Steve Jobs hated windows, and yet Apple built this…

The architect whose research demonstrated the benefits of “natural lighting” for learning turns a skeptical eye on Apple’s mothership.

From Lisa Heschong’s “Visual Delight in Architecture: Daylight, Vision and View” published last month by Routledge (excerpted with permission):

While space stations, submarines, and even hospital laboratories, have obvious physical limitations on access to daylight and view, there are other types of workplaces which have imposed their own limitations, primarily over the issue of visual security. Most companies have some sensitivity to visual security. Traditionally, employees dealing with sensitive information worked inside private offices, with lockable doors. Later, in open-plan offices, companies have commonly dealt with this concern via use of polarized films or other devices that restrict the viewing angle of a computer screen.

However, there are some companies who have taken concern about visual security to an extreme—restricting all employee access to windows. I first encountered this phenomenon years ago when [Apple Inc. was] growing at a phenomenal rate, and leasing practically every existing building in and around Cupertino, California. (Their giant donut-shaped headquarters was still in the planning stage.) The facilities manager told me his job was to lease, design and furnish enough space for 50 new employees per week, for the next three years. That’s the equivalent of occupying about one new 10,000 square foot building per week, every week, for the foreseeable future. These were mostly existing one- and two-story buildings dotted around Cupertino’s suburban landscape.

The hitch was someone in upper management had decided that no one should ever be able to see into any building occupied by Apple, not from the street, the sidewalk, a parking garage, or even overhead from a helicopter or drone. The facility manager wanted to know if he could preserve some sense of view of the outdoors for the employees, while preventing any possibility of view into the building, day or night. I was flummoxed.

Optics is generally a two-way street; what works in one direction is perfectly reversed in the other direction. I suggested that they carve out some interior courtyards and cultivate some interior gardens; but that idea was rejected as consuming too much valuable space that could house a few more employees. As best I know, the windows of every leased buildings were therefore covered over with a thick frosted film, like an impenetrable fog encasing all employees, in order to prevent any imaging equipment from ever seeing into Apple’s very private enterprise.

The great irony was that Apple’s new, 2.8 million square-foot headquarters building opened in 2019 featured four floors of massive floor-to-ceiling clear glass windows, curling around an iconic circular building, as a visual metaphor for the company’s purported transparency and vision of the future (while ignoring every precept of thoughtful solar orientation and shading). A review of the new headquarters building in Wired Magazine interviewed Tim Cook, the new CEO of Apple who took over after Apple’s founder Steven Jobs died in 2011. He explained that Jobs’ aims for the great circular building “were not just aesthetic. He did his best thinking during walks and was especially inspired by ambling in nature, so he envisioned how Apple workers would do that too. Can you imagine doing your work in a national park? … When I really need to think about something I’m struggling with, I get out in nature. We can do that now! It won’t feel like Silicon Valley at all.”

I cannot report if Jobs and his design team succeeded in their mission to recreate the blissful experience of working in the midst of nature for the 12,000 employees who would eventually inhabit the massive ‘mothership,’ because the public has not yet been invited in, and journalists are specifically excluded. I’ve never been able to mentally resolve the discrepancy between these two very different design mandates from the same company. However, I continue to be disturbed that a company with such driving vision for its future headquarters could completely ignore any present needs of the tens of thousands of employees already working in leased space.

My take: Heschong’s research on the performance of school children in day-lit classrooms forever changed how architects think about school design. Her new book is a brilliant, science-rich sequel focused on the importance of daylight, daydreaming and a view out the window.


  1. bas flik said:
    i prefer the night and darkness. to much distraction during daylight. software is best produced at night.

    April 17, 2021
  2. Michael Goldfeder said:
    Steve Jobs did hate “windows.” But he must have meant the ones made by Microsoft.

    April 17, 2021
  3. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    “ someone in upper management had decided that no one should ever be able to see into any building occupied by Apple, not from the street, the sidewalk, a parking garage, or even overhead from a helicopter or drone. “

    IMHO , the wall around the spaceship prevents people who shouldn’t be looking through those windows.

    Having that wall allowed the aesthetics that the above article says Steve Jobs wanted for his Apple employees in that campus.

    April 17, 2021
  4. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    As an example, I certainly couldn’t see thru any spaceship windows when I was only allowed as far as the Visitor Center (outside the walls). Walking by one of the employee entrance gates & trying to see past, the Bldg was far enough away that I certainly couldn’t discern the work behind the glass.

    Looks like both objectives met by having that wall. No contradictions in both of Apple’s goals if the topic is specific to expansive campuses with walls or fences.

    April 17, 2021
  5. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    The concept of having nice wooded areas around your campus isn’t new. HP & Agilent has campuses like that, too, with extensive walking & bicycle paths surrounding the office Bldgs like the ones I’ve been to in Cali & Colorado.
    Also surrounded by fencing/walls.

    April 17, 2021
  6. Industrial espionage, bloggers looking to swipe a prototype from an unsuspecting employee, hidden directional mics, these are real threats to a corporation’s IP. My understanding is that the whole affair has moved from cameras with a zoom lens to hacking a Zoom meeting. Espionage is mostly a digital game now.
    I do photography assignments in New York City several times a year. If I focus my D810 full-frame 36 MP DSLR directly at a skyscraper I can zoom in on the resulting image close enough to identify exactly what’s going on, in thousands of windows. The resolution of today’s gear is mind-blowing. Hasselblad sells a 100MP CMOS sensor capable of producing 400MP images with digital assistance.

    April 17, 2021
  7. Robert Stack said:
    What about drones – does Apple have an “air defense” system? I’m joking obviously. But there were a number of videos someone took with a drone back when the new HQ was being built. Why couldn’t one conduct industrial espionage with periodic drone flights equipped with high res cameras flying around the building?

    April 17, 2021
    • Fred Stein said:
      God question.

      The large overhangs above the glass walls restrict the viewing angle.

      April 18, 2021
    • Bart Yee said:
      I’m only half kidding with this idea.

      My guess is there’s an experimental array of LIDAR detectors around the inner and outer building perimeters and look-up LIDAR as well. I’m confident they scan for flying objects, localize them with IR, Laser, and optical sensors tied into AI systems to identify and record any intrusions into Apple airspace. Once identified, its very possible they have tracking and guided lasers to dazzle any drone cameras, radio jammers, and possibly local interception capability – solid particle, laser ranging / target acquisition or radio interference, and possibly other unknown shoot down systems.

      Not unlike what would be needed for a fully autonomous vehicle doing battle on the roadways.

      April 19, 2021
  8. Bart Yee said:
    When Apple leases space, it does so for the convenience and usefulness of its local employees, but has much less control over security, visual intrusion, and spying from nearby buildings and personnel, hence more likely worries about security. Since they can only do so much to a leased space, preventing peering eyes from looking in is a priority, while the Apple Park was created with complete control, ample buffer zones filled with foliage, and options that leased space do not have. Also, considerations for other social interactions, LEED energy efficiency, local and internal security concerns, and so much more went into Apple Park besides allowing sightlines and sun exposure to a significant part of the building and campus.

    Within the vision of Steve Jobs and the consultation of various architectural firms and ideas, this is Steve’s and Apple’s building, not the authors nor anyone else’s. It follows their own vision on what a building can and should do for a tech company with a diverse and mostly younger workforce.

    April 18, 2021

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