The Apple City That Could Have Been

Before Apple began work on its massive new headquarters, one architect took it upon himself to design an alternative for Steve Jobs: a walkable, livable city anchored by the company’s offices.

When Steve Jobs personally presented Apple’s plans for a new ring-shaped headquarters to the Cupertino City Council in June 2011, architecture critics and urbanists were quick to pile on. The Los Angeles Times‘ critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote it was “practically bursting with contradictions”–what Jobs described as a “spaceship” had more in common with Mad Men-era suburban office parks, and his plans for a “green” bus system belied the need for several thousand parking spaces.


The New Yorker‘s Paul Goldberger asked “who wants to work in a gigantic donut?” and compared its inhuman scale to the Pentagon. Architecture critic Alexandra Lange noted that Apple was an outlier even among other Silicon Valley companies such as Google or Facebook, both of which are building what she called “the dot-com city”–a closed suburban campus that at least tries to feel urban.

But only one architect addressed his critique to Jobs directly (and has since come clean about it). A week after Jobs’s presentation to the city council, Israeli architect Hillel Schocken sent the Apple founder an email on the well-founded assumption that Jobs read and occasionally responded to letters arriving over the transom.

“You were absolutely right to state that the intended capacity of 12,000 people in a single building is ‘rather odd,'” he wrote.

“It is odd because even in the USA people are beginning to realize the ills of suburbia and urban sprawl, both concepts belonging to the middle of the last Century. A project the size of yours could mark the beginning of a new era in American urbanism, an era that puts human beings before the car, pedestrians before drivers. It could invest in creating a lively public realm, in the shape of streets rather than roads, where the people of Cupertino, including Apple employees, could meet, connect, do business and interact for their mutual benefit. Instead, your project replaces parking lot placelessness with ‘green’ placelessness.”

In its place, Schocken proposed “Apple City”–a walkable urban core Cupertino is missing. Jobs never replied (and died several months later), but last year Schocken and his students at Tel Aviv University set out to design it anyway. Their scheme replaces Foster + Partners’ gleaming glass donut and the surrounding footprint with a dense grid of streets bisected by Steve Jobs Blvd. and with Apple Center–including a store, museum, libraries, and “Steve Jobs heritage center”–at its core.

Instead of 12,000 Apple employees circumabulating a single building every day, Apple City would make room for 16,335 workers–on top of 11,180 permanent Cupertino residents. “There’s really no reason for offices to be segregated from the city,” says Schocken. “In fact, it’s beneficial for the company to be integrated with the city.” His students’ plan preserves the footprint of Apple’s proposed headquarters by breaking it up across multiple buildings, a feature of the company’s current campus at One Infinite Loop. “Instead of using a corridor, they’re using the street.”

The additional office space included in the plans means Apple’s partners and suppliers could literally set up shop next door, if Apple were into that sort of thing, which it’s not. The company’s fanatical devotion to secrecy guarantees nothing like Apple City–with its permeability and serendipity–will ever be built.


“Apple, Google, and Facebook capitalize on the basic human need for contact,” Schocken wrote to Jobs. “Urban habitation–the City–predates them by a few millennia. Like them, a city’s raison d’être is to provide each individual with a huge network of potential contacts. However advanced and powerful, Apple, Google, Facebook (and others yet to come) will never replace the City; they will always complement it.”

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world.