Ken Adam and the architecture of Apple

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Like a reverse Godwin's Law, it's impossible to discuss Apple's approach to design without the word “Rams” popping up eventually. From the orange button on the Calculator app to the perforated aluminium of the Mac Pro (RIP) and every nice little touch in between, the influence of Dieter Rams' industrial design is all over Apple. His ten principles for good design are like holy commandments to Jonny Ive and his team – it's surprising that he isn't on the payroll. Perhaps the compliment of inspiration and recognition is payment enough for the living legend.

It doesn't take too long analysing side-by-side comparisons of portable radios and iPods to recognise that today's cutting edge of technology has a 60s/70s aesthetic at its core. But pull back, zoom out, stop looking at the little things, and you'll see that Rams isn't the only big name German-born designer whose work is at the core of Apple. There is another.

You know Ken Adam's work. You might not know that you do, but you do. Of course you do. As production designer on numerous James Bond pictures, he redefined the nature of film set design. Glass and concrete and light and space. So much space.

Think of the Fort Knox showdown in Goldfinger, the monorail-and-henchman chic of Blofeld’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice, or the massive submarine-swallowing interior of the supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me. All stunning, all Ken Adam.

(Yes, yes, you may stop reading to go and raid that Bond box set. Go on now. As if you need an excuse.)

From Adam's sketches of seemingly impossible spaces to the genius of their construction and photography, everything became wider and taller and more expansive. Deceptive lines and geometry create daunting perspectives; sunlight pouring in through volcano mouths – his sets don't have ceilings so much as they have their own skies. Every Adam room is the biggest room you've ever seen.


And all of that is right there in one of Cupertino's greatest designs: the Apple Store. Now a copyrighted commodity in its own right, the ever-expanding chain of stores (remember when we used to call shops shops?) has been subjected to just as much obsessive attention to detail as the iconic products they house. So much more than shelves of boxes and dust in soul-destroying out-of-town warehouses, each store is a carefully considered set. Vast open spaces punctuated by uniform wooden tables, slabs of aluminium and wandering blue shirts.

And so much glass. Windows, walls, even the stairs are made of glass. It's all about the space and light. They're like grand, wide open film sets. And the more high-profile the location, the more dramatic the site. Look at the underground lair that is the flagship New York store. The familiar layout is buried beneath a great glass cube, light cinematically pouring in through this aperture.

A similar approach can be seen in Shanghai – in the centre of a plaza, a glass cylinder opens to a spiral staircase that leads to a subterranean technology grotto. This is what a tunnel to the centre of the Earth would look like. It's both magnificent and unnerving, a gateway to something more powerful than you.

These crystalline street-level structures are an obvious nod to the glass pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, itself a fantastical structure at odds with its old world surroundings. Mere nods aren't enough for Apple, though, oh my no. Why pay homage to an architectural icon when you can just go ahead and move in? Sure enough, thats what they did. And so in 2009, the Louvre gained its own Apple Store.

Apple are getting particularly good at applying their Bond villain aesthetic to other existing locations with existing widescreen appeal. Elsewhere in New York, a few blocks downtown, they've taken root in the majestic palace of Grand Central Terminal. You don't get much more cinematic than that. They may not be able to open a store in a volcano lair just yet (give them time, it will happen), but Apple are pushing this Ken Adam aesthetic as far as they can.


Steve Jobs was never subjected to villainous mockery like some of his less well-respected billionaire peers (Tomorrow Never Dies may as well have been called The Nefarious Moustache-Twirling Adventures of Baron von Murdoch), but if a nefarious polo-necked mastermind had ever faced off against Mr Bond, there would have been no better location than one of the final great works in the Jobs legacy: that yacht.

Venus, the €100 million yacht commissioned by Jobs, is a proper super-villain bonkers floating lair and a floating symbol of his dedication to Apple design. It’s as if he went into the the yachtictect's (if this isn't a real word, it bloody well should be) office with an iMac and just said “this, but a boat”. It looks like it uses pure evil to stay float, and, in proper The Spy Who Loved Me style, like it would be capable of devouring smaller vessels.

But now it’s Tim Cook who has the swivelly chair and the cat, and although he may not have an evil yacht to speak of, he does have an enormous building project on his hands. One of Adam's most famous non-Bond sets is the war room from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: an immense round table of generals and bureaucrats, framed from above by a halo of light. It's an image that springs to mind when looking at plans for Apple’s new campus, itself a giant ring of glass and power … and more glass. Warmongering mayhem may not be the look Apple is going for, but there it is. Blueprints speak louder than keynotes.

Dieter Rams and his disciples espouse the less-but-better mantra, and it’s evident in Apple’s product line. The architectural legacy of the company is something else entirely though: numerous glass monoliths concealing underground bunkers scattered about the globe, all answering to a gigantic grounded mothership. This scale of world domination looks far-fetched even by Bond’s standards.

Written for MacUser