Acclaimed Global Architect Designs New Apple Spread

Apple’s new three million square-foot campus will be a world apart in Silicon Valley.

From The Registry July/August 2011 Issue.

Sharon Simonson

To the average Joe, the name Sir Norman Foster isn’t likely to elicit much response. But among those in the know, the name inspires awe, admiration, perhaps a bit of jealousy. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, recently completed a 320-page book about Sir Foster, and it is not the first. Foster’s work includes the Beijing airport, once the largest single building on the planet; the Great Court of the British Museum in London; the famous Reichstag glass dome, from which you can observe the German parliament and gain a 360 degree view of Berlin; and Two World Trade Center, a 79-story skyscraper now under construction—to name a very few.

Foster is also the architect whose firm, Foster + Partners, is designing the new Apple Inc. campus in Cupertino. Looking at Foster’s work—and there is a lot of it worldwide—it is clear that Apple’s campus will set a new standard. It will be dramatic, singular among Bay Area architecture and certain to draw even more attention to one of the world’s best-known brands. Companies in the valley who compete with Apple for talent had best watch their backs. If the Hearst Corp. experience—Foster designed the company’s spectacular New York City headquarters—is an indication, employees will be drawn like consumers to iPhones, and once there, will never want to leave.

“We’ve hired some great architects to work with, some of the best in the world,” Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs told the Cupertino City Council on June 7 when he unveiled the somewhat hazy and imprecise renderings of the new campus, a giant ring with four stories and a large interior courtyard full of trees. With 3.1 million square feet under one roof, it will be roughly three times the size of the current headquarters and accommodate 12,000 workers. Its cafe will be large enough to seat 3,000 at a time. The 155-acre site, much of it previously owned by Hewlett-Packard Co., will have 6,000 trees, including apricot orchards, and 5.9 million square feet of landscaping. Surface parking will be cut by 90 percent. “I think we do have a shot of building the best office building in the world,” Jobs told the Cupertino council.

It is fitting that people such as Jobs and Foster would find common ground. Both are titans in their respective industries. Foster comes from more humble beginnings, according to a review of Sudjik’s book, “Norman Foster: A Life of Architecture,” published in London’s Guardian newspaper. He also is considerably older (mid-70s versus Jobs’ 50- something). But both men have climbed as far as any human has. “Foster is one of the most remarkable people this country has produced in modern times,” says the Guardian’s reviewer, Rowan Moore. An American columnist might observe the same of Jobs.

Like Jobs, Foster’s influence is global. His skills are broad and extraordinarily deft, other professionals say. He can design a curving bridge to pass over a massive French gorge, a seaside housing development in Morocco, a yacht, and the Electronic Arts headquarters in Chertsey, U.K. His Bay Area achievements include two research buildings at Stanford University, the Clark Center and the Center for Clinical Science Research. He excels at detail and the architecture of the huge canvas, “from the spoon to the city,” a rare combination, said David Meckel, director of planning at the California College of the Arts, the art and architecture school with campuses in San Francisco and Oakland.

Meckel served as the architect-selection adviser to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when it sought a professional to design its new addition. Foster was a finalist but did not win. The museum seeks a younger audience and chose a more experimental, Norwegian firm, Meckel said. That did not diminish Foster’s light for him.

A part of Meckel’s duties included visiting Foster buildings—especially, though not exclusively, museums—in Europe, New York and Boston. Foster’s buildings “are unbelievably well-conceived and crafted. I have never seen a sloppy detail,” Meckel said. “They make you feel wonderful when you are in them.”

At Foster’s age, many architects begin to “regurgitate a bit,” Meckel notes. “He is not recycling at all.” At Foster’s London offices, which Meckel also visited, the firm “has an entire materials-research lab,” he said. “It is pretty impressive.”

The experience of working in Foster’s Hearst Tower is wonderful, said Lou Nowikas, senior director of corporate real estate and facilities planning for Hearst. Hearst wanted a 21st century building that translated to the world its forward aspect and dedication to progress, Nowikas said. It wanted to use its current, historic offices at 300 W. 57th St. as the starting point.

Foster introduced and persuaded Hearst to adopt a sustainable model. “You can’t be world-class if it’s not sustainable,” Nowikas said. The process was arduous, iterative and time-consuming. Senior-most company executives dedicated hours monthly to its execution. Early designs were too avant-garde for Hearst, but they pulled the company’s thinking forward.

Before he began working in the 856,000 square-foot tower, he spent much of his previous work life on construction sites and outside, Nowikas said. “In this building, you are always connected with the outside environment. There are two things you always know: the time of day and the weather.”

Employees were scattered across a dozen Hearst-owned buildings working for one of its various magazines. Corporate culture was fractured. Today, of the 1,800 workers in the building, 1,000 a day still lunch in the central cafe. Nowikas recently suggested to a manager that his fast-growing division move from the structure to accommodate the workers. No way, the manager replied, if I move from Hearst Tower, I might lose them.

Niall Saunders, chair of the California chapter of The Royal Institute of British Architects USA, says a large campus such as Apple is proposing will involve hundreds of workers including structural, electrical and materials engineers, lighting and acoustical consultants and traffic engineers. The building itself will likely be large enough to see from space, he said.

Given Foster’s proclivities in the past, “You would be looking for a very forward-looking, modernistic work with a strong bias toward cutting-edge technologies for achieving ecologically sound results,” he said. There would be a push for carbon-neutral operations and water conservation. (Apple is working with a Stanford University arborist who is an expert on indigenous trees, Jobs said.)

Foster, who also designed London’s famous Gherkin building, has been criticized for its extensive use of glass, which lacks good insulating qualities, and some allege the building retains too much heat in the summer, Saunders said. Still, the Gherkin illustrates many of Foster’s architectural qualities: experimentation with form, willingness to undertake the nontraditional, an exploration of space and movement, especially with air movement in the Gherkin’s case, but also with light.

The Apple campus also will make extensive use of glass. Jobs told Cupertino’s council that the structure will not have a single straight pane of glass; every piece will be curved. “We’ve used our experience in making retail buildings all over the world. We know how to make the biggest pieces of glass in the world for architectural use,” he said.

Jobs pointedly rejected a campus that would have multiple buildings as the Infinite Loop site does. “They get pretty boring, pretty fast,” he said. “So we would like to do something better than that.”

Before introducing the new building’s renderings to the Cupertino council, Jobs related an amazing tale of calling Bill Hewlett at his Palo Alto home when Jobs was 13 to ask for spare parts for a device known as a frequency counter. Hewlett gave him the parts and a summer job, something much more valuable, Jobs said. Around that same time, Hewlett and Dave Packard bought the land that Apple has now acquired. HP built its computer systems division on the site, Jobs said. The buildings from that era will now be replaced with Apple’s next-century iteration of the office. “It’s a pretty amazing building,” Jobs told the council. “It is pretty cool.”

Apple hopes to break ground next year and move into the building in 2015.

West Coast Commercial Real Estate News