BY BRIAN LIBBY
Perhaps I should begin with an apology. I'd like to write about Apple's proposed new downtown store on Yamhill Street, across from the Pioneer Place mall. And here's hoping it happens.
After all, not only is Apple a refreshing institution of great design in their computer hardware and electronics--I love my two current Apple computers, just as I loved my Apple II Plus when it became my first computer in the early 1980s, and my partner loves her iPhone--but their stores arguably lead the nation in handsome, smart retail design.
So why the apology? Well, Apple is sensitive and secretive sometimes, so much so that those at the city and the private sector involved with the project not only won't talk about it, but won't even acknowledge Apple is involved for fear of the Cupertino, California juggernaut pulling out of the project. So hopefully any speculation or criticisms I or others offer won't doom it.
Perhaps Apple has reason to be wary. In 2005, the company proposed a flagship store along the retail row of NW 23rd Avenue. But that neighborhood is an official historic district, triggering Historic Landmarks Commission review of the design. As Fred Leeson's Monday post indicated, there is an ongoing debate about whether new architecture should conform in scale, materials and other design facets to surrounding older buidings or whether it has license to be itself. Many, myself included, feel the Commission was being a bit silly to insist on tweaks to awnings or other aspects of the proposed design on 23rd, but Apple also pulled out of the project entirely rather than enter anything resembling compromise - which, in many cases, is what good design is all about. I'd say both the Landmarks Commission and Apple itself could have done better.
Maybe now is the chance to right that wrong. Apple seems to be proposing a new store on the site of the Saks building on SW Yamhill between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Rather than renovating the two-story Saks structure, the proposal is to demolish it in favor of a single-story, glass-fronted Apple store set back from the sidewalk to include a small plaza.
The design, by Seattle/Pennsylvania firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (designer of numerous previous Apple stores, including a prominent one in Manhattan), was submitted to the city on February 17 as a formal Design Advice Request, and the Design Review board will consider the plans on March 15. According to the Design Advice Request, the Apple store would have a 165-foot-wide storefront (the largest of any Apple store) and a 17.5-foot-tall interior, with 9,000 square feet of public space.
Entrance to New York Apple store (photo by Brian Libby)
The demolition or partial demolition of the Saks building seems curious. The structure obviously has a prominent location across from Pioneer Place mall, where Apple's current store exists in the underground portion. But it's not a very old building at all; Pioneer Place II, of which the building is a part, was completed in 2000. Would Apple consider replacing a 12-year-old building to be a sustainable move? Why not renovate another building closer to what it wants? Why not build from the ground up? Both options exist downtown, including a vacant city-owned lot less than three blocks away at SW Third and Taylor. If the company really wanted to get creative, it could occupy an under-utilized but grand work of architecture like the US Customs House, or at least a former warehouse in need of a rescue.
Steve Jobs himself coined the phrase, "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." In this case, the how-it-works of design would seem to include concern for using materials wisely, and how renovation is more sustainable than demolition and rebuilding.
Don't get me wrong: I am unequivocally on the side of Apple coming to Portland and building a great store, one with more size and architectural presence than its basement lair. There were a lot of disgruntled Apple supporters in 2005 who felt the city flubbed a great opportunity to bring the company's flagship to Northwest 23rd, of which I was included. Even so, Apple would be less of a company if it couldn't stand a little criticism, be it for their gargantuan Norman Foster-designed glass donut of a headquarters planned for Cupertino, or tearing down a building with decades of life just because it's across from the downtown mall. We hold Apple to this kind of standard more than perhaps any other American corporation becuase they have stood for great design and for more than the bottom line. And as great as this store may be, and as much as the company deserves an open invitation, Apple wouldn't be Apple unless we expect them to, as the company's adverb-avoiding former slogan used to go, "Think different."
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