Apple Michigan Avenue
On a sunny October day in downtown Chicago, Tim Cook stands at the entrance of his company’s newest store, excitedly welcoming thousands of people through its doors for the first time.
Af Finn MacLeod
Carved into a newly formed public plaza at the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, Apple Michigan Avenue is a sight to behold, though one that requires a finely trained eye to spot in the city’s iconic skyline.
Simultaneously understated and strikingly dramatic, the store maintains a low profile in a city known for its boisterous, historic, and influential architecture. Surrounded by seminal architectural works by the likes of Mies van der Rohe, Jeanne Gang, SOM, and Bertrand Goldberg, among many others, the Foster + Partners-designed Apple Michigan Avenue blends deftly into the landscape, identified only by the warm glow of its interior, its carbon-fiber roof, and the signature white apple logo adorning one of its four structural columns.
Billed as “Apple’s most ambitious store to date,” the 25,000-square-foot space replaces the company’s first Chicago flagship, which was visited by more than 23 million people between 2003 and 2017. The store follows a new model for Apple’s brick-and-mortar retail operations, abandoning the stark white-and-silver palette of early stores in favor of a “town square” designed to champion a new vision for connecting with customers in meaningful and engaging ways. At Apple Michigan Avenue, this means the introduction of a public plaza and staircase connecting the city’s busiest retail and pedestrian district to the Chicago River and Riverwalk, a new pathway that lines the lower banks of the river throughout downtown.
The whole idea is that the plaza comes down quite gently to the river. It does it on the outside, and it does it on the inside…you almost don’t see where is the inside and the outside of the store.
— Stefan Behling, Partner at Foster + Partners
Positioned on the location where Chicago was established in 1833, Apple Michigan Avenue occupies a historic and prolific space. Previously an inactive public plaza devoid of any programming, the site for the store was created through a unique collaboration between the City of Chicago, Foster + Partners, and Apple, designed to provide the brand with a high-profile location while extending Chicagoans’ access to the city’s beloved Riverwalk. The resulting work is a clever combination of private development and public vision, wherein an expansive set of stairs cascades from street to river, punctuated by benches, trees, and the store’s soaring glass walls — all carefully designed by an integrated team led by Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, and Stefan Behling, partner at Foster + Partners.
As with every one of Apple and Foster’s collaborations, every detail is considered: from the seamless 32-foot-tall brushed steel columns and impressive four-layer facade of half-inch-thick laminated ultra-low-iron glass to the building’s glossy low-profile 34-by-30-meter carbon-fiber roof — clad on its underside in white American oak — the store is an architectural marvel. Its airy interiors are wrapped in Italian Castagna limestone and its floors in Apple’s signature grey granite. Soaring trees inhabit the space, lending warmth and scale to the communal learning area, where leather-clad and wooden cubes and spheres create informal seating. As Apple notes, every element — from the outdoor benches to the conference-room armchairs — was custom-designed by Apple for use in its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, and in retail stores around the world.
Tucked beneath Pioneer Court, the adjacent public plaza, the retail component of Apple Michigan Avenue is invisible from the street—an intentional decision designed to emphasize the broader importance of the public agora. More than half of Apple Michigan Avenue is dedicated to gathering spaces where the company intends to host an array of events inspired by the local creative community as a part of its new “Today at Apple” program.
Transitioning with ease from inside to outside, the store’s transparent design engenders a sense of community and equality: a physical manifestation of the company’s mission to serve a role beyond retail as a nexus of activity and human connection. The enormous staircase recalls great public spaces the world over, offering moments of respite in deep in Chicago’s urban core. A technology store, it is not: visitors to Apple Michigan Avenue hardly require an interest in the company’s products to enjoy its spaces. Read in comfortable bleacher-like interior seating or bask in free wifi on benches located beneath trees in its public plaza, all overlooking the Chicago River.
In Chicago, a city replete with excellent parks and public space, Apple has raised the bar for the design of privately owned public space. Now home to 250 employees and thousands of daily visitors, the store has passed its first test of architectural success: a warm welcome by a city with deep regard for design.