Apples Architect Says the Future of Offices Must Be Flexible

Norman Foster.

Ask Norman Foster what if anything he’d like to change about Apple’s recently constructed headquarters in Cupertino, California, and he’ll need a moment to think. The famed architect, whose firm spent the last eight years perfecting plans for Apple’s glassy Campus 2, is mostly pleased with the results. But there is one thing: “The only hesitation I have is in terms of the changing patterns of transportation,” Foster said today at the WIRED Business Conference.

Apple’s headquarters feature a massive underground garage built to hold 11,000 vehicles. Today, that’s an amenity. But not too far in the future, it’s entirely possible that cars (and garages) will be far less important. “Maybe the conventional garage needs to be rethought and rethought now,” Foster continued. “Maybe if I had a second time around I’d be putting a lot of persuasive pressure to say, ‘Make the floor-to-floor of a car park that much bigger, so if you’re not going to be filling it with cars in the future you could more easily retrofit it for more habitable space.”

For Foster, the future of workplace design is dependent on this kind of flexibility. It might sound counterintuitive given Steve Jobs’ unrelenting attention to detail. Foster recalls when Jobs first approached him in 2009 to talk about building a new campus. “He had a very clear vision in terms of what the project was,” Foster said on stage. Jobs wanted the building to lie low to the ground to blend into the surrounding landscape. The late Apple CEO dictated everything from door handles to materials to the ultra-tight tolerances required throughout the building. Jobs was obsessed with glass and wanted to encourage the connection between indoors and outdoors, going as far as to build a door in the campus’ restaurant that could completely open in 12 seconds, eliminating the barrier to the outside world.

It’s easy to assume a strict adherence to vision would stifle flexibility. “The reverse is actually true,” Foster said. The best buildings, he contends, require a strong point of view. They must be thoughtfully designed to adapt to the ways humans and society will inevitably change, and that requires more than just building open-plan layouts.

Ultimately, the most enduring workplaces will take into account the deep-rooted desires of the people who spend time there. They’ll prioritize smart paths of circulation to help people connect with one another. Instead of sequestering employees into glass boxes, they’ll encourage them to connect with nature. To be truly competitive, architects and companies have to think beyond productivity. “From the very beginning, I’ve protested the idea that an office headquarters, whether it’s mega or micro, is only about work,” Foster said. “It’s about lifestyle.”

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