Apple of my eye

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

On a recent visit to New York, there were many things that caught my eye, but one store in particular appeared to be attracting a lot of attention. The Apple stores, crisply detailed completely out of glass, is quite a startling construction – architecture that almost isn’t there.

Yes, it is glass, but it is all low-iron glass, so there is almost none of that greenish tinge you get. The Apple store on 5th Avenue, the ‘flagship’ store, is a simple glass cube set in the otherwise fairly bland and empty forecourt of a corporate tower block, and is just that: an empty glass cube. There is nothing there – certainly not even a name – just a floating, glowing white Apple logo hovering above the entry. The cube sits over a crisp square hole cut into the forecourt, and inside the glass doors of the cube sits a glass stair, curling delectably around a glass elevator.


Is this all very cool, or merely all very dull? There has been discussion on this placement of the glass cube over on the local Eye of the Fish blog – kudos to them with some extensive commentary by, it seems, some readers from the USA, one of whom, “David G” amusingly describes the cube as looking like: “a plastic package left in the plaza from some cyclopean take-out bento box.” Harsh, cruel, quite droll but yes, very apt. He also describes the plaza itself (apparently designed as the plaza of the GM building) as “it is a small plaza before a large white marble skyscraper [Edward Durell Stone’s General Motors building] that is also bordered by the Art Deco Bergdorf Building to the south, the French Gothic Plaza Hotel and the Pulitzer Fountain across Fifth and the wonderful Gothic skyscraper of the Sherry Netherland to the north. Hardly a poke in the eyeball with a flaming stick. Stone’s own brand of luxy, slightly camp casino futurism has its share of detractors, but it is at least an attempt to accomplish something by way of form and materials.”

The forecourt sits raised slightly up from the sidewalk, and the building (presumably no longer owned by General Motors after their bankruptcy) sits back form the streetfront, as do most towers from the 1960s. Originally resplendent with matching fountains, the central fountain has been removed, the pond drained, and the cube of glass inserted in its place.

The whole ensemble, “bento box” or not, is impeccably detailed as per a true minimalist, super-modernist masterpiece, and even the use of stainless jointing clips is kept to a carefully considered minimum. But then again, the real Japanese bento boxes are beautifully detailed as well – so it is not a bad comparison at all. I can imagine Mr Jobs quietly smiling at the simile as he carefully eats his californian sushi.

The stair, glass treads carefully frosted and etched with a gridweave pattern, carry an astounding continuous flow of New Yorkers and tourists up and down – 24 hours a day. In case you’re worried about the disabled access, there is a perfectly minimal circular glass elevator in the centre of the circular glass stair. Curved glass doors wrap around the elevator, and with the buttons mounted on a separate post, the entire elevator is an entirely seamless experience. The cleaner, needless to say, is a very busy person, polishing, sweeping, squeegeeing, dusting, and polishing again.

The 5th Ave store is not the only store in Manhattan however – there are stores in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, etc, where the same glass stair has been inserted into an existing heritage shell. In all cases, the original building edges have been restored to a clean, invisible, cut so that the transition is seamless. Architects for all the glass stairs, according to Maximus, is Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who have taken out patents for their details. Cellophane bento box? A bit better than that I believe.


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9 Responses to “Apple of my eye”

  1. Maximus Says:

    Thanks for posting these up – good to see the building up close.

    What I like most of all about this building is the fact that they used the basement under the forecourt for the actual retail. I imagine that they managed to score a really low rental rate for the space, and have subsequently turned it into what must surely be one of the highest sales turnover / m2 in the whole city. And the GM building’s forecourt (probably not highly trafficked before) is now bustling with life, and the dollars are certainly rolling in for someone….

  2. mimimus Says:

    A fun little vr experience of the New York store
    http://www.apple.com/retail/vr/

    It should be noted that Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is not the only architect that does apple stores. Gensler tends to handle a large portion of the retail rollouts, (like this one http://www.ifoapplestore.com/db/2010/05/18/apple-trademarks-retail-store-design/)
    So I’m not sure how the relationship between some of the details has been developed.
    http://www.designscene.net/2009/01/apple-store-by-gensler.html (which apparently was with BCJ)
    So not sure who was responsible for which detailing.

    as an aside, before the first apple store opened, I was told that I was going to be working on this very important project, which the boss of my firm was working on with Steve Jobs. I was going to be part of the global team responsible for this new apple store concept.
    A week later 1/4 of my office lost their jobs including me – so never actually got to work on it.

  3. mimimus Says:

    Here’s the US patent document. I checked a few names and there appears to be people from BCJ and Gensler in there. Haven’t checked all of the names, there might be some other firms in their as well…
    http://pdf.ifoman.com.s3.amazonaws.com/staircase_page_patent_c.pdf

  4. David G. Says:

    Thanks for the quote, I think…a few corrections

    The GM Building has not belonged to GM since at least 1998. Despite Maximus’ suggestion, the square has always been extremely popular with pedestrians, shoppers, office workers and visitors to Central Park, which is directly adjacent. It could be argued – and is argued by me – that the intrusion of the Apple store in fact removes a portion of the public amenity provided by the original design.

    Edward Durell Stone is not an architect treated kindly by New York. His Two Columbus Circle has been eradicated and transformed into the Museum of Art & Design, although much of the original genius of the structure survives in its origami-like floorplates and in the retention of the famous “lollipop” columns at the base. The Stone House on the Upper East Side has seen a sensitive restoration and is worth a look. Possibly his best New York work, the original Museum of Modern Art, has been reduced to an elegant facade and the original spiral staircase, which certainly is as soigne as the one at Apple.

    I have to admit the sight/thought/reality of minions endlessly scrubbing away at a glass staircase is as dreary and 19th-century a notion of anal-retentive aristo ruling mop-welding serfdom imaginable. The great icons of American architecture — of architecture anywhere — do not require to be hosed down every fifteen minutes.

    Grand Central Terminal and the Guggenheim Museum get mopped at the close of day. Never heard anyone complain.

  5. David G. Says:

    Oh, and the basement floor here is no less expensive than any other viable commercial space on Fifth or the surrounding area. Check out 8 1/2 at 9 West 57th Street for an eye-popping classical 1960s modern staircase and interior that really puts the twee Apple store to shame and which features the only stained glass window in the world designed by Leger.

  6. Guy Says:

    Thanks for that David. I’ll search back through my photos to see what I have on 57th St.
    The Columbus Circle building – which I always thought was one the most weirdly extraordinary buildings in NY, is now different again and even odder in some ways. I had a long explore of the Gallery within, some fantastic sculpture and design exhibitions within but still all rather oddly marooned in the traffic like a ship cast adrift at sea. Feels like it needs rescuing, and someone should throw it a lifeline.

  7. Guy Says:

    David – if you are despairing at the thought of the cleaner scrubbing away 24/7 at the building, then you may also be delighted / horrified that every time it rains, to avoid accidents / lawsuits, the Apple employees rush out with customized rubbery treads that they lay atop each stair tread so that the Apple faithful do not descend too fast!
    Minimus – Bet they don’t show that one in the patent documents !

  8. David G. Says:

    No, that just makes me wanna puke a little more every time I see this thing.

  9. Architectural Glass Says:

    The Apple store is quite stunning, I guess less is more in this case

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