The corkscrew elevator and other secrets of Steve Jobs Theater

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Steve Jobs Theater is empty.

Hours earlier, the massive lobby, demo area (or foyer) space below, and theater were humming with Apple employees, media, analysts, and invited special guests, all jostling to touch the new iPhone X, iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and Apple Watch Series 3. 

Now, I stood alone in the vast open space, itself inside Apple Park (Steve Jobs’ version of Disney World), positioning myself dead center under the single-piece 155-foot metallic carbon fiber roof. I felt so small. Then I trotted back to the periphery. The sounds of my footsteps reverberated off the 22-foot-tall glass walls, a sharp rap dancing back toward me.

All by myself.

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Apple explained that, yes, there were some interesting acoustics in the space, one that, incredibly, doesn’t have a single column to hold up the ceiling or to slice up the sound, but I might have noticed that there were no echoes during the iPhone X launch event. People, they said, act as a natural sound absorber. If there were a small gathering, though, Apple might choose to put a bit of temporary acoustic absorption up on the walls.

It turns out that, for as widely reported on as the Steve Jobs Theater is, it still had many secrets and surprises. 

Where are the wires?

One of the most stunning aspects of the Steve Jobs Theater is the large, completely open top floor. The architectural team Foster + Partners — which designed the theater, as well as the “spaceship” headquarters and grounds based on Steve Jobs’ original vision, which he communicated mostly with words instead of rough sketches — knew it wanted to convey the magic of an iPhone, something that does complex things while making them look obvious and easy.

They succeeded. What you see when you look at the Steve Jobs Theater from the outside is simplicity in the extreme. Inside, there’s no visible frame, pipes, wires, or speakers to break the illusion. The secret, though, is that it’s all there.

The carbon fiber roof is supported by the glass frame. Foster + Partner also hid the wires and pipes in plain sight. Twenty of the thin joints separating each glass panel house specially-designed water pipes for the sprinkler system, itself hidden under dozens of recessed circles in the carbon fiber roof. The remaining joints are home to wiring for power, data, and audio.

All those people absorb the sounds.

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During the launch event, I noted the music piping into the room, but could detect no speakers. Foster + Partners put them inside the roof, adding an almost imperceptible perforation for the sound to pass through.

Little space or opportunity is wasted inside Steve Jobs Theater — everything serves a purpose. Even the dark bars overhead, which house the recessed lighting and looked to me like another architectural design element, are antennas for the internal communication system. It’s an idea Foster + Partners plucked from, naturally, the iPhone’s visible antennas.

Like a rock

There’s a saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but the Steve Jobs Theater’s glass lobby is designed to withstand something much scarier than a handful of rocks. 

Steve Jobs Theater can, according to Apple, ride out earthquakes with a magnitude of 8-plus. While the venue looks like one piece, the external terrace, glass panels, and roof sit on pendulum isolators, which are like ball-bearings, allowing those sections to remain stationary while the earth moves around them. So, the earth could shake away and much of the theater lobby will appear to just sit there, unmoving. In addition, the ring of white terrazzo slabs inside will, if the wall moves toward them, slide up over the top of the floor slabs next to them.

The roof and panels can move independently of the base.

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If one of the glass panels holding up the roof give way, the Theater would be okay. In fact, Apple claims the theater is built to hold up even if it loses every other glass panel (there are 44 in total). Apple and Foster + Partners tested for seismic activity, maxing out a racking machine, and the design held up. Even so, it’s quite a claim and one that I hope Apple never has to put to a real-world test.

Less is more

While Steve Jobs had the original vision for Apple Park, the details are all Jony Ive. Apple’s chief design officer has been working with Foster + Partners on every aspect. Ive’s love of curves is evident on every surface, as is his insistence on subtle, beautiful design. Many doors lack a handle, instead visually indicating where you should push with a curved line etched into the door. I noticed that some of these doors were covered in visible fingerprints.

Curves  and a whole lotta light.

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But the theme is really circles.

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Minimalism is even at work in the glass elevator that ferries visitors from the lobby to the foyer. Earlier that day I watched Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak ride it down (we all took the stairs), but failed to notice a key element. The elevator corkscrews as it rides down. 

Foster + Partners achieved this affect by adding guide rails on the outside that turn the compartment as it gets pushed up and lowered on a piston. They did it not because it’s a trip to have an elevator slowly spin as it rides up and down (it is), but to avoid having two doors on the passenger compartment.

Step in and get ready to turn.

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That curved rail on the outside is what drives the corkscrew motion.

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Since you enter the elevator facing one way and exit facing the opposite direction, you would normally need sliding doors on the front and back of the elevator compartment. Having it slowly turn around as the elevator goes up and down means you only need a single door, which is facing the right way when it arrives at the foyer.

So big

The foyer, where Apple demonstrated, for the first time, all its new devices, is also empty when I ride back down. Now the scale of the room is clear (the entire building is 167,000 square feet). I also take better note of all the curved, almost sensual stone and the light cascading down from the lobby directly above. I can even see the glass panels and blue sky through them. Looking up, it occurs to me that all of Apple Park is, on some level, circles, within circles, within circles. It’s all reminiscent of the equally curvy and open Guggenheim Museum. 

More wide open spaces.

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The actual theater space is adjacent to the foyer. I realize, for the first time, that the space where Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the iPhone X is not even under the carbon fiber roof; it’s dug into the hill next to the building.

As I’m about to reenter the theater, I look up at the entrance. Carved into the Italian limestone wall are the words “Steve Jobs Theater.” This is the only spot on the whole building that bears the founder’s name.

Inside, I’m immediately struck by the smell of wood and leather. I didn’t notice it when the space was filled with people, but now, the wood smell, in particular, stands out, reminding me of the newness of this space.

A subtle reminder about who this space honors.

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Ive chose these materials: tan, Italian leather in wide, comfortable chairs and hard, domestic white oak at our feet and in the baffles along the walls. 

Earlier that day, after the event wrapped up, my coworkers were arguing about just how many people Steve Jobs Theater seats. It’s supposed to be 1,000 people, more than triple the number accommodated in Apple’s old Town hall, but they didn’t believe it. 

Smell the wood, all 921 of you.

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This, though, is likely another triumph for Foster + Partners, who designed the space to be larger but feel intimate. They did admit, though, that it seats only 921 people.

There is a tremendous amount of negative space in Steve Jobs Theater, something you can only experience when no one else is there. That vacuum, though, is not a reflection of an absence of intention or effort.

What Apple, Ive, Jobs and Foster + Partner wanted was to design a space that appears effortless, even as they knew the enormous amount of effort it would take to make it look that way.

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