At 67th Street and Broadway, a pavilion of marble and sheer glass walls opened in November, a composition as austerely purposeful as a classic Greek temple. Is this elegant glass-roofed room the home of a cash-flush hedge fund? A Renzo museum?
It’s an Apple Store.
As retail reels in the recession and even established stores look like temporary pop-ups, Apple lavished expanses of Tennessee marble with end-matched vein patterns as soft as wisps of smoke. Because the store is that Manhattan rarity, a freestanding building, it is an even more alluring display of costly investment than the famous glass cube that tops the computer company’s underground store on Fifth Avenue. According to Ron Johnson, Apple’s senior vice-president of retail, these stores merit lavish outlays because “they are the most profitable.”
At a press preview, Johnson described the Broadway location as one of the company’s “significant” stores. (It’s not a “flagship,” a word Apple people utter with contempt, since other companies don’t approach store design with the steely obsession of Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO and co-founder.) Johnson said that Apple will continue to make architectural investments in “landmark” locations where there is “enormous activity, lots of street life,” such as along the busy Upper West Side corridor that runs from Columbus Circle to Lincoln Center.
According to Karl Backus, the principal-in-charge at architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson who designed this and the two other significant Manhattan stores, Apple prefers to build one large selling room in order to “present the entire interior to the street.” The mullion-free glass walls ascend 40 feet high to meet the gently vaulted all-glass roof with an almost invisible joint. “That openness is the invitation,” Backus added.
The all-glass roof is an exercise in bravura minimalism, engineered by James O’Callaghan, of London-based Eckersley O’Callaghan. He mounted fritted, insulating- glass panels on thin metal purlins that incorporate lighting, and (invisibly) sprinklers and security systems. Elegant trusses cross under, with tension cables picked out in machined stainless steel. All that glass bathes the room in sunlight. Shadows move slowly across the uninterrupted expanses of marble. The room feels as diaphanous as a bubble.
Ventilating grilles? Ick. Stone floor panels are perforated to supply air. To all but banish untidy cashier counters, 30 or so red-T-shirted associates swarm the floor, each brandishing a checkout device built from an iPod Touch. (Cash drawers concealed in display counters handle old-economy cash.)
The help desk, the shelves of accessories—anything even slightly messy—have all been banished to the basement. Even the iconic spiral glass stair, a spectacular engineering feat all its own, barely registers at street level. (To keep those stairs pristine, Apple replaces the glass treads when they show wear. And human window washers, not high-tech gizmos, will scrub the roof of pigeon defilements.)
With such attention to detail, the space feels stripped of artifice. Everything about it seems as inevitable as the iPhone’s touch screen. The blocky, blond-wood display tables become the center of attention, with products set out as if exhibited in a museum. No one at the famously secretive Apple would say how much the store cost, nor describe the design process. “We have always succeeded by first doing the right thing,” was all Johnson would say. “The profits have followed.” Aggressive plans to open more stores are in the works.
Architects at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which is based in Wilkes Barre, PA, work closely with the company out of its San Francisco office, but are not store-design specialists. The firm’s *award-winning portfolio ranges widely, which suggests why the stores don’t look like they fit the standard retail-design mold.
Apple is that rare retailer that has learned to use means more fundamental to architecture than retail to powerfully extend its brand. As ever, an authoritative orchestration of space, light, and materials is a winning combination.