On paper, Steve Jobs Theater doesn’t make complete sense. The price tag would lead many to question the rationale in building a massive underground theater for unveiling products. It’s difficult to envision any other company wanting to undertake such a project. However, after I attended Apple’s inaugural event at Steve Jobs Theater, Apple’s motivation behind the building became crystal clear. Steve Jobs Theater is an Apple product, and a closer look at the building uncovers a side to Apple that few have seen before.
Steve Jobs Theater is located in Cupertino and positioned in the southeast corner of Apple's new $5 billion Apple Park headquarters. The 167,000-square-foot building consists of a 921-seat underground theater and accompanying product demo room. Apple plans on utilizing Steve Jobs Theater for product unveilings and the periodic corporate event. Apple hired Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners as the project's architect although Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive and other Apple designers played a pivotal role.
Most visitors arriving at Steve Jobs Theater for the first time will be impressed by its seclusion and allure. Unlike the 2.8-million-square-foot ring building, Steve Jobs Theater cannot be seen from nearby streets surrounding Apple Park. Instead, visitors must walk along a path that winds its way through a series of carefully landscaped hills. It soon becomes clear that this short walk is actually part of the broader experience Apple was trying to achieve.
The path empties out into a basin containing Steve Jobs Theater’s lobby. The 22-foot curved panes of glass create a strong first impression. To the right is an unobstructed view of the giant, circular ring building. The entire experience is reminiscent of Disney World as it becomes clear that someone has created this specific experience to be consumed at this particular location. The lobby, the only part of Steve Jobs Theater that is above ground, is massive, intriguing, and even magical. It doesn’t take long to notice the lack of walls or support structure. This leads to the inevitable question of how the 155-foot roof is being held up. (Spoiler: the glass supports the carbon fiber roof.) Additional questions are raised regarding how plumbing for the water sprinklers and electricity for the lights and speakers are piped to the roof. As it turns out, a little magic is indeed at work. As reported by Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable, all of the necessary plumbing and wiring is found in 20 of the narrow gaps between the large panes of glass.
The other item that stood out about Steve Jobs Theater was the two sets of stairs on either side of the lobby that are used by visitors to walk down to the theater. The intriguing use of Castagna stone and handrails hand-carved into the stone walls reminded me of a mix between an Egyptian structure and something from space. Photos and videos don't do them justice.
(My complete review of Apple's inaugural event at Steve Jobs Theater is available for Above Avalon members here.)
Steve Jobs Theater is far from perfect. A strong argument can be made that Apple outgrew the theater before it even opened. Apple's prior two iPhone launches took place in a venue that fit 50% more people, which allowed Apple to invite many more Apple employees than they did to the inaugural event at Steve Jobs Theater.
Despite the building's large footprint, the exhibit space felt incredibly cramped. While Apple may like the visual of hundreds of people bumping into each other to get their hands on the latest products, it's not exactly the best experience to go through. My suspicion is that the exhibit space needs a few modifications to reflect the new era of reporters wanting to live stream.
In addition, there were a number of odd design decisions found at Steve Jobs Theater. These range from the awkward paper towel dispensers in the restroom to uneven temperature control in the lobby and doors that are unusually difficult to open. There was also a decent probability of getting a little wet from water dripping off the carbon fiber roof in the morning. However, the building's accomplishments end up vastly outweighing these minor oddities.
Much of the discussion regarding Steve Jobs Theater up to now has been superficial. Most people agree that the building is impressive and fits within Apple's broader design focus. However, upon closer examination, Steve Jobs Theater provides a fascinating look at today's Apple. A number of items stood out to me.
An Apple Product. Apple is no longer a company that just ships consumer hardware powered by differentiated software. The unveiling of Steve Jobs Theater is the latest sign of this reality. The theater is an Apple product, in the same vein as Apple's redesigned Retail stores. Apple approached Steve Jobs Theater and the broader Apple Park headquarters in the same way that it would any other product. Significant time and resources were spent on modeling and prototyping before construction. An identical process occurs for Apple products that eventually end up on our desks, in our pockets, and on our wrists.
One of the most significant takeaways from Steve Jobs Theater is that Apple is no longer a company content in just focusing on making well-designed electronics. Apple is moving into bigger and bolder initiatives. Jony Ive has hinted in various interviews about his never-ending drive to make technology more personal and create tools for people. While this goal will inevitably lead Apple further into wearables, including glasses, there is a very high likelihood that Apple will focus on bigger tools like self-driving cars. These bigger tools will require Apple to move much further into construction and architecture. Apple reportedly owns and leases a collection of heavy manufacturing facilities close to Apple Park that includes some of the last remaining open space in the San Jose vicinity. (A listing and map of these Apple buildings are available for Above Avalon members here). The day when Apple designers build their very own state-of-the-art transportation R&D center minutes away from Apple Park is no longer a fantasy. All of this puts the PR photos with Tim Cook and Jony wearing Apple hardhats into a new light.
We have arrived at a weird point in time. Silicon Valley giants are gaining unfathomable amounts of power yet remaining remarkable aloof when it comes to manufacturing and construction. Apple is the notable exception. Apple is the company most eager to step outside its comfort zone and experiment in construction and architecture realms. Apple sees the gap between architecture and design starting to shrink. According to Jony, architecture is "a sort of product design; you can talk about it in terms of scale and function and materials, material types. I think the delineation is a much, much softer set of boundaries that mark our expertise."
Experience. There's a reason why Steve Jobs Theater and the overall Apple Park campus is reminiscent of Disney World. Both locations provide an unmatched experience to the visitor. When walking around the grounds surrounding Steve Jobs Theater, it truly felt as if the building is meant to represent Earth while the large circular ring building off in the distance is the Sun.
Steve Jobs Theater symbolizes how Apple is doubling down on extending the Apple experience beyond just iPhones in our pockets and Apple Watches on our wrists. As Apple's Retail store strategy shows, the idea of using architecture and physical spaces to explain the Apple story isn't new. However, Apple has taken the idea further to include its headquarters and even the theater at which it plans to unveil many of its future products.
Focus. It's easy to look at Steve Jobs Theater and forget the amount of work and resources that went into the building. Jony and Apple's Industrial Design team reportedly worked alongside Foster + Partners on nearly every aspect of the theater and the entire Apple Park campus. Apple management likes to use every opportunity to reiterate its goal of remaining focused and saying no to a lot of great ideas. The company's product line demonstrates such focus. Accordingly, there is logic in considering how much attention went into Apple Park over the past few years and where that attention is now being placed. This brings us to the most crucial takeaway regarding Steve Jobs Theater: Jony Ive.
In May 2015, Jony was promoted to Chief Design Officer. The transition kicked off a debate regarding the underlying motivation behind the move. Many argued that the promotion marked the beginning of the end for Jony's time at Apple. Some observers argued Apple is setting the stage for Jony's eventual retirement by shifting day-to-day responsibilities to Richard Howarth and Alan Dye. The degree to which Jony then took a less visible presence in subsequent months (which was clearly telegraphed by Apple in announcing his promotion) added oxygen to the fire.
Others said Jony's Chief Design Officer title is mostly ceremonial with little-to-no responsibility and compared it to Steve Jobs giving the Chief Software Technology Officer title to Avie Tevanian in 2003. Tevanian ended up leaving Apple a few years later. In reality, such a comparison is so off base it could classify as intellectual dishonestly.
I've held a completely different view of Jony's promotion. The day after Jony's promotion was announced (via a Stephen Fry article), I wrote:
"With Howarth and Dye serving as Jony's two lieutenants in terms of managing day-to-day aspects of Apple design, what would such a dynamic look like and where would Jony fit into the picture? I consider Jony's new role to be much more about leadership while Howarth and Dye handle the more corporate side of things - the actual management of teams. The amount of additional time and attention that Jony can spend on entirely new projects, while leaning on his two right hands to make sure that schedules are being met and projects are receiving all of the resources they need, goes a long way in describing Apple's strategy over the next few years.
I see an environment in which Jony's potential can be unleashed even more now than the world has already seen. Similar to how Steve Jobs was known to head down to Jony's design lab to hang out, I suspect in some ways, Jony wants to do the same - check out of the day-to-day executive grind and lose himself in research and design elements on whatever topic or subject he choses. By being positioned in more of a leadership role than a managerial role, Jony could maybe be more like Jony."
Two years later, and with Steve Jobs Theater officially open, it is clear Jony holds the role closest to the one held by Steve Jobs. The promotion to Chief Design Officer represented sustainability for Jony. It has been reported that Apple Watch development, in addition to overtaking leadership of human interface, took its toll on Jony. The entire Apple Park project represents much of Jony's focus in recent years. Jony reportedly was the one who carried Apple Park on his shoulders. Its completion now gives Jony the freedom to focus on new initiatives and projects at Apple.
A Design Company
"[O]ne of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there." - Steve Jobs
It's difficult to envision any other company building something like Steve Jobs Theater. Based on the reported $14 million price of the theater seating, my estimate for the overall cost of the building exceeds $100 million. Most management teams will struggle to find how such an initiative would ever come back to boost sales or benefit the company. The fact is that Apple is unlike any other Silicon Valley firm. Steve Jobs Theater symbolizes how Apple isn't a tech company but rather a design company. Apple believes that how we experience and interact with a product is more important than a single focus on the technology powering that product. Apple is now bringing that philosophy to the way we experience architecture. As for the why behind it all, Apple's answer would probably be to make something wonderful.
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