What Apple’s ‘spaceship’ campus reveals about its culture, workforce, and city vs. suburbs

“That the world’s first e-mail was sent from a picnic table outside at Zott’s goes well with the rest of Silicon Valley lore, like the founding of Hewlett-Packard in one garage and Apple in another,” Paul Goldberger writes for Vanity Fair. “Most of Silicon Valley is suburban sprawl, plain and simple, its main artery a wide boulevard called El Camino Real that might someday possess some degree of urban density but now could be on the outskirts of Phoenix. Zott’s is what passes for local color, but even this spirited roadhouse has a certain generic look to it. You could imagine it being almost anywhere out West, the same way that so much of Silicon Valley looks like generic suburbia.”

“And even after a few people began doing unusual things in their garages, and other people started inventing things in the university’s laboratories, and even after some of these turned into the beginnings of large corporations, some of which became successful beyond anyone’s imagination—even these things didn’t make Silicon Valley look all that different from everyplace else,” Goldberger writes. “The tech companies got bigger and bigger, but that has generally just meant that the sprawl sprawled farther. There was certainly nothing about the physical appearance of these few square miles that told you it was the place that had generated more wealth than anywhere else in our time.”

Apple Campus 2 project - "Mothership" - Cupertino, CA
Apple Campus 2 project – Cupertino, CA

“Until now, that is. In June of 2011, four months before his death, Steve Jobs appeared before the City Council of Cupertino, where Apple’s headquarters are located. It was the last public appearance Jobs would make, and if it did not have quite the orchestrated panache of his carefully staged product unveilings in San Francisco, it was fixed even more on the future than the latest iPhone,” Goldberger writes. “Jobs was presenting the designs for a new headquarters building that Apple proposed to build, and that the City Council would have to approve. It was a structure unlike any other that his company, or any other in the world, had ever built: a glass building in the shape of a huge ring, 1,521 feet in diameter (or nearly five football fields), and its circumference would curve for nearly a mile. It was designed by Sir Norman Foster, the British-born architect known for the elegance of his work and for the uncompromising nature of his sleek, modern aesthetic—close to Jobs’s own. In a community that you could almost say has prided itself on its indifference to architecture, Apple, which had already changed the nature of consumer products, seemed now to want to try to do nothing less than change Silicon Valley’s view of what buildings should be.”

“Tim Tosta, a San Francisco land-use and environmental lawyer sees the Valley as having no choice but to become gradually more city-like. For better or worse, though, it is the two most architecturally ambitious projects, Foster’s Apple spaceship and Gehry’s Facebook workroom under a garden, that will define the region’s architecture for the next decade. It’s notable that when Silicon Valley finally felt ready to up the architectural ante it went to two of the most established brand names in the business. While neither building is conservative by any standard, neither Foster nor Gehry represents the kind of commitment to being at the cutting edge that these companies try to maintain on the technology front,” Goldberger writes. “It would be intriguing to imagine what architects a generation or two behind Foster, who is 78, and Gehry, who is 84, would have come up with if they had been asked to think about the problem of an office of the future for a company of the future.”

Tones more in the full article – recommended – here.


  1. That picture makes it look like the new HQ building is located in the middle of a wilderness… 🙂

    Once Apple opens that building, the rest of business area Cupertino, where Apple currently leases MANY buildings, may resemble a ghost town. Of course, by the time the “spaceship” is completed, it’s possible that Apple will need it PLUS all the existing real estate.

  2. They should probably talk about exactly how much “young talent” can afford for housing. I doubt many are going to be able to afford the good or decent parts of San Fran.

    1. Which isn’t much of an issue, since most Apple employees (most of Silicon Valley, for that matter) don’t live in San Francisco, which is about 45 minutes from Cupertino.

  3. Vanity Fair is considered fluff by technology aficionados, so I offer this compensation.

    The article claims that with a circumference of about a mile, a meeting between two people on the same floor of Apple’s spaceship would require a walk of up to 2640 feet, not especially good for collaboration. (And everyone would be walking in circles! Arcs, actually.)

    What’s to stop one walking the diameter, only 1521 feet, or meeting in the centre at 760.5? Picky, I know. Anyway, just as there exist Otis elevators for vertical transport (as with the Empire State Building, 1250 feet to its roof) every spaceship should include lateral transport tubes if not golf carts or Segways, lest employees be late or arrive in sweaty condition, never the balm of collaboration.

    But as Isaac Asimov’s vision of virtual meetings has long since been achieved, why is walking distance even a point of contention? (Apart from the journalistic convention to never let anyone of merit go undinged, successful corporations included.)

    Vanity Fair’s geometric analysis reduces employees to points on a circle, ignoring their ordering. Yet every organisation has a ranking structure, decidedly not egalitarian. Collaboration is performed in clusters, not randomly, not according to distance metrics, and most of all, not isolated from the sense of purpose that unites a group and inspires its members as they move to their workstations, preparing for takeoff.

    1. That said, some employees look like they could use some more walking.

      As you you pointed out, chances are the desks aren’t assigned in a raffle. Most likely, people will change their desks as they move in and out of different projects.

      I wonder if LEGO could make a brick-version of the campus – they’d sell a ton (to a mostly adult audience) – I would probably be tempted, too 😉

    2. In the video of Steve Jobs first presenting his idea to the Cupertino City Council, he specifically points out the many entrances along the inner circumference so that employees can walk through the inner garden to meetings on the other side.

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