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Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple seeks design perfection at new 'spaceship' campus

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Inside the original Macintosh computer, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs inscribed the signatures of his team, revealing his deep concern for even the hidden features of his products.

His last work – Apple Inc's sprawling new headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. - will be a fitting tribute: a futuristic campus built with astonishing attention to detail. From the arrangement of electrical wiring to the finish of a hidden pipe, no aspect of the 2.8 million-square-foot main building has been too small to attract scrutiny.

But constructing a building as flawless as a hand-held device is no easy feat, according to interviews with nearly two dozen current and former workers on the project, most of whom would not be named because they signed non-disclosure agreements.

Since Apple unveiled its plans in 2011, the move-in date has slowly receded: Jobs' initial projection was 2015, but this spring now seems most likely, according to people involved in the project. A lengthy approval process with the city contributed to the delay.

Apple has not revealed the total price tag, but former project managers estimate it at about $5 billion - a figure CEO Tim Cook did not dispute in a 2015 TV interview. More than $1 billion was allocated for the interior of the main building alone, according to a former construction manager.

For all the time and money sunk into the project, some in the architecture community question whether Apple has focused on the right ends. The campus is something of an exception to the trend of radically open offices aimed at fostering collaboration, said Louise Mozingo, a professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at U.C. Berkeley. Its central office building – a massive ring of glass frequently likened to a spaceship – could be a challenge just to navigate, she noted.

"It's not about maximizing the productivity of the office space, it's about creating a symbolic center for this global company," she said. "They are creating an icon."

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

WORLD'S LARGEST PIECE OF CURVED GLASS

Tech companies have long favored generic office parks, which allow them to lease and shed space through booms and busts. Jobs' unveiling of what's formally known as Apple Campus 2, months before his death, marked a new chapter in Silicon Valley architecture.

When completed, the campus will house up to 14,200 employees, according to the 2013 project description. The main building – which boasts the world's largest piece of curved glass – will be surrounded by a lush canopy of thousands of trees. Little remains from the cement-laden campus Apple acquired from Hewlett-Packard, though the iPhone maker preserved a century-old barn that remained intact as the land passed from tech giant to tech giant.

But what was most striking to those who worked on the project was Apple managers' insistence on treating the construction of the vast complex the same way they approach the design of pocket-sized electronics.

Apple's in-house construction team enforced many rules: No vents or pipes could be reflected in the glass. Guidelines for the special wood used frequently throughout the building ran to some 30 pages.

Tolerances, the distance materials may deviate from desired measurements, were a particular focus. On many projects, the standard is 1/8 of an inch at best; Apple often demanded far less, even for hidden surfaces.

The company's keen design sense enhanced the project, but its expectations sometimes clashed with construction realities, a former architect said.

"With phones, you can build to very, very minute tolerances," he said. "You would never design to that level of tolerance on a building. Your doors would jam."

The project, which generated about 13,000 full-time construction jobs, took a toll on contractors. The original general contractors, Skanska USA and DPR Construction, left after work began, which construction experts called a rare development for a project of such scale. The reasons for the departures are unclear, and neither Apple nor the firms would comment.

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