Throughout history, architecture served as the primary communication device of common cultural values. Whether inspiring religious awe or displaying the power of an empire, great works of architecture went beyond mere utility to reflect the shared expression of time and place. Modern architecture, with its right angles and smooth surfaces devoid of ornamentation expressed the early 20th Century zeitgeist of efficiency and mass production. In many ways, the Modern architectural language also conveyed common cultural values of the time as it became the model for socialist utopia.
The information technology revolution of the late twentieth century changed the role of architecture forever. With digital information readily available at our fingertips, buildings are no longer needed as a communication device. This new paradigm has largely gone unnoticed by the architectural establishment, which itself has been through a series of futile stylistic phases in recent decades ranging from the campy Postmodernism to the cynical Deconstructivism. The soul-searching continues today, as leading architects promote the use of technology to justify the creation of wild, superfluous forms that are for the most part nothing more than self-referential, sculptural contortions.
Function still matters, but building design often no longer serves the higher aim of communicating a shared culture to a civic audience. Rather, it is the mobile IT products created by companies like Apple that do a superior job of communicating and transferring information while at the same time filling a human desire for great design.
The implications for urbanism are enormous. Cities, as they are thought of in the traditional sense of high-density concentrations of people and buildings, are no longer required for a productive economy. No other place represents this new reality better than Silicon Valley. Rather than being an exalted futuristic urban landscape as one might expect given the amount of innovation that goes on there, Silicon Valley is a non-descript amalgam of low-density suburban villages. The headquarters of internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook are just as anonymous—bland office parks that turn inwards and are indifferent to the street.
Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne blasts this reality in a critique of the proposal for the new Apple headquarters, which he calls a ‘retrograde cocoon.’ The proposal is a huge four-story concentric ring set among a park-like setting in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino which Hawthorne laments as what he sees as the continuation of an unfortunate land-use pattern of low-density sprawl.
Urbanists cannot afford to ignore the fact that technology is unsympathetic to architecture. Computer programmers and IT innovators, people who require countless hours of focused concentration, might actually prefer the pastoral landscape and low-key nature of Silicon Valley to the noisy and bustling urbanism that define what we traditionally think of as a ‘city’. Taking this into consideration, the new Apple HQ is an appropriate design for its purpose and also serves as reminder of the irrelevance of architecture in the twenty-first Century.
This essay originally appeared in the architecture journal CLOG: APPLE
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently living in China. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog.