Atlantic Cities

Steve Jobs: The Starchitect of Cupertino

Steve Jobs: The Starchitect of Cupertino
Fosters+Partners/City of Cupertino

Compared to the United Arab Emirates or China, the U.S. hasn’t seen as much large-scale, ambitious, futuristic architecture in recent years. Even Zaha Hadid's upcoming condo project on the Highline in New York City looks pretty tame. She told New York Magazine, “It’s on a quite restricted site. You can’t really go wild.” The reality is, U.S. urban areas already have well-developed contexts, and the numerous approvals developers and architects need to secure tend to demand that any new large project fit well into its surroundings.

This is a big part of what makes Apple’s bold plan for a new 2.8 million square-foot, 175-acre "spaceship" campus so unprecedented. Early this week, the Cupertino City Council unanimously approved the $5 billion "Apple Mothership." The proposal just needs one more, largely perfunctory, vote in November before work on the site begins at the end of this year. The building is expected to open in 2016.

The office building's imposing, circular design has been criticized by urbanists for plenty of good reasons, and will no doubt have a big, in many ways negative, effect on its surroundings. According to the San Jose Mercury News, much of the city council deliberations centered on the environmental impacts of the project, with traffic consultants focusing on the "significant but unavoidable impacts on neighboring roadways."

In the end, the proposal nevertheless won resounding approval, because Cupertino just won’t dare lose the company that put its name on the map. The Mercury News reported that a longtime resident told the Council:

"As my mom used to say, 'don't bite the hand that feeds you.’ If we don't honor Apple with this building, they'll leave. There's no reason for them to stay here and be loyal to a community that doesn't support them. But if they left, it would be a disaster for the city."

Beside the economic leverage Apple the company has on Cupertino, steady support for the project no doubt also arises from the legacy of Steve Jobs. When Jobs first presented the project to the council in June 2011, it really felt like his fame and acclaim in product design instantly translated into this singular architectural vision for "the best office building in the world." (Nevermind that Norman Foster and Partners is the architecture firm in charge). Since Jobs' passing, Apple has associated the project with honoring his legacy. Current Apple CEO Tim Cook stated at the company’s annual meeting this past February:

“Steve put a lot of love and attention into this before he passed away. Hopefully we’ve made it better during the design phase. We want to do this right.”

Only a U.S. city so intimately tied to a crucial company can give such emphatic support to something as uncommonly big, strange, expensive, and context-defying as the Apple spaceship. Is this the new road to American starchitecture? 

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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