What Apple Can Learn From the Pentagon

Its futuristic new headquarters could be surprisingly similar to the sprawling monstrosity along the Potomac.

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Apple is known for some of the world's most innovative gizmos, from the original Macintosh computer to the iPhone and the iPad. Now, the tech giant wants to build a hyperspace-age corporate headquarters that will be as groundbreaking as some of its products.

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs has outlined a plan to build an eye-popping new circular office building in Cupertino, Calif., where Apple is currently based, that will bring together all of its dispersed employees under one shimmery roof. The architectural rendering Jobs released looks like an elevated particle accelerator, with design cues inspired by the spaceship from the 1977 sci-fi flick Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a way, it's classic Jobs: revolutionary, elegant, and futuristic. He told the Cupertino City Council that the design could end up being "the best office building in the world."

Another Jobs hallmark, of course, is ease of use and simplicity of design, and here, the spaceship design raises bigger questions. If the building does get built and completed by 2015, as Jobs hopes, the people who work there might be disappointed to discover that form trumps function. For its novelty, the Apple design is conceptually similar to another famous building that turned out to be a lot less practical than its planners hoped: the Pentagon.

To the eye, the two designs are strikingly different. The Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is rigid, imposing, and fortress-like, with its five exterior angles, drab stonework, and militaristic bearing. The Apple design appears mellifluous and fluid, with gently curved glass and polished steel that looks like it could blind onlookers on a sunny day. But there are many similarities. Both designs are sprawling, low-rise structures meant to spread people out instead of stacking them on top of each other, as in a conventional high-rise. The Pentagon rises five stories off the ground; the Apple spaceship, four. The Pentagon has a leafy interior courtyard, as the Apple building would. The Pentagon houses about 25,000 people in cramped quarters on a typical workday, while Apple's building would be built to accommodate about half that number. But the Apple campus would fill 150 acres, while the Pentagon reservation sits on about 200 acres, and a lot of that is taken up by vast parking lots. So Apple's building could end up with nearly as big a footprint as the Pentagon—presumably, with a far more comfortable interior.

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If the Apple project moves forward, as it seems it will, its architects may wish to spend a little time studying the Pentagon. Here are four lessons they might learn:

The workforce better be in great shape. The Pentagon, which opened in 1941, was designed in a hub-and-spoke fashion that would allow workers to walk from one office to another in no more than 10 minutes, with the longest possible walk being about 1,800 feet. At the time, that was considered a highly efficient design, because the longest possible distance between two points would have been even greater if the building had been square or rectangular. The U.S. military, of course, benefits from having the fittest workforce of any organization in America, so there's minimal complaining about all the legwork required to navigate the Pentagon. Still, Pentagon workers who routinely run to and from meetings can spend an hour a day simply commuting from office to office.

Unlike other buildings, where elevators slash the in-building travel time for most workers, the Apple headquarters would require the same kind of horizontal movement as the Pentagon does. Maybe there will be trams or moving walkways, as in airports. Or maybe they'll meet by videoconference instead of traveling long distances between offices. If not, Apple employees could get a daily workout that leaves them huffing and puffing.

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Stick to the original floor plan. The Pentagon's rational design has been eroded over the years by interior expansions, structural changes, and ad-hoc construction projects that block hallways and force workers to find byzantine detours that often make them late for meetings. Nearly every new assignee to the Pentagon has gotten lost at some point, trapped in a dead end or rerouted through some unmapped passageway. Shortly after becoming Defense Secretary in 1989, for instance, Dick Cheney got lost in the Pentagon basement, wandering around for 10 minutes before finding his way out. Apple's new building will undoubtedly be mapped out with precision, with posted diagrams (or perhaps an iPhone app) to help people find their way. It will work, as long as the layout doesn't change.

Give every worker a great view. A circular building design provides the opportunity for every office to have windows on two sides, if done right. The Pentagon design consists of five concentric rings, labeled A through E, with light wells in between the rings in most places. So a lot of offices that would be deep inside the interior of a typical office building have windows. The downer is that many of those interior offices overlook asphalt utility passageways, heating and cooling machinery, or dead space topped with gravel. Bleh. Apple plans to have hundreds of trees on its new campus, and a clever layout could give most Apple employees a daylong view of them. Go for the green.

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Park the cars. Jobs told the Cupertino City Council that Apple's new headquarters will have underground parking lots, to keep the campus green and beautiful. Sounds like … a commuter's nightmare. At the Pentagon, traffic is often snarled during morning and afternoon rush hours, as thousands of workers converge on a building never meant to handle so many cars. And the Pentagon has a traffic advantage, since its parking lots are spread out all around the reservation, with numerous entrances and exits leading to local highways. Trying to funnel thousands of cars per day into one underground parking system could take all the fun out of working in a spaceship.

Many Pentagon employees get to work by subway, which is far preferable to driving for anybody remotely close to a D.C.-area Metro station. Apple doesn't have that option, since there's no subway or light rail in Cupertino. So Jobs has an opportunity to become a transportation guru as well as a computer and marketing genius, by adding some kind of Jetsons-style skyway or futuristic people-mover to his spaceship scheme. May the force be with him.

Rick Newman is the co-author of Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9-11 .

Twitter: @rickjnewman