Steve Jobs is the reason why the cost of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino grew from US$3 billion to US$5 billion

Apple leader Steve Jobs insisted on adding aesthetic touches that would make the company's new headquarters in Cupertino (above) unique and beautiful - and more costly.
Apple leader Steve Jobs insisted on adding aesthetic touches that would make the company's new headquarters in Cupertino (above) unique and beautiful - and more costly.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Do you remember the NeXT computer, the one Steve Jobs began building in 1985 after he was booted from Apple by then chief executive John Sculley and the board?

It was supposed to be a machine built for academia, the ultimate learning tool priced so that universities could buy them in bulk.

But, Jobs being Jobs, he had particular ideas about what it should look like and how it should be made.

It had to be a perfect cube, which created manufacturing complications. The screws inside the computer required expensive plating.

His engineers designed custom chips instead of using off-the-shelf semi-conductors.

He built a futuristic factory to make the computer, which included, as Walter Isaacson recounts in his 2011 self-titled biography of Jobs, "US$20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase, just as in the corporate headquarters".

The result was what one would expect: A beautiful machine that colleges could not possibly afford.

Jobs' higher-education advisers had told him the cost needed to be US$2,000 to US$3,000. When it was launched in October 1988, all the bells and whistles took the price to US$6,500.

That pricey backdrop is again replicated in Apple's new headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Officially called Apple Park and unofficially "the spaceship", the cost is an out-of-this-world US$5 billion (S$6.9 billion).

That makes it the world's third most expensive modern building at the time of completion (after the Abraj Al Bait, a skyscraper hotel complex in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and Marina Bay Sands, a casino and entertainment centre in Singapore).

When the Cupertino complex was originally designed in 2011, it was supposed to cost a little under US$3 billion.

While Apple was said to be looking then for ways to cut costs before construction began, that clearly did not happen. Why?

For the same reason the NeXT computer cost US$6,500 - because Jobs, whose design ideas were central to Apple Park, insisted on aesthetic touches that would make the building unique and beautiful and, hence, more costly.

In mid-May, writer Steven Levy of Wired got an early look at Apple Park and noted some of these must-haves.

"The stone for the exterior of the Fitness and Wellness centre was sourced from a quarry in Kansas, and then distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs' favourite hotel in Yosemite (National Park)," one caption noted.

Another explained: "For workers who want to take the cafe's pizza back to their pods, Apple created (and patented) a container that lets air and moisture escape so the crust won't get soggy."

According to one of the architects, when Jobs talked about the material for the walls, "he knew exactly what kind of timber he wanted, not just 'I like oak' or 'I like maple'. He knew it had to be quarter-cut. It had to be cut in the winter, ideally in January, to have the least amount of sap and sugar content".

The staircases are "a lightweight concrete that achieves the perfect white and they have unusual banisters that seem carved from the wall alongside the stairs", Levy reported.

And so on. But can Apple afford a US$5-billion headquarters?

Of course. As of early May, the company had more than US$250 billion in cash on hand.

And although it is certainly true that building an extravagant headquarters can sometimes mark the moment that a company peaks, in a pride-cometh-before-the-fall kind of way, pundits hesitate to suggest such a fate for Apple.

Some thought Jobs' death in 2011 from cancer could cause a reversal in Apple's fortunes, but the company has added about US$400 billion in market value since.

What Apple Park suggests, though, is that the company has not yet moved beyond its founder.

That has both upside and downside.

"Could we have cut corners here and there?" current Apple chief executive Tim Cook said to Levy. "It wouldn't have been Apple. And it wouldn't have sent the message to everybody working here that detail matters, that care matters."

But it also sends a message that money is no object, that every design whim can be indulged, even if it drives the cost up and that the Jobs way remains the only way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Steve Jobs - the reason for Apple's $6.9b headquarters'. Print Edition | Subscribe