I’m always on the lookout for evidence of the flaws of modern architecture. So I was pleased to learn through an article in Fortune magazine that employees at Apple’s new round glass spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., keep walking into the walls.
“Employees at Apple’s New Headquarters Keep Crashing Into the Glass Walls,” published in Fortune and written by an unnamed reporter from Bloomberg News, states:
Apple staff are often glued to the iPhones they helped popularize. That’s resulted in repeated cases of distracted employees walking into the panes, according to people familiar with the incidents. Some staff started to stick Post-It notes on the glass doors to mark their presence. However, the notes were removed because they detracted from the building’s design, the people said.
Typical modernist hypocrisy about matters of function. Maya Kosoff has a similar article in Vanity Fair. Others abound online.
All this reminded me of the first board meeting I attended after being nominated back in 2007 (I think) to the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. It was held, oddly enough, in a modernist highrise in Boston, across the Greenway from South Station. I walked up to it and strolled along a parapet looking for an entrance. At last I found it, swerved right to enter, and smacked into what turned out to be not a door but a window. My glasses were shoved into the bridge of my nose enough to hurt. If I recall, board members at the meeting saw it happen, since they were just inside. Ouch! Is that why they have been so kind and lenient to me over the years?
Today that’s a fond memory, of sorts, because it nourishes my internal feedback loop of modern architecture’s ridiculousness. But I get a similar nourishment every time I go to the classical Providence Public Library in downtown, built in 1900, and enter the modernist addition on Empire Street, built in 1954. It has one of those sliding glass doors you can’t tell which side to enter until the door glides open. So, approaching the door, I never seem to know whether to vector left or right. I should know by now. But what about those entering for the first time? (Don’t get me going on how the library ought to switch the entrance back to the original Beaux Arts portico on Washington Street.)
Of course, other modernist mishaps greet all of us so much of the time. I was once thrilled by a documentary about Louis Kahn, My Architect, by his son Nathaniel Kahn. In one scene he’s looking at one of his dad’s buildings but cannot find the entrance. Of his only building in his adopted Philadelphia, the Richards Lab at Penn, workers there say bad things. One says it looks like “a bomb shelter.” The next shot is of a crow cawing from the building’s roof parapet. (Click the link above to see the entire film.)
A lot of psychology going on there. The funny thing is that modern architecture is not what it most eagerly purports to be: utilitarian. But beautiful traditional buildings, whose embellishment modernists consider lacking in utility and therefore wasteful, use beauty to generate affection that assures continued expenditure for repair and maintenance by owners and users. Now that’s utility. And you can always tell where the entrance to a traditional building is, because it is decorated and surrounded by an elegant border. This itself is often surrounded by yet another border, even more elegant, designed to emphasize its hierarchical role in the building’s pantheon of openings.
Maybe someday we’ll get back to that sort of thing. In Cupertino? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. However, in 2011 a woman, Evelyn Paswall, 83, sued Apple after walking into the glass wall of one of its stores, breaking her nose. New York Post writer Kieran Crowly, in “‘Pane’ & Suffering at the Apple Store,” quoted her lawyer:
“Apple wants to be cool and modern and have the type of architecture that would appeal to the tech crowd,” said her attorney, Derek T. Smith. “But on the other hand, they have to appreciate the danger that this high-tech modern architecture poses to some people.”
Well, that’s what they ought to do. His client did not win, but the world might someday be a better place for her pain.