Design Philosophy and Scale (Why Apple is Terrible at Urbanism)

Design philosophy is fundamental to the success of a design effort. Given that, I have developed a keen interest in the culmination of design philosophy and what that means for designers of all types. An idea that has been germinating for quite some time for me is the notion that design philosophies that work at one scale might not necessarily work at another scale. The premier example is Apple

The Scales of Apple

Apple works at multiple scales. While they are probably most famous for their computing hardware (the object scale) they are more than just hardware. For the
purposes of this argument I am only considering physical design so I am willfully ignoring the aspects of Apple’s design legacy that aren’t overtly physical in nature - specifically software, services, systems, and engineering.[1] That leaves us with two design scales in addition to the object scale: the individual building (stores) and the district (campus).

The Object

Apple’s design philosophy is most clearly seen at the object level. This is where the rationality and the purity have the most perfect expression. Apple is famously minimalist in its design ethos and every subsequent design becomes more and more pure in its minimalist simplicity.

A great example of what the Apple design philosophy is all about is the iPhone. The iPhone 4 form factor is amazingly pure and exudes design sophistication and quality in every detail. The attention to detail and the no compromise attitude towards materiality, form, and function is astounding. This phone seems like the ultimate result of the Apple design philosophy at work and, when compared to previous models, it is readily apparent that this was the inevitable result of relentless refinement of a strong initial concept. It also successfully makes the previous models look crude and cheap in comparison.

I would argue that this minimalist, rational design philosophy works quite well at the object scale. The rationality and the purity of the design is readily apparent to the user. There is a focus and a clarity to the product that allows the user to easily understand the object, how to interact with the object, and allows the product to do its job without interference from the product’s design. The lack of unnecessary ornamentation allows the function of the object to become primary and the object itself fades to the background. The purity of materiality enables the object to have a sense of quality and durability. Any wear that occurs is a natural property of that material. The combination of pure expression of material and clean, minimalist aesthetic works perfectly at the object scale.

The Building

Apple is famous for its retail stores that allow no compromises architecturally and have been compared to religious architecture. This is particularly true of the “flagship” stores in major cities around the world. As an extension of the Apple brand, the flagships stores are imbued throughout with that certain Apple quality. They are generally minimalist and thoroughly modern with copious amounts of glass and steel. The most famous examples are exceedingly pure and rational in their forms. The interiors, regardless of the prestige of the store, are generally the same with light colored wood tables for the products and open layouts.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming desire for minimalist, rational retail stores, Apple has shown itself to be respectful and deferential in some locations. When Apple opens stores in older buildings, typically in historical districts of older cities, the result many times has been of external deference with internal compliance with the brand imaging. Examples of this dichotomy exist in many of the great cities around the world including New York, London, and Paris.

This interesting duality in the overall analysis of Apple stores belies a certain breakdown of the design philosophy at the building scale. Apple has been forced to admit that minimalism isn’t appropriate in all locations. While the perfect glass cube works well as an iconic landmark, it does so almost more as a rational, pure object than as a piece of architecture.[2] Because Apple has proven itself sensitive to context, the minimalist, pure design philosophy still works at the building scale. If Apple were more rigid in its application, the result would be less appealing and the breakdown of the design ethos would be more apparent.

The District

Apple has not had the opportunity to do much at a district/campus/block level but they do have one current shining example of what the Apple design philosophy looks like at such a large scale - the plan for the new campus in Cupertino. When finished it will hold 13,000 employees in the most pure, rational example of large scale design possible - a single circular building larger in circumference than the Pentagon. Unfortunately, it will also be a disaster from an urban design standpoint.

The problem is twofold. First, the design of the building lacks any humanizing scale elements. It is entirely minimalist (pure) without ornamentation so there is nothing to relate the building back to the human scale. It is much too large a building to work as an object so it must work as a building and unfortunately it fails to humanize. It is, as Steve Jobs himself referred to it, alien like a “spaceship landed” in the orchards of Cupertino.

The second issue is one of context. The new building will hold over 10,000 workers and every one of them will arrive by car. The design accommodates these cars in a clever and pleasing way - it puts them underground. However, the ultimate failing of the design is that it continues down the path of limiting or even eliminating options. Instead of embracing and enhancing the neighborhood, the campus is insular like a large cocoon. It adds no vitality, no connections, and no meaningful value to the neighborhood. It is entirely selfish and self-serving to the detriment of all around.

It is unfortunate that the ultimate design of incredible purity, minimalism, and rationality is so far from the mark. However, I think that it is more a problem of the underlying design philosophy than the implementation. At the urban scale, minimalism and rational purity just don’t work well. Urban life is necessarily complex, multifaceted, and sometimes irrational. The messiness of a thriving neighborhood or district cannot be eliminated through pure design because it isn’t a problem to be solved but rather a natural conclusion of a well functioning place. Life is messy. Life is irrational. Life is multifaceted. The best places embrace that and provide the services and connections necessary to thrive. This Apple campus instead turns its back on the world and becomes a cocoon of exceptional design purity.

Scale Matters

The reason why I can love my iPhone including the physical design while being extremely critical of the new Apple Campus is not because I am not consistent in my aesthetic desires. Apple is being extremely consistent with its design philosophy. The new Apple campus is the ultimate example of minimalist, rationally pure design. The reason why I can love one and hate the other is because scale matters. Design has to accommodate different issues at different scales and because of that sometimes a design philosophy won’t scale well. Apple seems to have recognized this at the building level in their deference to local and historical contexts in certain locations around the world but have neglected to make the necessary adjustments in their own backyard.

  1. There is an interesting tension I may expand upon later in the intense purity of the hardware design with the skeumorphic decoration of the software. This makes the super geeks uncomfortable but I think there is an important purpose in humanizing the cold, pure object through the software.  ↩
  2. The only architectural function served by the cube is that of entry as the entire store actually sits underground.  ↩

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