Steve Jobs | On the Social Potential of Built Space

Steve Jobs on the Social Potential of Built Space
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

While reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of the co-founder of Apple and former majority shareholder of Pixar Animations Studios, Steve Jobs (review available here on The Outlaw Urbanist), I came across a fascinating passage. I wanted to share it because the point is so powerful, it bears repetition and celebration. The most important passages are in bold.

Pixar Animation Studios was reaping the creative and financial benefits of a $485 million worldwide gross for Toy Story 2 so…

(Excerpt) …it was time to start building a showcase headquarters. Jobs and the Pixar facilities team found an abandoned Del Monte fruit cannery in Emeryville, an industrial neighborhood between Berkeley and Oakalnd, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. They tore it down and Jobs commissioned Peter Bohlin, the architect of the Apple Stores, to design a new building for the sixteen-acre plot. Jobs obsessed over every aspect of the new building, from the overall concept to the tiniest detail regarding materials and construction. Steve had the firm belief that the right kind of building can do great things for a culture,” said Pixar’s president Ed Catmull… (John) Lasseter had originally wanted a traditional Hollywood studio, with separate buildings for various projects and bungalows for development teams. But the Disney folks said they didn’t like their new campus because the teams felt isolated, and Jobs agreed. In fact he decided they should go to the other extreme: one huge building around a central atrium designed to encourage random encounters. Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow.” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” So he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see…” “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” Lasseter recalled. “I kept running into people I hadn’t seen in months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

For those who don’t believe architects such as New Urbanist Andres Duany or Space Syntax people such as Alan Penn, Tim Stonor and Kerstin Sailer about the social potential of built space, then believe the words of a genius like Steve Jobs. Design matters, space matters, and architecture matters to innovation.

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