Apple store (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past several years, Apple's flagship Portland store has been located in the lower depths of downtown's Pioneer Place mall. Despite the refined palette of natural wood and white walls, it could sometimes feel a bit claustraphobic there with large crowds cramped into a small, windowless space.
For a new Portland flagship store, Apple initially planned a store in Northwest Portland on 23rd Avenue in the mid-2000s before abandoning the proposed development after disagreements with the city's Historic Landmarks Commission over its design.
But now, however, the juggernaut from Cupertino has a home big enough to accommodate its hordes of shoppers, as well as a far more prominent presence on the street and, more broadly, an architectural setting that befits its beautifully designed devices.
The new Apple store, located downtown at SW Yamill and Fourth (across from its old location in Pioneer Place), has a striking presence, albeit one created after an unsettling and unsustainable precursor. The company tore down an existing two-story building on this site, which had been occupied by luxury retailer Saks and was less than 15 years old. But if there has to be such waste, at least we're getting more attractive architecture in its place. The old building was new enough to have been of use for many decades more, but it was basically a banal two-story concrete box with a cornice and some storefront windows.
Apple store (photos by Brian Libby)
The design of the new Apple store, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, is very simple, and that's what makes it powerful. It's basically a big glass box, set back from the street and raised a few feet up so as to include a small concrete plaza. There is also a large roof overhang that appears to float over the glass box. The main glass-enclosed space is quite tall—it feels like a story and a half at least—giving a sense of volume inside even when the store is packed with customers and blue-shirted Apple employees. The surrounding plaza also feels like an extension of the interior space. The flooring inside and out is identical, and one’s eye almost forgets the glass is there.
In fact, as I stood inside the store on a visit last week, I was reminded of one of the guiding truths about my own love of architecture.
Much as I adore all kinds of historic styles, from the symmetry and proportion of classical architecture to the humble welcoming quality of a Craftsman bungalow, there is nothing I find more compelling than modern architecture when it has a generous amount of volume and transparency. When you're inside a pristine glass box, it feels like being inside and outside at once. It touches upon and mines the most basic human biophilic needs of what's called prospect and refuge: to see out and get a sense of the exterior even as one feels shelter and protection from the elements.
A love of volume and transparency is why I got involved five years ago with trying to save another glass box: Memorial Coliseum. I'd never in my life, whether on travels in Europe and Asia or here in the United States, ever experienced such wide-open volumes and transparency as one gets in the Coliseum, where a 12,000-seat arena stands on just four columns, and one can enjoy (on those rare occasions when the curtain is open) a 360-degree view to the outside, including the entire downtown Portland skyline.
At the Apple store, one doesn't have the same panoramic view, but the glass curtain wall is rendered so crisply and without clutter that it's easy to stand at one of the wood tables, gazing at a Mac or an iPad on display, and wonder why there is a roof but no walls. The Apple store glass brings that phrase - curtain wall - more resonantly to mind. Particularly with the roof hanging over, it feels as if the building is not a building at all but just a roof suspended from the concrete wall of the adjacent building. Even the corners of the building are just glass on glass.
Apple stores are already the most successful retail spaces in America, making over $4,500 per square foot. And anecdotally it seems like the subterranean Apple store in Pioneer Place most likely was already at that sales level. But the company has been making an effort to increase the volume of its stores to make them feel less cramped and more like an emporium for not just sales but tutorials and even hanging out. Apple is also hoping it can increase the share of iPhones and other devices sold in its stores versus online. And certainly in all these ways, the new downtown Apple store has exponentially increased the company's presence as well as elevated the experience of being in one of its stores. Standing inside the new Apple store last week, I didn't have that same urge to flee from the hordes of people and the lightless environment.
Much as its light, transparency and volume make the new Apple store a successful piece of architecture, or at least an aesthetically pleasing one, what takes away from the experience for me is knowing the store is not unique. The Portland Apple store seems nearly identical in look to the Apple store Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed for Palo Alto, and, in the years ahead, plans to unroll in several locations. BCJ, with offices in Seattle, San Francisco and Pennsylvania, has won a lot of major design awards, and they possess a rigor and an eye for detail that makes these stores so pristine. But in retail design, where the vastness of America in particular means a company has to plan for scores of stores across the map, it's inevitable that architects and clients take a cookie-cutter approach. Portland's Apple store is a beautiful piece of architecture, but it's still cookie-cutter.
That said, I'm still happy to have the new Apple store here. After all, Apple and I go way back. In the early 1980s, my dad became the first and, for many years, the only retailer of Apple computers in my hometown of McMinnville. I remember the pride of being the only kid in my elementary school class to have an Apple II-Plus. Nevermind that no useful software beyond a couple of video games had yet been invented. You could tell the company was special even then.
For most of its history, Apple has been overseen by the great business and tech genius of our time, Steve Jobs. Now that we're in a post-Jobs world, it will be interesting to see where Apple goes: whether it becomes just like any other corporation, or whether the design acumen showed in generations of computers and devices will continue. To that end, Portland's Apple store reinforces its greatness as designer, but it also reminds us that a corporation this big often finds it difficult to bring a personal touch to each of its customers and locations.