What Does San Francisco’s New Apple Store Say About Commercial Architecture?

Rendering of the proposed in Union Square

This past May, Apple filed plans to close its existing flagship retail store at 1 Stockton Street in San Francisco and move it three blocks north to one of the city’s most popular spots: Union Square. This plan was met with enthusiasm from city officials until they realized that Apple, and the store’s architects at Foster + Partners, were disregarding a beloved bronze folk art fountain by sculptor Ruth Asawa that currently occupies the site. Many have also criticized the store’s design for being a characterless box of metal and glass that contributes nothing unique to the local landscape, raising awareness of a commercial architecture defined more by trademark and less by its surroundings.

More on Apple’s proposal in San Francisco and the problems of trademarked design after the break.

San Franciso’s Mayor Lee described the new Apple Store as “quite simply incredible” and that he could think of “no better location for the world’s most stunning Apple Store than right here in Union Square;” later, however, he admitted to the Chronicle that he didn’t realize that the plans called for the elimination of the Ruth Asawa fountain.

A rendering of the rear view of the proposed store and revamped public plaza without the fountain.

The circular fountain, installed in 1973, was made of baker’s clay and cast in bronze. It is seven feet high and a focal point of a triangular-shaped public square just off of Union Square. According to Asawa herself, “The fountain depicts San Francisco, and approximately 250 friends and school children helped in its making by contributing self-portraits, cars, buildings, and various San Francisco landmarks.”

Ruth Asawa’s famous bronze fountain in Union Square, San Francisco

The same cannot be said for the new Apple store, critics claim. San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King pointed out the absurdity of “a company renowned for design innovation [hiring] one of the world’s most acclaimed architecture firms, only to unload a box that would look at home in Anymall, U.S.A.” King also takes issue with the all-glass storefront on Post Street that will see direct sun exposure for much of the day as well as the Stockton Street facade that will simply be an 80 foot-long windowless wall with an 11 foot-high Apple logo.

Therese Poletti at MarketWatch muses that perhaps “Apple envisions that side of the building to be livened up occasionally with lines of consumers around the corner waiting to buy new iPhones;” otherwise, it will embody only the spirit and identity of Apple, not of San Francisco.

Apple Retail Store in Georgetown, Washington DC

Yet one has to admit that not every Apple store design is as disquieting as this one. Their store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC, for example, is fairly well-integrated into the existing style and framework of the street while still maintaining its trademark sleek and modern style. Why can’t something like this be done for Union Square, where old and new come together to communicate San Francisco’s past, present and future?

This also raises several questions about commercial architectural design at large: Is it acceptable for Apple and other international companies to pollinate many different and unique cities with a homogeneous, trademarked design that often has nothing to do with the existing urban landscape? Should more effort be made to successfully integrate its design into the site and respect who and what is already there or is this counter-productive to marketing a specific product and place that is recognizable worldwide?

Thoughts? Leave them below!

References: MacRumors, MarketWatch, The Chronicle

Cite: Porada, Barbara. "What Does San Francisco’s New Apple Store Say About Commercial Architecture?" 15 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=387278>
  • Walker

    They’re removing a kitchy fountain and putting in a decent-looking building amid buildings without character? That sounds like a pretty good deal.

  • James MD

    No, it’s not OK for offices like Foster to ignore context. Never was. Never will be. And Georgetown isn’t a good example. It’s a landmark sight, so Apple likely had no choice but to leave the facade, and nothing else about their design has anything to do with context. There are a number of architects working in commercial/retail architecture who still make architecture (which respond to context) rather than products (Foster is making products, not architecture). Responding to context can (and normally should) result in contemporary, even avant garde design. The only question is whether communities have the integrity (SF does not evidently) to stand up and reject designs that don’t honor context and/or facilitate a process in which architects rather than product designers masquerading as architects get architectural commissions in their cities.

  • real jamal

    i love apple brad

  • Thom

    Could the fountain be relocated to any of the steps in Union Square itself? The current plaza is everything that’s bad about 1970′s architecture an the new pocket park behind the store would be much better.

  • John

    The current building is horrible. Same as the plaza behind. I say let apple build the store, it will bring more style to the place. The fountain can be relocated.

  • Stephen Bolling (RegenerativeHomes)

    That’s horrible architecture (an open shoe box on its side), why would they want that to be their flagship store’s statement? Like Google, Facebook and other Internet-related companies, Apple is currently building a state-of-the-art green headquarters that is very responsive to human interaction and how it appears on the landscape…but for their own employees. Is Apple is telling us that their customers and the urban centers their stores inhabit don’t deserve the same consideration? Regarding the Georgetown location, the original concept was turned down by local government…and so was the second concept…and the third. Apple purchased the building in 2007 with the hopes to build something similar but due to multiple design revisions it took to 2010 to complete it. Clearly SF government, including their clueless mayor, haven’t done their homework. #AddMeOnFacebook

  • Mike

    Lazy design

    • Mobius Man

      They’re retailing Technology, not Pantyhose!
      Apple and Foster & Partners both do their work extremely well, probably the best in the world.
      Put the two together and you get an immaculate fusion of product and architecture.
      Both convey the “Precision” of the other.

  • Mike Christenson

    “Is it acceptable for Apple and other international companies to pollinate many different and unique cities with a homogeneous, trademarked design that often has nothing to do with the existing urban landscape?”

    Of course it is acceptable. And in any case, as a result of buildings like this one, the “existing urban landscape” will change, and future architects and clients can decide whether or not they want their new buildings to relate to the Apple Store or not.

    Pity about the fountain, though.

    • Axiomatic

      It’s not obvious that it is acceptable, nor is it the default position. Should we accept the further commercialization of our urban spaces into buildings designed to be a product instead of a work of architecture? The difference being the former is turned completely inward and self involved while the latter addresses the context of its local area? What is more important, what describes our values, ie do we prioritize the commercial agenda of some company or the public agenda of urban development? I say the latter.

  • Scott Warner

    There is absolutely nothing sleek or modern about the Georgetown Store. It is a design that aims to offend no one and make everybody happy, which in turn results in weak architecture. The SF store is a much better design, and it is acceptable for corporations to want to have a certain uniform aesthetic in all of their locations worldwide. That said, it is possible for architects to create unique buildings that maintain a brands desired aesthetic without creating copy and paste homogenization in all of their locations.

  • Bob B.

    Just leave fotnan in place and build around the store, why not?
    Both the wolves have eaten much and the sheep have not been touched:)

  • Bob B.

    Just leave the fountain in place and build around the store, why not?
    Both the wolves have eaten much and the sheep have not been touched:)

  • Simon A

    I am not from San Francisco, and thus i can admit that my opinion may not be as credible as that of a local who knows the area, and experiences it. But looking over the comments and article, it seems that both sides make really good points. Commercial architecture often lacks any true creative spark, and is devoid and disrespectful to the context, both cultural, social and historical. The proposed Apple building does look incredible, and im sure Foster and partners, being one of the most respected and technologically savvy firms in the world, as well as Apple, who are continuously on the forefront of innovative design, have worked seriously hard on this proposal. If the fountain truly is a significant, and important landmark for SF then it would be seriosuly important to design around that and preserve it. On the other hand, many landmarks are, as one commenter noted, a bad reflection on a cities architectural and design heritage. If so, sometimes it is best to abolish that which doesn’t really add anything of true value and inspiration to the urban fabric.
    Urban rejuvenation is an inevitable course in a cities development, and a good one at that, when done with care and a clear vision. It is true that Apple is a brand, and carries that brand image into everything it does, and thus may result in a generic brand form of architecture, devoid of place. Such is a huge problem. Architecture is not, and never should be a product. Architecture is a form of place making. And i think we can all agree that the world would be better off without the generic chain stores of drive throughs, gas stations, shopping malls etc that plague our cities.

    Apple, Foster, and the city council of SF should sit down and discuss these issues, and hopefully resolve the conflicts at hand. Does this building have more to offer the urban fabric than is already standing? Or will it take away from it?

  • Stuart W

    Interesting article. I think it is of upmost importance to try and integrate designs with the existing urban context. I think theres too much influence today from major commercial projects to disregard what already exists. After reading this, I have also lost all respect for Foster + Partners, to the point where its bordering incompetency. I really hope this gets rejected. Instead lets perhaps look for a more thoughtful approach towards the urban design of our cities and not some lazy, un-inspiring, generic design.

  • Trey Allen

    Isn’t this the ultimate minimalist store that puts all the emphasis on the interior and especially the product? It’s little more than shelter from the rain! And if memory serves. the buildings around Union Square are nothing special, so at worse this will fit right in…. ;)

  • Axiomatic

    For a corner lot, the design seems overly simplistic and disregards the nature of the lot on the context of the city. Now add in this issue with the iconic fountain, and the opaque side of the design strikes me as even more underwhelming.

    On google street view, take a look at the corner of Post and Stockton st and see where the fountain is located. There is no doubt in my mind, that the architects at Foster’s, who have shown they are capable of great design, can incorporate retaining the fountain and some of the public outdoor space surrounding it. And if the issue on Apple’s side is a loss of square footage for the store (of which I’m 95% sure it is), they can make it back by either enlarging the mezzanine level OR raising the building height a few more feet to align with its adjacent neighbhor and putting in another mezz.

  • Scott Warner

    There is absolutely nothing sleek or modern about the Georgetown Store. It is a design that aims to offend no one and make everybody happy, which in turn results in weak architecture. The SF store is a much better design, and it is acceptable for corporations to want to have a certain uniform aesthetic in all of their locations worldwide. That said, it is possible for architects to create unique buildings that maintain a brands desired aesthetic without creating copy and paste architecture. This is always why it is important for architects be involved in the creating of all big-brand stores so that they can create buildings that have both corporate, contextual, and local identity.

  • Steve

    Why are some people, called “city officials”, allowed to dictate how a highly popular business is allowed to construct their store? The people have voted to give Apple their money, not the city officials. We all know Apple has a better perspective of the future than government bureaucrats. As for the fountain, scrap it.

  • Justin

    This building is almost perfect in my opinion. The quality of craft of a building is what is important. Making something as beautifully simple as this is incredibly difficult. The details must be amazing. How the giant glass panels connect together, how they meet the walls and roof; the beauty is in the details. This is a neutrally elegant building. I concede that it doesn’t necessarily benefit the area, but I don’t believe for an instant that it makes it any worse.

    Look up the current Levi’s store on this lot and see if you still want to complain about ruining the urban fabric.

  • Willem Els

    The obvious dilemma is whether to preserve the past or open doors to the future, architectural standards generally and evidently, particularly in this case, being fairly high. Personally I enjoy an occasional trip into the past, but have to admit that, as we replace ourselves at a fairly steady rate, we leave behind us a past that belonged to our predecessors, a past which can become oppressive or stifling for no reason other than we have changed. As we discover our way along this path of renewal we experience adventure and a freshness which is more suited currency to success in our endeavours and exciting times. Renewal is as necessary in our built environment as it is in our selves. There will always be coelacanthes and alligators !

  • George

    I’m sorry, is it only aesthetics and integration to a spatial identity the only important subject here? Does the question of replacing an as it seems known and important (and maybe interesting) open public space with an international corporation’s private store bother only me? (No matter how beautiful the new building will be, I love minimal architecture)

  • Cedric

    The juxtaposition of old/new can be a beautiful thing, but completely disregarding beloved cultural icons such as the fountain in Union Square is a poor judgement on the architect’s part.

    Apple’s corporate branding can coexist with the existing urban fabric if some thought is put into it. This project is just a product of a larger and long-running discussion of globalization that largely began with International style and has manifested here, in a sinister disregard/lack of knowledge of the local urban condition. Again, a common occurrence when ‘starchitects’ are chosen in a locale that is far from their natural one.

  • Matthew T

    I think the Levis Store (currently occupying the site) won’t be missed, since it’s design doesn’t respond to the site much either, but I don’t think it should be an excuse for Apple to have the power to do anything with the site.
    I am sure there could be a way to design a building that would express both Apple and a certain history about the site. Instead, what is shown here is design anyone could come up with in less than a day if you’ve already visited some Apple stores.
    Also, I think the back alley idea is a joke, doesn’t correspond to the sloped nature of Stockton street at all, and would create a awkard dead-end between two buildings. I like how they tried to make their render look nice by adding painted trees in the background, but really, that’s bullshit.

  • Patrick

    It may be all about the birds….so, regardless of the merits of the proposal, the Mayor says all will be settled soon. It’s time to pick a branch and land. Uh-huh. It’s only taken 24 years to replace the earthquake-damaged Bay Bridge. But the head of the Planning Commission says the fountain should stay. Others say maybe parked across the street in Union Square. It was originally built into steps, so it needs to be nested in steps…somewhere. And Union Square has steps…and birds. And now it may be their turn to be heard. Union Square just might be declared an “urban bird refuge” and the proposed store could have no more than a small percentage of glass facade. So…one glass door…perhaps two? Or maybe a window. You stay outside with the birds and they just hand your purchase through the window…sort of like a drive-through…on foot. Apple has come to the site…and eventually Apple will leave. The next tenant can display Oldsmobiles in there. Oops. They’re gone too. In any case, its our latest death-by-duck-nibbling civic theatre production. Cheap entertainment.

  • got_josh

    Context is always important. However look at the site. There isn’t any real significant context worth preserving. Looks like 1970′s vomited and now we are trying to preserve the dried flakes.