Zen-otaph: Steve Jobs and the Meaning Behind Apple’s New Campus

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Aerial view of Apple's proposed new headquarters in Cupertino, California. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

Aerial view of Apple's proposed new headquarters in Cupertino, California. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

Apple’s new campus in Cupertino has left the design community a bit perplexed.

Back in September most of the architectural critics who weighed in on the issue expressed a one-two combination of shock and disappointment. Precisely because of Apple’s design bona fides and Sir Norman Foster’s involvement as the lead architect, they were expecting better. Christopher Hawthorne of the LA Times called it a “retrograde cocoon,” marking it down as a car-centric, “doggedly old-fashioned proposal.”

Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker didn’t pull his punches either. He mocked the building as a “gigantic donut” that was “scary” in its lack of functionality and human scale. Though he typically will not judge an unbuilt design based on renderings, in this case Goldberger felt he must:

It’s said that Steve Jobs considers this building to be a key part of his legacy, which would be unfortunate, because it would mean that his last contribution to his company might well be his least meaningful.

Despite these cries from the box seats, a revised design that was released in early December didn’t change much from the original. Like the drawings first publicized this summer, the latest renderings depict a vast ring building set within a dense grove of trees. The new design has a darker roof and a more articulated elevation, clad with larger panels of gently curved glass. But the general form and program remain the same. Comprising a total area of 2.8 million square feet, its circular structure will house 13, 000 employees and include a thousand-person auditorium for corporate events.

The utter naïveté of the form from an architectural standpoint may explain why the critics are so disturbed. How could such a big-name architect like Norman Foster, known for his pitch-perfect modernism and finesse, have generated such an inefficient plan? Could Jobs possibly be behind it? Jobs, for his part, only went so far as to call his campus a “space ship” at the local town hall meeting in June.

A rendering and a plan view of Apple's proposed campus. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

A rendering and a plan view of Apple's proposed campus. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

With little explanation to go on, neither Hawthorne nor Goldberger connected the design to its most obvious reference: Zen Buddhism, one of Steve Jobs’ life-long pursuits since his early days at Reed College. It’s conceivable that the campus plan was handed to Foster by the Apple CEO himself in the form of a simple circle of ink on rice paper.

The ensō, 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,” as well as the path to Bodhisattva-hood.

The Zen Circle.

The Zen Circle.

More importantly, the very making of the circle acts like a Rorschach test. As an expression of a moment then the body and spirit most freely create, and in the full sweep of a single brush stroke, the character of the devotee is fully exposed. In each ensō is the trace of spiritual realization.

For those who know the life of Steve Jobs, this has special meaning. While still in college, he devoured books on Zen and was transfixed by one class in particular: calligraphy. As he discussed years later, “It was beautiful, historical, and artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

And it was in 1975, after a less successful stint in India, that Steve Jobs –always torn between tech and the spiritual path–deliberated moving to Japan to enter a monastery. But the Zen master Kobin Chino Otogawa (who would later preside at Jobs 1991 wedding) persuaded him not to don the monk’s habit and instead make technology his vocation. Jobs started Apple in April 1, 1976.

This personal history and the particular dimensions of the campus circle leave little doubt as to the connection. For a man dying of pancreatic cancer, Jobs was greatly involved in the campus design. He personally presented the project to the Cupertino town council, his last major endeavor as CEO.

It is in their painted ensō and attendant poetry that monks over the centuries have each conveyed their own final testimony on enlightenment. This campus is Jobs’, and there are many personal touches. It is graced with thousands of fruit trees –cherry, apple, apricot, and plum trees that have been placed to offer a sense of perpetual bloom through the seasons.

A rendering of Apple's proposed campus. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

A rendering of Apple's proposed campus. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

As Forbes magazine breathlessly described it:

In late February, around the time of Jobs’ birthday, the show will begin. Pink and white plum blossoms will appear on stands of trees at the center of Apple’s new campus, hinting at more to come.

A few weeks later cherry trees scattered strategically along walkways and at the edges of open glades will start to blossom.

Fruit trees held a great deal of meaning for Steve Jobs, tying back both to his formative teenage job as an arborist on the Friedland farm and his early diet as an Ehret fruitarian at Reed College. The renderings don’t do justice to this aspect of the landscape design, nor do they offer any glimpse of the interior courtyard.

Inside the vast courtyard, employees will experience not just gardens, but also a fountain, an open-air amphitheater, and a dining terrace set beside among apple orchards, a grove of apricot trees, stands of plum and cherry. Void or no void, it’s pretty glorious being on the inside of the Zen Circle of Steve.

This bountiful but hidden world reminds me of two Zen paintings in particular, both of which are unique in the history of the art form, in that they have writing inside the usually empty circle. The first was done by Namtembo, a Zen roshi (“master”) who lived from 1839 to 1925. Writing inside the circle he declares:

Within the spinning circle of life we are born. The human heart too should always be kept round and complete.

The second is by Isan Shinko, an 18th century master, which has the symbol for heart inside the ensō and reads:

Keep yourself firmly centered inside here and nothing will be able to shatter you.

Zen paintings with text inside the circle.

Zen paintings with text inside the circle.

The two messages suggest two rather different ways to cope with the outside world. One is expansive, the other more cautious. Like most people, Steve Jobs had those characteristics, and his company has those traits as well.

Apple products seem to strive for “Beauty,” in all its old-fashioned, capital-B form. In using them, you experience a visual elegance and richness of experience unmatched by most other consumer items. You feel their innovation and joy, and they fill you with a round and complete heart. As Jobs himself said nearly twenty years ago in a Money magazine article:

Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.

But as a corporate entity, Apple is also known as secretive and distancing. It has a closed garden philosophy. Like its founder, it often works a “doesn’t play well with others” vibe that could feel downright obsessive and reproving. Inside its shatter-proof ring of enlightenment, it’s got no time for us sorry-sack laymen. As Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”

Yes, excellence requires focus, and as Jobs was fond of saying:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.

Of course, unlike the delicate washes of ink and water that comprise a Zen ensō, the new Apple campus is an actual building. It is a Zen circle, but it is also a cenotaph.

Like Étienne-Louis Boullée’s famous unbuilt cenotaph to Newton, this building will honor a man who is buried elsewhere. Both are symbolic of the universe. Both are strange monuments to bold innovation. When designed, Newton’s cenotaph was, as Jobs described his new HQ, a space ship, otherworldly by every 18th century definition of the term.

Newton's Cenotaph (left) and the walking paths at Apple's proposed campus (right).

Newton's Cenotaph (left) and the walking paths at Apple's proposed campus (right).

There are even similarities in the plan, though the Boullée design has rings of trees around an enclosed sphere, while Foster’s campus has a ring building enclosing a vast grove. Newton’s cenotaph has lines of trees that would skirt processional roads. Apple’s plan bulges with thick groves and a light improvisation of threaded paths.

Both designs honor men who were social misfits in their youths but who strove for such excellence as adults that they were lauded on a near-global scale well before their deaths.

Of course, there’s nothing more “un-Zen” than a cenotaph, the most brazen act of defiance against life’s impermanence. But that is part of the contradiction of Jobs, or indeed any business person with spiritual leanings. His friend Dan Kottke playful poked fun at this schism in a letter sent to Jobs as early as 1977 and published in Businessweek:

After performing an extensive prana to the lotus feet of suchness, gaze lovingly upon picture with cosmic thoughts of cosmic relevance and profundity until phone rings. Answer phone, haggle furiously, and refuse to sell for less than $2.3 million.

In the end, Jobs seems to pull it off. The words of his commencement address to the Stanford class of 2005 would take on greater resonance years later when it is clear he had, at the time, actually been fighting pancreatic cancer for nearly two years:

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

You can’t get more Zen than that.

Sean Daly is the Managing Director at Windtunnel Visualization, a brand agency and 3D design development firm in New York.

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