I had the opportunity to go inside the Apple Park last weekend as a visitor. Ever since the park began its construction in 2013, many critics wrote about its architecture and impact on its surrounding community. My initial impressions were mixed. The park appeared to be a physical manifestation of the working culture at Apple. Of course, I have no working experience at Apple. Its corporate culture is something I’ve only heard about from friends and blogs. But when I looked at the campus design, I can’t help but feel a sense of intriguing contradiction. The entire ring is unified yet divided so you can only access the floors and sections you need to access. Unity and division, collaboration and competition, transparency and secrecy. These oxymorons defined the Apple Park for me, so I have always wanted to experience this place first-hand.
We began our tour by entering a white-ceramic tiled tunnel that spans five lanes wide each way. The hill slope slices the tunnel into two graceful slopes like the tips of bamboo spears, piercing the little hill over which the Apple Park lies. Driving into this large entrance felt akin to driving into a sprawling airport complex. It just felt odd given that this is merely a driveway into a private company’s parking lot.
After a few turns and twists, we parked on the 3rd level of the massive parking structure south of the campus. I was reminded of the fact that Apple has more parking space than office space. . Since it was proposed, the Apple Park has been criticized for its disconnection from the surrounding communities. People have questioned whether the isolation is antithetical to the generational tide toward smart urban development and whether Apple can still retain its creative edge in an autonomous bubble. I’m not sure how much creativity and innovation have to do with how urban an area is. Silicon Valley, if anywhere, has demonstrated that connections and idea cross-pollination are more important to creativity than physical proximity, although the latter definitely fosters serendipitous encounters which often beget ideas. Nevertheless, it disappoints me a little that Apple, one of world’s richest companies, did not build a more contemporary office space with mixed use commercial and residential spaces and better transit accessibility than office parks did in the 1970’s. I’d hoped that Cupertino could be a pioneer in retrofitting suburbs into a more walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible city model thanks to Apple’s development.
After receiving our badges, we followed a trail into the Apple Park. As we headed downhill and caught our first close-up glimpse of the building, it appeared almost otherworldly. Its incredibly uniform lines of stainless steel and bands of glass panels carved a solemn ring into California’s characteristic summer flora with dashes of brown and beige.
It’s breathtaking and intimidating at the same time. The bulging exterior shows no signs of weakness. I felt that I could walk round and round without finding a way into the building. But of course, that wasn’t the case. We arrived at a section clearly labeled “5” by a steel panel and passed through the nondescript glass doorway. There was something about the seamless layering of white eaves and transparent glass that just made me slightly uncomfortable. Not the creeped out kind of discomfort, but more of the OCD kind. It occurred to me that it must be a daunting task to maintain something this massive with the same perfectionist standards applied to their consumer packaged goods.
Inside the ring, the sightseeing route was highly controlled. Most office areas were locked down with rollable fire doors and opaque blinds. The paranoia was viscerally real. Visitor areas were as pristine as laboratories and minimalist down to every detail. The liveliest spot was the main cafeteria, which, by no coincidence, looked and felt like a huge Apple Store.
The park area was just as manicured as the rest of the place. Young Macintosh trees and other native Californian plants interleave with pedestrian and bike trails. At its center, 6 descending arcs form a massive rainbow installation that serve as the stage for outdoor company events. This pop of color, perhaps the only playful architecture in the entire 175-acre campus, stands on an open grass area at the center of the ring. A perfectly circular pond sat at a 10 o’clock direction from the center. Three ducklings gracefully coasted the shallow water as visitors walked around to the sound of a water pump and the radiating summer sun.
Everywhere we went, the consistency of the interior design and lack of anything playful indoors created this intensely focused and oppressively clinical ambience. The occasional leather seats and indoor trees did not help when the exact same setup cloned itself from one section to another, replicated in such high accuracy that my mind was questioning whether I had just walked through some sort of wormhole back to the last stop. There was no thematic or creative differentiation between each section. Even the micro-kitchens felt like exact replicas for scientific accuracy. The sameness was so well executed that it almost felt creepy.
If there is such a thing as depriving unnecessary stimuli to heighten focus and channel raw creativity, then Apple Park nails it. Throughout the entire 2-mile loop around the campus, I did not see a single office window decorated with personal items or colorful stickers. The entire complex is as neutral as a CAD rendering, devoid of humanity, and all of our imperfections, whims, and emotions. Or perhaps it felt that way just because it was a weekend, it was literally devoid of the inhabitants it was built for. The hallways looked like hospital alleyways—clear of obstructions and prominently monotone. Pairs of armchairs robotically lined up the curved hallway like the tickmarks on a clock. Through the ceiling-to-floor glass that was almost invisible, I stood there with nothing but me and views of nature. Everything else was just supporting characters.
Perhaps that was the point. Maybe that’s why I felt so exposed and uncomfortable. I had to stop and do a reality check. My workplace, Google, seems to encourage employee creativity and spontaneity through its playful and whimsical interior design. Meeting spaces and lounge areas are littered with uplifting lighting and random toys. Most things aren’t consistent and that is the point. From one place to another, you are constantly stimulated by a plethora of controlled chaos. Perhaps the philosophy behind the IDEO-pioneered design is to encourage creativity through environmental stimuli, polar opposite of the Apple Park.
When I stood close to the glass wall, I understood the source of the OCD urges that arose within me when I viewed this layered baumkuchen from the outside.
The white eaves extend outward from the floor as if they flowed in unison. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels made up the entire wall. It looked cool, but I could not stop seeing the layer of dust and imperfections that were literally right in front of me, so close to my feet. As for the “walls,” any small smears could pop that illusion of invisibility. It couldn’t be more clear to myself after the visit that I was mostly stressed out by the material choices—most of the them only aesthetically pleasing in their perfectly clean state. They allowed no natural aging or imperfections to set in. Unlike wood when properly treated, the copious amount of work required to maintain the building is necessitated by its binary state of cleanliness. How will the building age with time? How much waste is produced in the process of maintain the perfect façade of the Park? I have no idea. Everything felt high-maintenance.
I realize that my impression might be highly judgmental. Perhaps, like many of Apple’s products, the real value is the lack of unnecessary distractions. Perhaps the demanding cleanliness actually helps people focus. I don’t know. The entire experience felt overwhelmingly Steve Jobs—the no-bullshit, intensely focused, and geniuses-vs-idiots attitude unfolded itself in concrete and steel. I wonder, if Apple planned to build a headquarter half a decade later, what sort of design would Tim Cook commission?
For now, the Apple Park sits in my mental bucket together with the Westworld underground control rooms, Black Mirror interior design, and other dystopian fantasies. Only time will tell what kind of legacy that a Jobs-era Apple architecture will leave behind on this planet.