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A Beautiful Spaceship in the Neighborhood


A Beautiful Spaceship in the Neighborhood

Last week, I visited the gleaming new Apple Headquarters (aka “Apple Park”, aka “The Spaceship”) in Cupertino....

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Last week, I visited the gleaming new Apple Headquarters (aka “Apple Park”, aka “The Spaceship”) in Cupertino. It’s amazing.

First impressions: It’s a delicious, visual cocktail of Kubrick + Capitol Records, shaken and strained into a Steve Jobs highball. And it really does look like a flying saucer. I half-wondered if Tim Cook and Elon Musk didn’t engineer secret underground silos via the Boring Company to install a couple dozen Falcon Heavy launch vehicles to help it reach escape velocity someday.

On a personal note, the Spaceship also happens to sit atop the burial ground of my old Hewlett-Packard office. I hadn’t been back to the old neighborhood on Cupertino’s Pruneridge Avenue since the days in the Nineties. When I worked at HP, it was the “hot” company in Silicon Valley. It was in the halcyon period of client-server computing, ably stewarded by the Boy Scout of Silicon Valley, CEO Lew Platt. Meanwhile, people were running out of Apple as fast as they could during the malaise of the Gil Amelio period at Apple, prior to the Restoration of Jobs.

But looking back, my old HP office space was the epitome of the Recent Past of Work, a low-slung, massive human cubicle maze. It was originally built as a large HP manufacturing plant, and chemical showers still dangled in the corners of its huge central room (Like the eye-wash in your high school chemistry classroom: “In case of emergency, pull shower!”). But most Silicon Valley office parks are like that, of a “certain age” – built out in the early-to-mid `80s, low-slung, and boxy; their landscaping now pushing 40, spindly redwood trees once barely framing parking lots are now towering giants.

In retrospect over the last 20 years working in tech (let alone business in general), it’s becoming more and more apparent that this type of working arrangement – i.e., enormous cubicle farms – is increasingly going to be the “Land that Time Forgot”. It’s a recurrent theme in our travels and presentations with clients: Ag in the US went from 80% to 2% in 100 years; will cubicle work go from 60% to 5% in the next 50?

The neighborhood spaceship is also a testament to the power of strategy and pivots. As Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mary Meeker said some years ago, “We are in era where we are re-imagining nearly everything ... powered by new devices, plus connectivity, plus new user interfaces, plus beauty...” Beauty is a subject that is sometimes awkward for technologists, who often can be consumed by speeds-n-feeds related to throughput power of the latest technologies or network gear.

But for those with a direct line-of-sight to strategy for their firms, they “get it” with respect to the beauty principle. In the case of Apple, it’s worth noting that beauty begets beauty begets beauty. Its chief of design, Jony Ive, worked closely with Steve Jobs to ensure the iPhone offered a beautiful experience. Its success gave way to the Apple Store, arguably a beautiful retail experience. The overall success led to the Spaceship, which is giving way to Apple’s market cap curve on the Nasdaq, the first company to crack $1 trillion (followed shortly thereafter by Amazon).

A secondary detail that caught my eye at the Spaceship was how well it integrates with its surrounding neighborhood. Transition spaces are important so the effect isn’t too jarring; you see this at the perimeter of the best old-school, Old World places (e.g., in the U.K., how Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace seamlessly abuts its “anchor town” of Woodstock, or how Henry VIII’s Hampton Court aligns with neighboring Kingston), or even the New Work transition zones between the Lands that Disney (and the Imagineers) built in Anaheim, CA. In the “virtual world”, we have also argued the importance of transition in AR and VR journeys. Apple Park does this with great success, making the jump from its surrounding blocks of yesterday’s Silicon Valley of 20th century low-slung ranch houses and buildings into the ultra-modernity of the 21st century Spaceship and park.

Though it’ll now cost you $2.5 million for an average house in Cupertino, the old neighborhood is in great shape. The Spaceship stands as a bellwether of place and change. A poignant reminder of that is found inside the Spaceship’s central circle. There, you’ll find apple orchards (yes, apples in the middle of Apple). Apparently, Steve Jobs was nostalgic and sad that the old, fruit orchard-rich Santa Clara County “Valley of Hearts’ Delight” was paved over to become today’s Silicon Valley. So, before his death, he insisted on putting fruit orchards in the middle of the ring (including the apple trees, the fruit of which is sold in the company canteen back inside). There’s some meta-level, “fractal logic” happening there. All of these motifs are reminders of what’s old can be made new again, and reinforce the endurance of, say, the truth of beauty.

Someday, I’d like to go back to Apple Park. I’d like to sit in the sun inside the ring. I’d like to crank a vinyl copy of a Beatles record – with Apple Corps logo on it – on a portable record player (remember those?). Imagine a camera, slowly panning backward. I’d like to take a bite of an apple grown at Apple, which fell off an apple tree I’d been sitting under, while reading a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity (“Apples, all the way down...”). The camera pans ever-backward, going above the ring, above the neighborhood, above California, and the whole world – Spaceship Earth - comes into view. Closing with Spaceship Apple, on its thrusters, reaching escape velocity, encircling and framing it in the middle.

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