Steve Jobs: Architect

Top: Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York. [Photo by Eric Wüstenhagen] Bottom: Steve Jobs and Rem Koolhaas. [Photos by James Mitchell, left, and Rodrigo Fernández, right]

1. An Apple for the teacher

Yet another treatise on Steve Jobs? 1 As an “architect” — really? And with Apple seemingly waning, aren’t we behind the curve on this? 2 Suffice it to say that my interest is not solely in Steven Paul Jobs himself, but rather in the challenge that the late computer impresario and legendary technologist poses to the methods and purpose of an architectural historian — starting with one who teaches across disciplines, at a public university near Apple’s lair in the Bay Area of California. My job and my location place me close enough to Silicon Valley that students might fairly assume that I have something cogent to say about all this (they have already indicated as much). Now Apple is working with Norman Foster to build a donut-spaceship as its headquarters in Cupertino. But since architectural stories are surprising rare here on the edge of the continent, I need a shtick; no matter my connoisseur-ish personal tastes and leftist political dispositions. So what are my options?

Compare and contrast, that trusty standby of art history, in which I drill my students. I can compare Jobs with … with whom, exactly? Bill Gates, or maybe Thomas Edison? That route would take us away from design, away from architectural history, away from aesthetics. Not necessarily a bad outcome, and like many architectural historians, I pay close attention to both Science and Technology Studies and Cultural Studies, which are the disciplines perhaps most comfortable with technology and the American experience. But neither the Apple HQ, or the iPhone for that matter, readily lend themselves to STS and Cultural Studies’ emphases on flattened and distributed innovation and on user-generated meanings. 3 So any methods I might borrow from those anthropologically-inclined fields will need to be augmented by the emphases on authorship and aesthetics that architectural history traditionally draws from art history: peel away his ruthless command of global consumer markets and Jobs can seem to the art historian more akin to Gropius than Gates. But Jobs’s ruthless command of markets is a fact that cannot be peeled away; and so we are obliged to deploy the criticality that has been central to architectural historical method since, say, Tomás Maldonado and Manfredo Tafuri. 4 In other words: I am duty-bound to tell students that design is not necessarily benign, especially when it seems to be.

Yet they can see me teaching from the MacBook I am writing on even now. Some of the students I have trained will graduate into Silicon Valley. I wonder what that suggests about my own complicity with the very things which I am attempting to critique? How does my salary, my adopted state, my consumption, tie me to all this? So I discreetly edge the conversation back to my own disciplinary competence by comparing the design for the new Apple headquarters with other corporate buildings. We take another iconic and somehow ominous HQ — OMA’s recently completed CCTV tower in Beijing — and we then compare Jobs with OMA’s head, Rem Koolhaas. Yes, as though they were both architects. And then we treat Jobs as though he were an offshoot of a Bay Area design history that was substantially driven by architecture. My concern, after all, is to have something to say about design in the far western region where I teach; even though major monumental buildings are scarce on the ground here, and even though the politics of good design are adulterated by my state’s politics of good business. This effort, then, becomes a test of the limits of my discipline, devoted as it has long been to the maintenance of European critical traditions, and to monumentality and the public sphere, and to the continued preeminence of the academic institutions of Northern Europe and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Such is the fate of many an émigré architectural historian in California, at once living and working within a global engine of economy, design, ideology and media, yet rather far from the concatenations of Greater New England architectural historical scholarship. We wonder whether there is any more that can be said about the Mission Style, the Case Study Houses, the freeways; or whether anything whatsoever can be said about California’s inland agricultural empire of the Central Valley, which is where I live.

Norman Foster’s design for the Apple headquarters, center, surrounded by the California architectural historian’s canon. [Photos, clockwise, by Eli Pousson, Neil Kremer, Dystopus, Keith Daly, Chris McSorley, Allan Ferguson, MyDifferentDrum and Roberto Estremo]

I believe that there is. But to talk about Jobs as though he were an architect — already a dubious proposition — is to talk as well about advanced capitalism, about global systems, the counterculture, Zen Buddhism, and all manner of phenomena apparently inimical to the critical tradition, to monumentality and the public sphere. This threatens to liquefy my discipline through a Golden State looking-glass. Maybe I should emulate the resolve of the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer, both of whom, stranded in sunny Los Angeles during the war, refused to succumb to California languor. And yet; my faculty appointment is here, expectant students are assembled, and to be frank I think that architectural-historical methodology can benefit from this modest test, and prevail. So here I offers no scoops or intrigues into the Zen Master Jobs. This is one of those experiments in method encouraged — forced — by the study of California: here subject and method evolve symbiotically, as befits scholarship in a region enamored with holistic thought, even as my disciplinary training prevents me from ever going fully native.

2. Why it’s simpler to treat Jobs as a California Modern Architect

To the subject at hand. To my mind, treating Jobs as an architect has merit, if for no other reason than to bring to some sort of conclusion the popular psychologizing of what made him tick. It is no secret that Jobs was a “complicated” man. Unusually so, perhaps, though nothing more typifies the persona of the “great architect,” driven to get his ideas executed with minimum compromise, somehow distrustful of people yet seemingly concerned about their welfare, preferring to channel politics through design rather than to actually participate in political activity. “Despite the myriad ways his companies improved our lives, Jobs was a hero only in the Ayn Randian sense,” writes The Nation’s Eric Alterman, de facto connecting Jobs, via Rand, to that archetype of the “complicated” architect, Howard Roark, a.k.a. Frank Lloyd Wright. 5 A sense of what you might call “psychopathic humanism” attends such personalities: they are determined to improve the human lot no matter how many individual humans they offend along the way. Bucking our current postmodern era, Jobs and Koolhaas both seem to have been driven by the possibility that they can act inside, or around, a postmodern world resistant to purpose. Jobs and Koolhaas share, I suspect, an attraction toward design as a type of hermeneutics — a will to learn about the world through the attempt to change it. Koolhaas assigned his Harvard students and OMA assistants to track aesthetic multiplier effects through the study of shopping and of African urbanism; he is passionate, in a manner worthy of a surrealist or second-order cybernetician, about paradox and overdetermination. 6 Meanwhile both the personnel and the customers of the Apple Corporation functioned as an extension of Jobs, and not simply through the authoritarian exertion of will. In this sense Jobs hasn’t died in the same way that Mies van der Rohe hasn’t died: something of his very thinking, his gestalt, has been learned by other designers and consumers, and in this way Jobs’s legacy — like influential pedagogy — is “architectural.” That Jobs’s work, his products, has constituted a daily part of people’s lives over several generations was testified to by the peculiar and public demonstrations of grief at his passing.

Steve Jobs memorial, Apple store, San Francisco. [Photo by raumish]

Koolhaas, for sure, is a redoubtable figure for historians and theorists of architecture in a way that Jobs never will be. Judged by his impact on architectural pedagogy and his reception by critics, he probably remains our most important living architect, popular with scholars to the degree that he is apparently unpopular with, even obscure to, the public at large. Koolhaas invites interpretation. In contrast, scholars are left practically redundant by the sheer popularity of Jobs’s work: there is, apparently, no work of interpretation left for us to do. We can try to deepen our analyses of Jobs by, say, citing the pivotal influential of industrial designers like Dieter Rams; but accounting for Koolhaas’s interests in the surrealist paranoiac-critical method, Soviet Constructivism and Italian Autonomist Marxism would require graduate-seminar-level exegesis. Put another way: if Koolhaas’s aesthetic is difficult, Jobs’s is dumb. The categorical difference is that one really is an architect, steeped in the arts, and the other is an ambitious industrial designer, steeped in the applied arts; which is why Koolhaas presents an explanatory challenge, Jobs a functional literalness. I am not so sure about this distinction, though; whatever the philosophical and formal challenges which Koolhaas’s buildings pose, they function well. And Jobs’s intellectual formation was easily as esoteric as that of Koolhaas.

It’s no surprise, then, that architect Norman Foster has referred to Jobs as though he were a professional peer, “in every way so much more than a client,” as Foster put it in his tribute. “We are better as individuals and certainly wiser as architects through the experience of … working for him. … His participation was so intense and creative that our memory will be that of working with one of the truly great designers and mentors.” 7 (This is the sort of language we might expect Foster to have reserved for his earlier mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller — another figure whose functionalism, anathema to the richly formal work of Koolhaas, is adored in Bay Area.) When Jobs’s name is used as a search term in the scholarly Avery Index to architectural history, it retrieves a 2005 article from Britain’s ID magazine that lists, in this order, the most influential design thinkers in the world: the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Department, Steve Jobs, Rem Koolhaas. For ID, at least, we are in some way comparing like with like. And the listing of Jobs with MoMA and Koolhaas has the intriguing effect of drawing a westward axis of transnational design, as it transposes from The Netherlands, then to the United States via New York and Northern California, then onward to China, where Jobs and Koolhaas confirm their incendiary reputations in the factories of Shenzhen and the political machine of Beijing. The modernist tradition becomes — to use Koolhaas’s celebrated term — increasingly delirious, as it gravitates from the Heroic Age Netherlands, to Jazz Age New York, to Aquarian Age California.

If Koolhaas has capitalized upon a distinctively Dutch taste and Northern European aesthetic, Jobs has championed a distinctively Californian energy. In the early 1980s, the German industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger proposed that there should be a “born-in-America gene for Apple’s DNA,” one that would produce what Esslinger called a “California global” look. Esslinger, then newly arrived in the United States, initially suggested that Apple’s aesthetic be inspired by “Hollywood and music, a bit of rebellion, and natural sex appeal.” 8 But Hollywood, rock music, sex appeal and rebellion did not prevail in the iconic forms that embody the Apple brand identity created so obsessively by Jobs. In its stores, in its devices, even in the book cover he designed for Walter Isaacson’s biography (which he himself commissioned Isaacson to write), Jobs recovered a vision of the modern as clarified, normative, truthful, perhaps somewhat German though even more Zen. Is there a relationship between California and these qualities of clarification, normativity, truthfulness and Zen? I believe that Apple really does represent a genus of Californian design — that the slogan “Designed by Apple in California” conveys something like an ethos.

Top and Middle: Norman Foster, drawings for Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015. Bottom: Bernard Maybeck, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1915. [Photo by Wally Gobetz]

Apple’s image evolved markedly from the early 1980s to now, but it remained consistent with Bay Area taste, from the countercultural feel of the offerings to be found in (say) its early-’80s gift collections 9 —with their totes, kites, belt buckles, wall hangings and rug kits — to the New Age aura of transcendent consciousness and spirituality of more recent Mac products, their concealed LEDs practicing controlled yogic breathing when left on standby. Apple was a Bay Area company led by a lifelong Bay Area homeboy steeped in such Bay Area enthusiasms as the Whole Earth Catalog and The Grateful Dead. 10 In the dominant culture of the Bay Area — if I can indulge in a sweeping summary — you find a deep distaste for representing established culture: culture is to be invented, here and now, and to be lived rather than observed and learned. It is a culture that imagines itself as exploring truth and possibility. This is a trait stretching back through several generations of Northern California designers — Bernard Maybeck is my personal favorite, with his eccentric combinations of materials, technique and historical association. Jobs, too, pursued an aesthetics of truth and possibility.

Compare the design of two corporate animation facilities, one for The Walt Disney Company, in Southern California, the other for Jobs’s Pixar, in Northern California. In his 1991 design for the Team Disney building, in Burbank, Michael Graves employs the Seven Dwarves as Atlantes not only to symbolize a passing world of animated arts but also to make an inside joke about the conclusion of classical civilization. In contrast, in their Pixar Studios, in Emeryville, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson deploy the patterning of bricks of different hues to make decoration immanent to the materials themselves, in this way suggesting that the building itself is pixelated — a pattern waiting to be orchestrated. Facts before pictures. The tectonic and material truths of this factory of the virtual feel hyper-real. Its hand-laid brick courses suggest an unnerving sincerity far removed from the postmodern irony of Graves or the postmodern tragedy of Koolhaas. The Bohlin Cywinski Jackson practice, founded in 1965 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, under the sway of Louis Kahn (that vital transitional figure between modernism and postmodernism who recovered architectural verity from dogmatic functionalism and returned it to custom, ritual and place) has proven adept at delivering to commercial and technological clients buildings of a local phenomenological intensity. In 1997 the firm completed the residential compound of another computer maven, one Bill Gates of Bellevue, WA, in an earnest regional “Pacific Lodge” style. A couple of years later, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson opened its San Francisco office to handle the Pixar campus for Jobs. What they delivered doesn’t look much like a fun factory. The main pavilion is an elegant warehouse, its flat arches an acknowledgement of the local light-industry context, with plate glass recalling the notoriously generic corporate architecture of Silicon Valley. The Pixar campus is a place for serious research, not decorative puns; a place where the arts of animation from the classic era of Disney are preserved within three-dimensional computer modeling originally developed for medical imaging; a place to discover the sorts of truths about the self and the world that were earlier discovered in the Marin County summer camps, Palo Alto garages, East Bay cafés, Silicon Valley laboratories and Silicon Alley warehouses recalled by the campus ensemble.

Top: Michael Graves, Team Disney Building, Burbank, California. [Photo by Loren Javier] Middle and Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Steve Jobs Building, Pixar Campus, Emeryville, California. [Photos by John Lambert Pearson, middle, and Michael Heilemann, bottom]

The comic foil provided by the monumental Luxo lamp is an addition. The lamp — an homage to Pixar’s celebrated 1986 demo reel, “Luxo Jr.” — was a gift from Australia, as though Pixar were a new nation — a corporate nation that reaffirms the Bay Area as a center of the creative world (with a nod, in the naming of its new building “Brooklyn,” to an East Coast counterpart). Jobs was the undisputed ruler of this nation; Pixar employees knew him to be the hidden hand in the building’s design, 11 and Jobs was always adamant that all core creative production for his companies would happen in the Bay Area in real diurnal time, defying the industry trend for the globalized dissipation of the design process across facilities, specializations and time zones. 12 At a Cupertino City Council meeting in June 2011, a clearly ailing Jobs made what I assume was his last public appearance to present the plans for the new Apple HQ; he promoted the Foster + Partners design as a great entity in a traditionalist Bay Area landscape to be designed by Stanford University’s arborist. 13 The building thus becomes the capsule, the beehive, the phalanstery for 15,000 engineers circling the wagons against the outsourcing of Californian design.

Apple had thus become the new Californian “machine,” reproducing local tastes and predispositions even through its immigrant employees, like the British designer Jonathan Ive, or the German Esslinger and his practice frogdesign, all of whom were required to relocate to the region as part of their association with Jobs. Even the design presence of Baron Foster, whose ideas were profoundly affected by his admiration of the Case Study houses, does nothing to deflect the broad, synthetic Californianism of Apple’s trajectory. Yet ultimately Jobs’s phenomenology can be founded on certainties of place and language no more than the modern-day Bay Area can be founded on certainties of place and language. It is a light phenomenology, slickly tuning consciousness through sensory experience. 14 This calibration of affect, surely at Job’s behest, explains how Bohlin Cywinski Jackson effortlessly switched from the vernacular brick and iron opacity at Pixar to the Zen-like transparency of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store. Opacity, transparency, Jungian forms, materials, place, tectonics: Jobs and his collaborators were trying to access phenomenological truths at the office and at the store.

Top: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Jorge Láscar] Bottom: Early graphical user interface, Xerox Star, 1981. [Via DigiBarn Computer Museum]

Along the way Jobs conscripted the very typology of the window from the Graphical User Interface — which he explored soon after it was invented at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto — to the service of his light phenomenology that sought to reveal the world. Floor-to-ceiling windows, beloved by Bay Region architects, became the central motif of Jobs’s inventions — from the computers to the phones to the stores, the windowed grids of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue relaying attention to the windowed tablets relaying attention to windowed operating systems, propelling us steadily out of history. Though routinely described as iconic, Apple products seem actually to be moving away from idiosyncratic forms like the trend-setting colored-jellybean style of the late ’90s iMac series. The aluminum, glass and radius edges of the recent products strain for ascetic neutrality. Without much difficulty the Apple consumer could imagine information one day floating in the environment, dematerialized into the “cybernetic meadow” forecast in the celebrated (if ridiculed) 1967 poetry collection by San Franciscan Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at Caltech. 15 So at the end of his life, Jobs settled on a Zen-like approach as the appropriate phenomenological architecture for information technology, just as a Zen-like transcendence had attracted generations of Bay Region aesthetes. Bay Region Style itself bore the clear imprint of Japanese Zen architecture. In a famous 1947 essay on “Bay Region Style,” Lewis Mumford described the style as “a product of the meeting of the Occidental and Oriental architectural traditions,” 16 and six decades later Steve Jobs concurred: “I have always found … Japanese Zen Buddhism … to be aesthetically sublime.” 17

“Zen is to California as Greece is to Germany”: so an uncommonly insightful student quipped to me recently, bridging the Bay Region’s dogged pursuit of higher consciousness and the German phenomenological tradition. 18 Jobs’s seemingly existential understanding of design does indeed remind one of the fascination exerted over architects by Martin Heidegger, for whom design functioned best in the background, the better to “bring forth” Being. Bay Area and German existentialism are even linked by a proud sense of their higher provincialism, the disdain for metropolitan affectation. 19 William Wurster, referring to the Bay Region Style, wrote in 1956 that “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture.” 20 Jobs enthused about the Bay Area’s mid-century stick-built houses developed by Joseph Eichler: Eichler’s “houses were smart and cheap and good,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost too much. … It was the original vision for Apple.” 21 And so we have that paradox that the normative or the provincial comes to embody rarefied taste and so occupy a central place in design culture. (Something similar happened with critical regionalism.) 22 By the early 21st century, Apple products were the summary forms of international modern design, recalling the abstemiousness of Viennese architect and journalist Adolf Loos at the turn of the 20th century, of the German industrial design of the Dessau Bauhaus of the 1920s, and of the Braun products of Dieter Rams in the 1960s, admiration for the latter of which Jobs developed when attending the Aspen Institute’s conferences in the early 1980s. 23

Top: Eichler home, original advertisement. [Via Architizer] Bottom: Dieter Rams, Braun radio and record player. [Photos by Nite Owl, left, and Toby Evans, right]

3. Thinking inside the box

What did it mean for Jobs to attempt to recuperate “normative,” “classically” modernist values for a postmodern, late capitalist world order — for a world order whose anguish seems better captured by the old-world Koolhaas, and in which modernism’s promise of emancipation is trammeled in the off-shore factories of Apple’s manufacturers? Is this nothing but a travesty of modernism? For of course we know that aesthetic culture is at best a poor substitute indeed for truly political society, and a sickening lie in its absence. 24

The clamshell form of the late ’90s MacBook was redolent of the sort of cigarette case that Loos identified in 1908 as the touchstone of modern culture: stripped, portable, repetitive. 25 Ornament became Crime, in Jobs’s mind as it had in Loos’s. The Mac and the cigarette case were trade objects emblematic of their respective epochs, their meanings indefinite, not predetermined: as a content-producing machine, the Mac strenuously obliges society with cultural “running-room.” Yet the aluminum sheathed MacBook is not quite the quintessential Loosian object. It is almost too refined for its purposes, courting the status of a commodity fetish, mystifying and objectifying human relations through its market exchange. The MacBook confuses the urn with the chamber pot, to borrow Loos’s terms; it struggles to distinguish the ceremonial from the functional. It ennobles the rituals of everyday life, like writing email, but it is too slick to disrupt our lived continuum, which for Loos was the critical function of art, architecture and language — a way in which to make sense of our world. So it is to Rem Koolhaas and his firm, OMA, that we must turn for manifestation of the disjunctions of tradition and modernity, of place and space.

The contrast in taste, in aesthetics, between Jobs and Koolhaas is illustrated most obviously by comparing the two headquarters buildings. With its twisting and grotesque form, the China Central Television tower underscores the tragic deterioration of the public sphere, as the production of information is impressed into the service of the capitalist dictatorship of the People’s Republic. It is practically a Salon work of art, simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, politically and aesthetically, in a way that reminds me of that classic of the Salon genre, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819). 26 Whereas the Apple HQ suggests a very different version of the Romantic legacy, of the recovery of a primordial reason beyond intellectualization — it strains to be “insanely great,” in Jobs’s famous phrase. The circle of steel and glass suggests no history, no past; its gesture is spontaneous, or Jungian, or Zen, childlike in its simplicity and secrecy. It needs no interpretation because, as designer Sean Daly blogged in The Architects’ Newspaper:

The ens?, or “circle,” is perhaps the most enduring motif in the Zen tradition, one that first appears in Japanese monasteries in the mid-1600s. The Zen circle is not a linguistic character, but rather a symbol that conveys a host of things — the universe, the cyclical nature of existence, enlightenment, strength, and poised contemplation. It suggests the Heart Sutra, which explains that “form is void and void is form” … 27

Like Pixar in Emeryville, Apple in Cupertino exemplifies a light phenomenology. It’s Zen kitsch. Jobs’s Zen postmodernism, of which Foster’s building is an embodiment, acts upon the world through process, intervening in a cybernetic cycle for which the record of historical struggle is but a dysfunctional footnote. In sharp contrast, the tragic postmodernism of Koolhaas and the CCTV feels jagged, a beauty of terribilità.

Top: Norman Foster, Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015. Middle and Bottom: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, China Central TV headquarters, Beijing, 2012. [Photos by Jim Gourley]

Koolhaas’s abstraction of modernity appeals more to critical tastes than Jobs’s interaction with modernity. It is almost as though Koolhaas courts his appeal to art-historical criticality, even contributing to its veritable organ, October. 28 Koolhaas, who clearly rejected “interactive” and “gadgety” design — as a young architect at the Architectural Association in London in the ’70s he had little use for the Archigram influence — seems to think like an art historian, and his relative lack of name recognition in the broader culture perhaps confirms the discernment of the specialists. Whereas the outpouring of grief over Jobs’s death was often in questionable taste. “It sounds crazy,” a student in my modern architecture class said the day after Jobs died, “but for people of my age, it’s like we lost our Bobby Kennedy.” Could my students be so lacking in discrimination? Perhaps … but perhaps not. I would be fuming if that student had responded in the same way to, say, the untimely passing of Mark Zuckerberg. No disrespect, but Zuckerberg is, we might agree, no Kennedy. So maybe we might agree as well that my student was simply one of many seeking inspiration as an Obama administration elected upon the promise of hope struggled to the end of its third tumultuous year.

And apparently she found it: I noticed her in the crowd when Occupy arrived at my university campus not long after Jobs’s death. One of the few commentators to understand the strange politics of the mourning of Jobs was Frank Rich. Writing for New York Magazine, Rich compared Jobs to Edison as an inventor-entrepreneur whose American technological “architecture” (so to speak) was constructive to the same extent that the upstart American financial-services “architecture” — of the type built by the GE Capital division that had eclipsed the GE industrial division founded by Edison in the 1890s — was destructive. “Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records,” said Rich. But, he continued:

If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius — in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on— was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured.

The paradox was also understood, more viscerally, by that bellwether of campus humor, The Onion:

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on,” a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas — attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen.

Sit down, think clearly, and execute ideas: this is what draws students to design in a postmodern age, yes? “Obama added” (according to The Onion) “that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore.”

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, North Michigan Ave, Chicago, 2003. [Photo by Almond Dhukka]

We might decry the chirping of an Occupier’s iPhone as a mere simulacrum of political society. We might better see the fate of political society in the metaphor of Koolhaas’s atolls of beauty and social space cast adrift in a neoliberal world. But by a remarkable historical turn, the Pollyanna-ish aesthetic of the Apple Mac has forced us back (somewhat) to actual political society, to actual consumer-political activity. What R. John Williams has called Californian Techne-Zen was articulated so forcefully by Apple that it has seemingly necessitated its own exposure as a false consciousness. 29 Millions of consumers seem to have understood instinctively an incongruity between Apple’s aesthetic triumph and its refusal to advance social justice: it failed our expectation that advanced bourgeois art will articulate or resolve contradiction. Instead the iPhone starkly verified the dichotomy of its slogan “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”: capitalist differentials in land and labor value exclude millions from the Bay-Area nation. In so nearly sublimating the contradiction, Jobs’s art drew attention to the contradiction. Jobs’s electronics were so beguiling that their users were forced into a classic, bourgeois, visceral encounter with guilt, contradiction, tragedy: it was this that finally confirmed Jobs as an architect-provocateur on a par with Koolhaas.

Both are indeed Salon designers, ageless enfant terribles and lightning rods, prompting and giving shape to otherwise formless feelings and debates. Still, nobody seems to be holding Koolhaas responsible for the work conditions of his building contractors or steel millers, though the unnatural and monumental gesture of CCTV did indeed draw attention to the furtive modes of production — the state censorship — of Chinese information. When it was occupying its old building (whatever it was), I had never heard of CCTV, nor paused to consider its role in censorship. And when I was using a Dell laptop, the working conditions enforced in China by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn were remote from my awareness, even though Foxconn supplied Dell and practically every other electronics manufacturer of which I am a customer. Was it preordained, one wonders in retrospect, that Jobs’s iPad — which he loved to point at the front page of The New York Times during his famous new product presentations — would deliver New York Times reports about the wage and health and safety scandals in the Shenzhen factories in which the apparatus was made? I used my MacBook Air to sign a petition demanding that Apple redress Foxconn worker grievances. Every keystroke on the superlative machine reminded me of my desire for a better world, for a more complete and transparent political architecture, and of my complicity with forces I prefer to imagine as beyond my control. To borrow the terms popularized by anthropologist Bruno Latour, the works of both Jobs and Koolhaas function as “things” in and around which are assembled public “concerns” that might otherwise slip through the net of parliamentary discourses arrayed around both left and right. 30 Even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to question the “secular prophecy” of technological salvation wrought by Jobs. 31 Apple and OMA objects succeed as works of art, and also as catalysts of public attention, not just by being so astonishingly outré, but also by picturing the world unexpectedly — in extreme resolution, in extreme disjunction — and then by suggesting a means to interpret our existence in the world.

Top: Taiwanese protestors outside Foxconn (Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.) headquarters in New Taipei, 2010. [Photo by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong] Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Mecki Mac]

4. The varieties of bourgeois experience

I don’t want to muddy the waters of judgment as a caprice. My purpose is to draw attention to the way that art-historical judgment thinks in several registers, about design that works in several registers, in a world that operates in countless registers. To an art historian, the minimalism of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store is evocative of European Rationalism and neo-Platonism, when to many other cultural critics it is simply an extravagant warehouse, a shop composed of nothing but shop windows. But now watch how Jobs and Koolhaas complicate the relation between value and values (between exchange value and human value) in similar ways, by thinking like art historians. “Great products,” Jobs told The New York Times, are triumphs of “taste” derived from “study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present.” 32 OMA designs one of its best buildings for Prada, and Apple amasses $70 billion in cash. Both insist that we pay attention to the art of shopping but then shun the pursuit of business for its own sake. 33 Koolhaas’s studio at Harvard studied shopping, with delicious paradox, 34 and Jobs saw himself as the nemesis of Michael Dell’s fixation with the bottom line. No part of Apple’s organization would ever be “junkspace.”

Their work invites a moral response, and Jobs and Koolhaas pass onto us, their consumers and interpreters, the responsibility to square their contradictions. Jobs and Koolhaas alike chose the role of eyewitness to the student uprisings in Berkeley and Paris in 1968, and for each the activism of the Sixties would be formative; years later each would be content to observe the political responses to their work in the ’90s and ’00s with similar remove. These two modes of architectural ambition, interactive and abstract, Californian and European, are not categorically different modes — the one in a naïve or affirmative association with capitalism, say, the other in a critical relationship — but are two sides of the same coin. Jobs and Koolhaas each project variants of postmodern modernism: one optimistic but quietly doomed, the other doomed but quietly optimistic.

The reason of course is that design (like art) is pretty much inevitably a dialectic between God and Wall Street. The Occupier’s iPhone. The Eichler House. The double bind, built simultaneously, of OMA’s two West Coast projects: the Seattle Public Library and the Prada Epicenter in Los Angeles (both 2004). Enlightenment and shopping. Oscillating between Soviet constructivism, Manhattanite cosmopolitanism, and commercial midcentury modernism, Koolhaas reminds us that at the very moment that modern design triumphed, its utopian political project was doomed. Meaning that questions about Steve and Rem are ultimately questions about us. What more literal object lessons could we ask for, as art historians standing in front of our students, than OMA’s CCTV and Apple’s Campus 2? One abstracts the agony of the European public sphere, its workers eking out a living in a Chinese capitalist dictatorship, while the other promises an interactive Californianism after the near-eclipse of the New Deal. The university design studios of the Great Recession, rather than transcending the dialectic, are rather merging abstraction and interactivity, producing student projects that routinely integrate buildings with transgressive spaces, sites, economies, nutrition, mapping. Given the questionable origins of our own paychecks, it’s a devil’s bargain that few art historians can evade for long. Something of the Shenzhen “disgrace” of Jobs might reciprocally be carried over to art history, which is adept at using the abstractions of critical theory to describe the complicity of buildings and architects with economic regimes, but most often shies away from any explicit description of the deep connections that bind architecture to labor and poverty. 35

Left: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, 2004. [Photo by Sean Munson] Right: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Prada Epicenter, Los Angeles, 2004. [Photo by Corbin Keech]

Architecture is a lifeworld within which none of us can parse absolute judgments, yet it still offers ethical and actionable bearings. This I hope I am illustrating precisely by comparing two of its most notorious architects: the fascination of design is exactly its hermeneutic potential for thinking and working from the inside, across several registers. We can study the varieties of advanced bourgeois thinking that constitute and shape architecture as it re-combines — and reconciles [?] — base economic determination with the factors of geography, language, desire, technology, materials. Much as we return to other moments in the history of capital accumulation — Florence in the 15th century, Holland in the 17th century, Manhattan in the 19th century — and detect something mortal about their arcades, portraiture and still lives, so we can imagine art historians of the future scrutinizing the ambitions of OMA and Apple. One day the Bay Region will make for a particularly intriguing study in New Deal, systems-driven and neoliberal art history, the Golden Gate Bridge an analog of Brunelleschi’s Dome, a place awash with new money, fusing science, technology, engineering and learning, humans and gods, an outpost of godly and economic universalism at the center of a trade network. We can already see the next chapters getting written; Elon Musk is the latest guru. It is pointless to try and demote Musk’s wild gamble on the Tesla electric car, his fantastic ambition to save the world one drive-train at a time, his thinking across scales (the roadside rest and recharge stations, his concomitant interest in internet commerce and space exploration), the “insanely great” quality of his early products, his commitment to the Bay Area (to the point of locating his factories there) as an instance of business as usual. His products imply a cultural program beyond the marketplace. Musk compels public discussion. He’s a sort of architect.

Looking at California in this way points back to older, iconological approaches, art historical analyses applied across objects and institutions, ecologies and economies of dissimilar scale, type, intention, moving beyond connoisseurship and critical readings to capture something of the intellectual ecology behind things — the epistemology, or ontology; more than just the study of ideology, the study of ideas and intellectual frameworks particular to design, to its active attempts to mold the immediate future, and to its presuppositions about the world and the way it works. That things don’t just happen, that political economy and subjectivity aren’t givens; that the meeting of matter and consciousness can be altered is not a general understanding but one particular to a class educated in design.

At which point I might be able to take my students out of the lecture hall (where we study OMA’s staggering and faraway monuments) and attempt an architectural exegesis of the systems of the Central Valley, scouring it for meaning, agency, interruption, rather than celebrating it as a vernacular, or damning it as pure instrumentalism. Perhaps we can stand above Cupertino and regard it like the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), who observes a new town a little further south in California:

Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue distracts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway … a plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky. … she thought of the first time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets … sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. … there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. … [A] revelation … trembled just beyond the threshold of her understanding … she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant. 36

  1. I presented a version of this article at the session “Design, ca.1965-2025: from ‘California Dreamin’ to ‘Designed in California’” (James Housefield and Stuart Kendall, conveners), College Art Association Annual Conference, Los Angeles, February 2012.
  2. See, for instance, Dominic Rushe, “Apple results could show high-flying profits have succumbed to gravity,” The Guardian, 20 January 2013, accessed 20 January 2013.
  3. This despite the proliferation of Apps, which customize the Apple devices but only according to the operational, commerical and aesthetic rules of the Apple system.
  4. See Tomás Maldonado, Design, Nature, and Revolution: Toward a Critical Ecology (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1970; trans. US edition Harper & Rowe, 1972), and Manfredo Tafuri, Progetto e utopia: Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico, 1973, trans. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976).
  5. Eric Alterman, “The Agony and Ecstasy — and ‘Disgrace’ — of Steve Jobs,” The Nation, November 28 2011, accessed January 19, 2013.
  6. Counter-intuitive as it seems, Koolhaas would be an intriguing case study to analyze using the second-order cybernetics of Gregory Bateson, a thinker integral to Bay Region systems culture.
  7. Norman Foster, “Tribute to Steve Jobs 1955-2011,” 6th October 2011, accessed 18 January, 2013.
  8. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 133.
  9. See the 1983 Apple Gift Catalog archived by Signalnoise, accessed 18 January, 2013.
  10. See Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 57.
  11. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is unable to comment on the relationship for reasons of client confidentiality. I am grateful to Stephanie Tran for her 2011 undergraduate thesis research at UC Davis investigating this, and for the special access to Pixar which she arranged. One of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s few remarks on its relationship with Jobs can be found in James B. Stewart, “ A Genius of the Storefront, Too,” The New York Times, October 15, 2011, BU1, accessed 19 January 2013.
  12. An anonymous source at Pixar Studios confirms that Jobs’ express wish was to keep Pixar operations centered at Emeryville wherever possible (author interview, May 2011). Bloomberg Businessweek finds the same at Apple: “Many executives believe that outsourcing design allows them to lower the salaries they must pay, and lets them have engineers working on the products across all time zones. Jobs thinks that’s short-sighted. He argues that the cost-savings aren’t worth what you give up in terms of teamwork, communication, and the ability to get groups of people working together to bring a new idea to life. Indeed, with top-notch mechanical, electrical, software, and industrial designers all housed at Apple’s Infinite Loop campus in Cupertino, Calif., the company’s design capability is more vertically integrated than almost any other tech outfit.” Peter Burrows, “Commentary: Apple’s Blueprint for Genius,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 21 March 2005, accessed 29 July 2011.
  13. The scheme was presented at a meeting of the Cupertino city council in June 2011, and was designed by Norman Foster’s studio initially in secret.
  14. I adapt the phrase from Hal Foster’s identification of Renzo Piano’s “light modernity,” which Foster compares in turn to less sanguine notions of a “liquid modernity” and a “second modernity” proposed by the sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, respectively. See Hal Foster, “Global Style,” London Review of Books, vol. 29 no. 18, 20 September 2007, 10-12.
  15. See Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (San Francisco: The Communication Company, 1967).
  16. Lewis Mumford, “The Skyline: Bay Region Style,” The New Yorker, 11 October 1947, 106-9, reprinted in Joan Ockman and Edward Eigen, editors, Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 107-9, 109. For a fuller exposition of the argument that there is a long tradition of Bay Region design, please see my article “A Culture of Connection,” Boom: A Journal of California, vol. 2, number 1, 1–16.
  17. Quoted in Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 128. Jobs goes on: “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.” Writer Erik Davis developed an intriguing account of Jobs’s relationship with Zen Buddhism in his talk “Steve Jobs: California Visionary,” the 2012 Paul and Marie Castelfranco Lectures in Religion and Common Understanding, UC Davis, October 2012. See too Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Serpents Tail, 1999).
  18. Geoffrey Wildanger, Art History Graduate Seminar, Spring 2012. The analogy develops out of Dennis Schmidt’s On Germans and Other Greeks: Tragedy and Ethical Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).
  19. See “The Higher Provincialism,” Chapter 6 of Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007) and Martin Heidegger, “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” (1934).
  20. William Wurster, “Competition for U.S. Chancery Building, London,” Architectural Record, 119 (April 1956, 222), quoted in Marc Treib, editor, An Everyday Modernism: The Houses of William Wurster (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 74.
  21. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 7.
  22. See for instance the discussion of critical regionalism in Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
  23. Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 126-7.
  24. Aesthetic culture allows us to share our humanity and compensate for our alienation from one another, but “If the aesthetic must bear the burden of human community, then a political society … must leave a good deal to be desired.” Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 76, quoted in Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn, 295, footnote 155.
  25. My use of Loos is assisted by Alan Colquhoun’s crisp extrapolation in “The Urn and the Chamberpot: Adolf Loos 1900-30,” Chapter 4 of Modern Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For a remarkable if pessimistic reading of contemporary design through Loos, see Hal Foster, Design and Crime? And Other Diatribes (London: Verso, 2003).?
  26. For a more sustained reading of the CCTV Building in this fashion, please see my chapter “L’Architecture dans le Salon: The Civic Architecture of a Projective Modernism,” in Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman, editors, Architecture from Neo-Avant-garde to Postmodern in Britain and Beyond (New Haven: Yale University Press for the Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, 2010).
  27. Sean Daly, “Zen-otaph: Steve Jobs and the Meaning Behind Apple’s New Campus,” A/N Blog, December 29, 2011, accessed accessed 18 January, 2013. For other applicable readings of this mode of corporate HQ, see Louise Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: ?A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).
  28. See Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October, volume 100, Spring 2002, 175–190.
  29. See R. John Williams, “Technê-Zen and the Spiritual Quality of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, No. 1, Autumn 2011, 17-70.
  30. See Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public,” Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, 2005). A good example of an opening salvo in the “disgracing” of Jobs is Ben Davis, “Think Different: Why Steve Jobs Doesn’t Deserve Your Tears,” ARTINFO, 11 October 2011, accessed 19 January 2013. “I may get some hate mail about this,” Davis begins, “but with even Museum of Modern Art head Glenn Lowry piling on now to pronounce him the ‘Designer of a Generation,’ I have to call bullshit when it comes to the current beatification of Apple guru Steve Jobs.” And so the piling on reversed direction, leading to Apple’s eventual claim to be “committed to the highest standards of social responsibility across our worldwide supply chain”; accessed 19 January 2013.
  31. Andy Crouch, “Steve Jobs: The Secular Prophet,” The Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2011, accessed 19 January 2013.
  32. Steve Lohr, “Steve Jobs and the Economics of Elitism,” The New York Times, January 31, 2010, WK1, accessed 19 January 2013).
  33. Apple’s near-neighbor Google plays a similar double role, and, like those of Apple, its business motives (already self-evident to academic and industry observers) have come under increasing popular scrutiny.
  34. See Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, Sze Tsung Leong, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping / Harvard Design School Project on the City 2 (Cologne: Taschen, 2002).
  35. Exceptions to this reticence include for instance Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).
  36. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 1965 (reprinted New York: Harper Perennial, 2006),13-14.
Simon Sadler, “Steve Jobs: Architect,” Places Journal, March 2013. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 03.19.2013 at 12:47

    This is a wide ranging and complex post (though I am admittedly a little slow and impatient), but I think you have hit on a key point about Bay Region architecture in the time of William Wurster and Joseph Esherick, and that is their celebration of the ordinary -- as with a material like plywood, which Wurster used because it looked cheaper but was in fact more expensive than other choices.

    I can see a relationship to the Jobs esthetic as a kind of reversal of that approach -- making the highly designed object -- Mac, iphone etc., etc. -- ordinary. And also to a Miesian esthetic where the material is the ornament, itself a comment on Adolf Loos.

    But what about the new Apple headquarters as architecture? A beautiful object to be sure -- to me it is the apotheosis of the gadget -- but perhaps a very old-fashioned and wasteful approach to land-use, building, and urban design. And that would seem to contradict the very notion of esthetic efficiency lying at the heart of so many wonderful Apple products.

  • 03.19.2013 at 14:35

    This is quite a ride indeed. I do love the notion of "Zen kitsch" as defining Apple. It is part of the same aesthetic that makes W Hotels and Zara into the current carriers of the modernist meme, but without any of the criticality or catalytic function that the notion of representing modernity could and I think should have.

    I also think it is important to embed that aesthetic in California culture, though I do think you, if I may say so, got it a bit wrong: it is not the Bay Area School of woodsy modernism, but the Light & Space movement that is the real percursor. If there are roots in Eichler, it is in the blanding-down of high modernism, again the notion of default modernism withut criticality. I also think the analysis of OMA is very, very superficial; the title promises a much more thorough analysis of both Jobs' and Koolhaas' conceptual turn away from singular products and towards catalytic interventions and the desire for mass consumption. The one point of intersection is the notion of whether there is an absolutism about this kind of large-scale capitalism and how you become complicit with it, no matter how either Zen or critical you are.

  • 03.19.2013 at 15:53

    Aaron, acute and lucid as always...I had to look up the Light & Space Movement. But what would a modernist carrier with criticality or catalytic function be? Can it be a consumer object at all?

  • 03.19.2013 at 16:24

    Ah, that is the question, isn't it? Buildings have a hard enough time being at all critical, and perhaps cannot be, but consumer objects? I would argue that the Droog people figured it out to a certain extent, as did the Castigliones at one point, but then again, those are fairly limited production. I don not know the answer, but would love to.

  • 03.19.2013 at 16:29

    Yes, Droog! I agree.

  • 03.20.2013 at 11:30

    Minor note, footnote 29 incorrectly references Critical Inquiry no. 37, it is vol 38, No. 1, Autumn 2011 in case you are looking for it.

    Thank you. We've made this correction. — Eds.

  • 03.21.2013 at 00:23

    The glass cube is only part of the store experience. When you go down inside, the minimalism is quickly replaced by wood tables, scores of people, backlight colorful photos, bright lights, products and more. The architecture is meant to disappear in face of the real "art" like the Louve you show. Which is different then true zen, which would be a room with nothing at all.
    Koolhaas on the otherhand is more in the architectural tradition of creating one-of-a-kind spaces. They are as far from a "brand" as you could say---i see little similarlity between Koolhaas projects. I've heard them described as Hyperrational, which means they are rational to their particular site and context--though there are stylistic similarities, whereas Apple makes modernist Starbucks meant to be familiar across countries.

  • 03.21.2013 at 14:49

    He really did have some amazing ideas!

  • 03.22.2013 at 20:33

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to read my post and provide thoughtful comments.

    The Light & Space connection is a good one and is also made by Alex Kitnick ("Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface," Artforum, February 1, 2012). It's remiss of me not to have included it since it came up in conversation at a seminar convened by Sylvia Lavin in preparation for the MAK Center show "Everything Loose Will Land" ( -- which I mention here since the show is likely to be of interest to any readers drawn to things Californian.

    I'm not sure that my arguments in this piece would have been changed by a more detailed comparison with Koolhaas, though I regret that readers might be left feeling short-changed in that respect. Maybe I'll return to it some time.

    Finally, the question of questions, raised by dgregory and taken up by Aaron Betsky -- "what would a modernist carrier with criticality or catalytic function be?" I truly fear depressing my students as we circle this issue. Yet students can perceive an aesthetic or intellectual or social "surplus" even in the most sober analyses of design history. It's as producers of those surpluses that Koolhaas and Jobs are so helpful to me in the classroom, other reservations aside.

  • 03.26.2013 at 18:53

    Thanks, Simon.

    Another question for your students, then: Is Apple's new headquarters an example of industrial design, or architecture, or both?

    Daniel Gregory

  • 04.11.2013 at 12:54

    Daniel, I'm going to ask them, and I'll try to report back! It's a good -- provocative -- question. I am tending to de-emphasize categorization at the moment (I have cross-disciplinary students) and ask students instead what problems particular designs solve, how, and in whose interests.

    Interesting new piece here:

    "... in Silicon Valley, nothing says you’ve peaked quite like a lavish new HQ"