Pixar boss explains why Steve Jobs was such a great architect

Spaceship 2

Designed in collaboration with Steve Jobs by Norman Foster, the new Infinite Loop has Apple fans excited… but not architects. Informally polling a group of 6,000 architects around the world gathered for a South African conference, Fortune’s Philip Elmer DeWitt discovered that, by and large, the professionals he encountered hated Apple’s new Spaceship Campus.

But DeWitt reminds us all that Steve Jobs is no newcomer to architecture. He designed Pixar’s headquarters personally, and it’s a design that has resulted in some of the most creative cinema to come out of Hollywood in the last generation.

According to president Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs’s instincts as an architect should be trusted, because while he wasn’t always right, he was willing to learn from his mistakes.

Pointing out that Jobs originally envisioned Pixar’s headquarters as containing only a single bathroom to “bring people together out of necessity,” Catmull says that Jobs then went in a completely opposite direction:

Next, he envisioned a separate building for each movie under production—the idea being that each crew would benefit from having its own contained space, free of distraction. I wasn’t so sure about that, so I asked him to go on a road trip. Showing, not telling, worked best with Steve, which is why I coaxed him south to Burbank for a tour of the four-story glazed-glass-and-aluminum building on Thornton Avenue known as Northside. Disney Animation had taken it over in 1997, using it to house the crew for its first 3D animated movie, Dinosaur, among other projects…

After an hour or so wandering around the place, I could tell he was getting the message: Creating separate buildings for each film would be isolating. He saw firsthand the way that the Disney people took advantage of the open floor plan, sharing information and brainstorming. Steve was a big believer in the power of accidental mingling; he knew that creativity was not a solitary endeavor. But our trip to Northside helped clarify that thinking. In a creative company, separating your people into distinct silos—Project A over here, Project B over there—can be counterproductive.

After that, Jobs helped design a headquarters for Pixar that was as collaborative as it was fluid. And while Pixar has outgrown its original headquarters, the spirit of that design lives on in Apple’s new Spaceship Campus. Architects might hate it, but isn’t it possible they’re just jealous?

  • boggits

    not surprised, they don’t like it because they’re not working on it – i’m sure norman foster thinks its pretty cool

    • Michael Superczynski

      You nailed it. All the other architects are frowning because they didn’t get the contract. Time to call the waambulance.

  • herbaled

    As a general observation … and with exceptions … I’ve found architects to be a bunch of prima donnas. I’ve very confident that when the whole project is finished, this building and it’s grounds will be praised as a masterpiece.

  • JTM

    The only thing that would be tricky for any type of design and engineering is the rounded walls. Nothing is a straight line and that is hard to design around.

    • Michael Superczynski

      Apple doesn’t do anything because it’s easy; they do it because it’s hard and that’s what makes it great!

      • JTM

        I couldn’t agree more!

  • Moshe Feder

    I’m not sure. I really want to like a design Steve was so proud of, but I don’t see how a gigantic torus is going to encourage mingling and collaboration. Unless maybe its endless corridors cause people to flee to the central garden! I certainly hope the finished building proves me wrong, but right now this structure looks more like a monument to Apple’s rise from near extinction to global giant than like a haven for innovation.

    • Andy Shorrock

      I think that’s the general idea – people using that fabulous central natural space. How often is their a rainy / cold day in Cupertino?

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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