From Garage to Big Apple: Could Apple have been created in its amazing new headquarters, or did it somehow need the garage?


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Apple Computer started in the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents’ house, where Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne developed the first Apple computer, based on Wozniak’s prototype.  Apple's garage startup was preceded many years earlier when Hewlett Packard set up their first workshop in a garage, and thus launched “Silicon Valley."

Could Apple have been created in its amazing new headquarters, or did it somehow need the garage? Will MIT’s new STATA prove to be as creative an environment as its earlier Building 20?  What are the best places for creativity and innovation? How can architecture help, and when does it hurt? And what are the implications for other “makerspaces” and alternative learning environments?

Apple's and Hewlett Packard’s “from garage to greatness” trajectory is like that of many other garage startups that went on to become billion-dollar corporations: Jeff Bezos created the Amazon website in his garage in Washington; Walt and Roy Disney created their first films in their uncle’s garage; Bill Gates and Paul Allen launched Microsoft in a small Albuquerque garage; Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google in a garage rented from a friend.


“A small space focuses the mind. A large space distracts it.” 
― Leonardo da Vinci 

“I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.”

― Sir Kenneth Clark

Given the startup examples above, a garage environment doesn’t seem to hurt advanced creative thinking. In some ways, it may even help. The economy of starting up in a garage is of course most important for a fledgling company. It’s likely though that great minds such as those who founded the companies mentioned above could have been creatively productive in any number of environments. The maker mindset of creating something from nothing, and exploring personal interests, is the core of a makerspace.

Before founding Hewlett Packard, Dave Packard had gone to work at General Electric. He was told that there was no future in electronics at GE, and that he should concentrate instead on generators, motors, and other heavier equipment. Since he believed in the future of electronics, he launched his own company with his friend Bill Hewlett instead. Large corporations, as they age, become more rigid. Corporate architecture, with private offices, private corner offices, and rows of cubicles, can reinforce this rigidity by becoming more rigid as well.

In their book MakeSpace: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, both of Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the "d. school"), promote inexpensive, flexible architecture and furniture as ideal for innovative environments. Their own early educational environments on the Stanford campus were in double-wide trailers “nobody else wanted.” For years they had to relocate every 12 months before their first official building was available. Yet they write that this apparent hardship was beneficial, because it forced them to learn how to re-prototype their space and their organization, how best to create learning spaces for their students, and how to make their spaces more collaborative and creative. Over time, they learned the importance of generous, open, collaborative spaces, and “bare essential” personal spaces.

Doorley and Witthoft want us to see the limitations of our cubicles, corner offices, and conference rooms, and the possibilities of re-making them. Their book MakeSpace seems especially well adapted to assisting the Silicon Valley startup culture, much of which has had some connection to Stanford, where they teach.

Throughout the 20th century, Silicon Valley’s growth has been closely connected to proximity with other tech companies, as well collaboration between them, academia, and government agencies: a synergy that has resulted in some of the most significant technology ventures ever. As Jennifer Magnolfi writes in Harvard Business Review, “Influenced by this collaborative context, Valley founders prized proximity to one another; face-to-face interactions; informal deal making; and changeable, impermanent team and org structures. These values are reflected in their buildings, which adopted design strategies to make workspace configurations adaptable, or somewhat less permanent. The aim was to get the physical workspace to perform at the speed of software — or at least get a little closer to it…. This led to open floor plans, rich amenities and services, informal attire, a collegial atmosphere, and very distinct work cultures. The more successful interior spaces foster “collisions” and spontaneous interactions among employees through a variety of space typologies. Those collisions, increase learning, collaboration, and ultimately innovation.”

When he created Pixar's headquarters, Steve Jobs used architecture to promote creative collaboration through collision: "In 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar's diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. ... Jobs 'made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.'"


Scaling Up

Everything about Apple’s new Cupertino HQ, “The Ring,” seems huge: 175-acre site; 2.8 million square feet building; 12,000 employees; 100,000 s.f. fitness center, a 4,000-person café with four story doors, 9,000 parking spaces. Also, its $5 billion price tag. All of this seems very remote from Apple’s original 400 s.f. garage. Designed by Foster and Partners (with, of course, essential input from Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive), the Ring is a city unto itself, like a giant hi-tech Versailles.

Apple HQ (Exterior view from ground level)

Magnolfi writes that the new  Apple HQ plan, while innovative, is not open:The overall strategy for the workspace is based on modular ‘pods’ dedicated to either teamwork, focused work, or socialization. The rhythm of the pods ‘permits serendipitous and fluid meeting spaces’ along the circumference of the Ring, connecting interior high-tech environments for productivity to panoramic views of the exterior landscape, orchards, and sunlight.”   The largest café is meant to encourage more interaction, though there are also smaller cafes.

Is all this affordable? “We’re amortizing this in an entirely different way,” Apple’s Jonathan Ive says. “We don’t measure this in terms of numbers of people. We think about it in terms of the future. The goal was to create an experience and an environment that felt like a reflection of who we are as a company. This is our home, and everything we make in the future is going to start here.”
MIT Building 20 (Exterior)

Building 20 on the MIT campus was a hastily built, unsafe, mostly dark, and ultimately decrepit wooden structure. It was designed as a temporary building, and for the more than a half century it operated, it was expected to soon be replaced. Yet is also regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world because of the wide range of discoveries that took place within it. Initially, in 1942, it housed the Radiation laboratory. After WWII, it housed scientists and laboratories that had nowhere else to go.  An electronics department, machine shop, piano repair facility, a laboratory for nuclear scientists, the linguistics department, a cell-culture lab, the Acoustics Lab (which gave rise to the Bose Corporation), the Ice Research Laboratory, and the R.O.T.C., among others, were all located in Building 20.

Building 20 was in many ways like a large, glorified garage: not purpose built, but economical, flexible, and forgiving.

In the New Yorker article “Groupthink: The brainstorming myth”, on brainstorming as a spur to creativity, Jonah Lehrer reports on Linguistics in Building 20: “According to [Morris] Halle, he was assigned Building 20 [in the 50s, for the new linguistics program] because that was the least valuable real estate on campus, and nobody thought much of linguists. Nevertheless, he soon grew fond of the building, if only because he was able to tear down several room dividers. This allowed Halle to transform a field that was often hermetic, with grad students working alone in the library, into a group exercise, characterized by discussion, Socratic interrogation, and the vigorous exchange of clashing perspectives.”

For creative collaboration, diversity of thinking, as found in Building 20, is a powerful catalyst. Removing partitions at Building 20 provided a better environment for this diversity to prosper. In his article, Lehrer identifies two types of brainstorming; a free-for-all exchange of ideas in a structured environment; and a random, unplanned debate. Only the second type, he says, really works.

M.I.T.'s famous Building 20, Lehrer writes, became one of the most innovative spaces in the country because it fostered the best kind of brainstorming. "Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the courtyards and bolted to the roof. ... The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle ... The building's horizontal layout also spurred interaction.'"

Brainstorming works, Lehrer says, when it's less structured, more random and open, and when it allows for debate. Architecture and office layout can play a huge role in this. The horizontal layout of Building 20 encouraged chance meetings and interactions.

Stata Center (Exterior)

This century’s replacement for Building 20, the Ray and Maria Stata Center, or Building 32, is a 720,000-square-foot academic complex designed by architect Frank Gehry. It sits on the site of the former Building 20.  At eight stories, it is almost three times taller than the three-story Building 20, and roughly 3.75 times its floor area.

Other than its large size, Stata, it would seem, could hardly be more different from Apple’s Ring. It has an urban rather than suburban setting. It has no significant natural landscape. Where the Ring is sleek, unified, and designed like an enormous Apple product, Stata is particularized, idiosyncratic, and designed like a random cluster of smaller buildings. Unlike the clear geometry of the Ring, the plan of Stata has little overt order.

Still, there are important similarities between Big Apple and Stata. The main goal for Stata, as Gehry describes it, was to get MIT scientists, faculty as well as students, to meet and interact: “The main problem I was given was that there are seven separate departments that never talk to each other. [But] when they talk to each other, if they get together, they synergize and make things happen, and it’s gangbusters.”

Stata is meant to be an architectural “mixing chamber” where scientists make connections that stimulate new ideas. Like the Ring, it is meant to promote a sense of creative community.  

And, like Building 20, the Stata’s “unfinished” indoor materials, which include raw metal, glass, plywood, industrial lamps, exposed wires, and raw concrete, are meant to feel like a warehouse, so that the building is adaptable, easy to change and rearrange. “I’m happy when the building is forgiving enough so you can do things to it without destroying it,” Gehry says. “Put a new light where you want, knock out a wall.”

Stata and the Ring are two of the world’s largest “Makerspaces.” The Ring is only now being occupied, while Stata is still relatively new. The success of both these huge and complex projects will be better evaluated over time. Already though, there has been some resistance to Apple's beautiful new headquarters: Some employees miss their previous privacy, and object to sitting all together a long tables. Some are already working to reshape their spaces, to individualize them. This may be something that Gehry got more right at Stata. Taken together, at 3,520,000 s.f., these two projects contain as much space as 8,800 garages. And the best garages are still a tough act to follow.


---John W. Clark,

Co-Chair, AIA Subcommittee for Alternative Learning Environments

August, 2017 


“The most necessary task of civilization is to teach people how to think. It should be the primary purpose of our public schools. The mind of a child is naturally active, it develops through exercise. Give a child plenty of exercise, for body and brain. The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.” 
― Thomas A. Edison





  • Committee on Architecture for Education
  • Technical Design for Building Performance