By now you’ve probably heard that Amazon is planning three new office towers in downtown Seattle. Plans call for more than
13 million square feet of office space, in addition to the 2.7 million square feet that Amazon already leases in the Downtown – South Lake Union area. Somewhat intriguingly, Clise Properties is “hoping and expecting” that Amazon will eventually buy all 13-acres Clise owns in the Denny Triangle (wishful thinking?).
Looking at the plans, it’s hard not to contrast Amazon’s project with the proposed Apple campus in Cupertino. At 2.65 million square feet, it’s roughly equal to what Amazon already leases between Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. Several blogs have already commented on how Apple’s proposal violates all sorts of urbanist principles, especially when compared to Google’s New York City office or the new Twitter offices in San Francisco. To be fair, Apple’s proposal is no worse than in urbanist terms than the headquarters of most Silicon Valley titans of its vintage, such as HP, Yahoo!, and Oracle. Still, when the opportunity arises for one of the world’s most admired companies to completely reconfigure a huge swath of one of the world’s wealthiest ZIP codes, it’s reasonable to expect something more than a re-hash of the classic suburban office park, beautiful as it may be.
If you’re a design nerd like me, you may be familiar with Gary Hustwit’s trilogy of films, Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. One way to think about these films is that they move outward in considering increasingly complex forms of design: graphic design, product design, and finally urban design. (By “complex,” I mean in terms of the sheer number of people involved.) Apple products are featured prominently in Objectified, and Apple’s new campus is clearly an effort to create a building that could be featured in that film. But it’s also a paean to a bygone era of suburban sprawl.
Steve Jobs may have been a genius, but he was also – to quote The Big Lebowski – a man for his time and place. He was born and raised in the postwar Bay Area suburbs, and even became obsessed with the specific style of suburban tract home he grew up in. Thus, the Apple campus represents the apotheosis of a time when we thought of buildings as distinct objects, like iPads. Now we recognize them as part of a complex ecosystem involving streets, sidewalks and transit. For example, smart building design these days often involves letting the outside world in as much as possible to minimize energy costs. By contrast, Apple’s campus won’t let employees open the windows. Then again, Jobs was never much interested in complex ecosystems he couldn’t completely control.
It’s no coincidence that Hustwit ended his trilogy with Urbanized. Urban design is a wicked problem. This may be why all transit thinkers inevitably come face-to-face with urban design, building design, and even complex systems like education and health care delivery. It’s impossible to fully consider the city without doing so.
In the meantime, props to Amazon for building densely, in the city, a few blocks from Westlake Station. I won’t assume that they did it for urbanist reasons. Perhaps the famously frugal Jeff Bezos simply wanted to build fewer expensive underground parking spaces than the 10,000 subterranean spots that Apple has planned for Cupertino. More likely, Amazon knows that attracting good workers means being close to amenities. Whatever the motive, it represents an encouraging trend in high-tech corporate headquarters away from the sprawl of yore.