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.