Apple: The New Headquarters of Computing

You probably thought that the biggest news out of Apple this week was about iCloud, the new cloud data sharing service unveiled at the World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco. Or maybe you’d point to iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, or Lion, the impending update for the OS X desktop operating system. Nope. Those developments are all important, for reasons I’ll dissect a bit below, but they were also widely expected and, to a large extent, inevitable.

To my mind, Apple made its biggest news this week 50 miles away from WWDC, at Cupertino City Hall. That’s where Steve Jobs shared the company’s eye-opening plans for its new headquarters campus, which will be dominated by a vast, circular, spaceship-like structure with room for as many as 13,000 people, or nearly everyone Apple employs in the city. (That’s a workforce now scattered across 60 separate buildings; only 2,600 of them fit on the company’s Infinite Loop campus.)

The new Apple HQ won’t quite rival the Pentagon, which holds twice as many workers. But with 3.1 million square feet of floor space, it will be by far the largest structure in Silicon Valley, and the most iconic, making Oracle’s Redwood Shores towers look so 1989.

All of which befits Apple’s emerging role as one of the world’s most important companies. Indeed, I think the symbolism behind the design for the edifice—unveiled, just as if it were the latest iPhone or iPad, by Jobs himself—bears some examination. It isn’t just that the new headquarters will be big—about three city blocks in diameter. It’s that it’s a circle, which to my mind has all sorts of interesting connotations:

1) Ancient philosophers such as Plato considered the circle to be the most perfect and mysterious shape—a symbol of truth, divinity, and transcendence. (Today we know that pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is literally a transcendental number.) That seems pretty appropriate for a company obsessed with simplicity and great design—and for a structure that Jobs hopes will be “the best office building in the world.”

2) A circle is the most efficient shape for putting a lot of employees within close walking distance of their managers and one another. That’s an important factor at a company known for strong, top-down leadership. Related to this (and perhaps on the downside):

3) Apple’s design recalls the panopticon, a circular prison designed in the 18th century by English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham to allow guards to observe all of the inmates at once. The only thing missing from Apple’s plans is the central tower.

4) The Apple “spaceship” design looks a lot like the UK Government Communications Headquarters, home to MI 5, MI 6, and the rest of Britain’s spy community. (See a theme here?)

5) Glass circles are big at Apple’s retail stores—the downtown Boston store has a cool circular staircase, for example, and the atrium of the Shanghai store is one giant glass cylinder. Once Apple gets a design meme in its collective head, it works it and reworks it. So it will be interesting to see whether the idea pops up in the form of a product. Maybe the iPhone 7 will be a round, glassy thing like the palm-held holo-projectors in the Star Wars prequels.

6) The circle retains the symbolism of Infinite Loop, the street that allows employees to circumnavigate Apple’s current campus at I-280 and De Anza Boulevard.

7) It also symbolizes the numeral zero, which, along with 1, is the foundation of the digital revolution. On top of that (as Scott Forstall would say), “circle” has the same root as “circuit”—the Greek base ker, meaning to turn or bend.

8) One ring to rule them all.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist that last one. I don’t really mean to compare Steve Jobs to Sauron or Apple to Mordor. But as longtime readers know, my ambivalence toward Apple does run deep (see my January 2010 column “The Apple Paradox“). I love the company’s hardware and software, and I have enormous respect for its history of innovation, which is truly unparalleled. But at the same time, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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