Ken’s View: Walking Into Walls Must Be A Lifestyle

Apple is making architectural news again. It seems employees at Apple Park, the company’s Foster + Partners-designed office building in Cupertino, CA, are walking into walls—glass walls—and are sometimes being injured. The newly opened campus, in addition to being circular, is said to have numerous such glass walls.

Some Apple employees are reported to have taken to sticking Post-It notes on the glass to warn unsuspecting colleagues of the hazard. These have been subsequently removed by management for “detracting from the building’s design,” according to one source.

However, it does appear that the employees’ design vandalism is both consistent with common sense and California workplace safety laws. Those laws require that glazing be conspicuously marked so that employees are safeguarded from walking into it. Will Apple be fined for its inattention—or at least for taking down the Post-It notes?

But this isn’t the first criticism of the new Apple campus. It’s scarcely a surprise that some employees, used to private offices, were openly critical of the open workspaces. A description of the open plan says that Apple workers gather at “shared tables that are referred to as pods.” Pods? Really? I used to work in cubicle, but I draw the line at spending my day in a pod. These pods, according to what I’ve heard, are divided by full-height glass doors and walls. So much for inter-pod collaboration, if this description is accurate.

I say, “if this is accurate,” because I haven’t seen the new Apple campus and don’t ever expect to. Apple’s head designer, Jony Ive, called it “our house” and said, “We didn’t make Apple Park for other people.” In fact, the general public is not invited. Apple, however, did build a visitors’ center across the street from the Cupertino campus, complete with an Apple store where Apple fans can buy stuff like T-shirts, postcards, and Apple-branded baby clothes. How nice. Book me a flight.

Lack of access hasn’t stopped criticism of Apple’s “spaceship.” Said one commentator about employees walking into walls: “This is what happens when design is for the sake of design, not for people.” But in typical internet fashion, others were quick to blame the victims, those who walked into the glass walls, for being somehow at fault for not seeing transparent, nearly invisible stuff in front of them.

Now, I don’t want to be unkind to Apple, but remember that TV commercial where Justin Long was the cool guy with the Mac and John Hodgman played the dorky Microsoft Windows user? So it’s amusing when the cool guy who thinks he’s on the cutting edge of design and cool trips over his shoelaces—design wise, that is.

One of the more droll comments I came across in the course of researching all things Apple was this: PCs are work machines; Macs are lifestyle computers. Perhaps that’s why you see so many Macs at Starbucks—because Starbucks isn’t coffee; it’s a lifestyle. Incidentally, I’m writing this on a Mac, and it doesn’t seem like a lifestyle. It feels a lot more like work—and my coffee is just coffee. Maybe I’m not cool enough for a lifestyle.

But I get it. Apple’s architecture is part of its brand. That makes a certain amount of sense for its stores, where the public is invited, but maybe not so much for the company’s headquarters, where Jony Ive really doesn’t care what the public thinks. I Googled several other computer manufacturers to see what their headquarters were like and couldn’t find a single photo. Obviously, they’re not bragging about their administrative nerve centers—and probably not walking into walls.

The myth that Apple was founded in a garage was debunked by none other than co-founder Steve Wozniak. Apparently there was a garage involved somewhere, but design didn’t take place there, he said. That’s kind of disappointing. Maybe Wozniak shouldn’t have discredited the myth, and Apple should have stuck with the garage motif when it commissioned its new headquarters. You know, grease spots on the floor instead of the glass walls.

In the end, it all comes down to perception—whether something is cool or not, whether a wall is there or not, or whether some bits and pieces of electronic hardware in a rectangular box has to do with work or a lifestyle. In the case of cool or a lifestyle, it’s subjective and judgmental. In the case of a wall, it’s usually very objective, so be careful where you’re walking.

— Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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