 17 2012 09:53 PM

Not only does it not appear to contribute to walkability in its general neighborhood, it does not appear to be walkable on the campus itself and hence may not really contribute to internal communications and hence to greater profit.

The tragedy for Apple is that no one dares (even if they think it, which is not likely) to question the most visible and open public decisions by Saint Steve Jobs. (Written by one happy Apple fan-boy on either his iMac, MacBook, iPad or iPhone.)

Oh well, they'll figure some way to in-fill the hole in the donut over the years and create a much moire interesting place.

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