Tim Cook is no titan of industry. Judging by its new introverted headquarters, Apple doesn’t look like a very urbane company, either. But to the chagrin of many, including City Lab editors, they might feel at home at their new store’s proposed location at the Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square in Wahington, D.C. Apple’s contribution to urban life could be greater than expected, if they put their minds into trascending retail in favor of community building.
The Carnegie Library is part of a group of beautifully crafted buildings that came to serve as cultural hubs between the last half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 1900s. The Boston Public Library and its New York counterpart in Bryant Park are great examples of publicly funded cultural amenities. But this cohort also has other members that were funded privately, with over 2,500 libraries around the world underwritten by Andrew Carnegie alone.
Apple’s recently announced plans are to transform the Mount Vernon square library into a new typology of global flagship store. Times change and gadget buyers use stores to try devices on for size for later purchase at online stores. The retail value of storefronts, especially technological ones is diminishing. It’s the brand value creation that companies are after. The global flagship store that Apple envisions promises, in the words of Angela Ahrendts, their senior VP for Retail, to be a cultural and educational facility as much as a showroom framed in the experience economy. They are even dropping the “store” from the name, to focus on creating a destination.
From great libraries in Amsterdam and Aarhus we have learned that in the age of cheap books and cheaper internet, their mission has to evolve in order to survive. And some have done it by becoming a destination for diverse publics and making the city around them safer and more inclusive. They have turned into community hubs where people meet in tea shops, coffee houses or just the foyer; where children and adults can learn in worskshops, where maker spaces welcome new economies and where culture is alive in the form of theater, concerts or poetry readings. The typology of the library is in constant evolution as it acquires the characteristics of a Place.
If we look at both by function alone, we would find many similarities between what a library is in 2017 and Apple’s proposed new outlets. Save for ownership, we might be headed for a new iteration of urban gathering places where public and private dissolve into Place. That in itself would be an entirely new mission for Apple and its retail department.
Users and usage notwithstanding, there is a difference between ownership and property. And the private property of public spaces is a very sensitive issue. Mount Vernon Square must remain public property and continue to be open to the public, by all means. That is not part of this discussion. The proposed use of the building is. And whether Apple is a worthy steward of the Nation’s Heritage, Washington, D.C’s first desegregated building, the cultural baggage of the space, and an architectural gem from the Gilded Age.
I believe it will be. The New York Landmarks Conservancy seems to think so as well, given that in 2016 it presented Apple with its Chairman’s Award for conservation of the built heritage in Manhattan. Apple has a clean record of respect for history and the public realm, not only in the US but in very sensitive historic contexts like Paris, where the store sits across from the Palais Garnier, Paris’ famous Opera House.
But this is hardly a defense of Apple. The case in point might involve the tech giant and the particular D.C. store but it is a matter of how we reach the solutions that our cities so desperately need. Population grows and housing becomes increasingly unaffordable. Large swathes of city dwellers are pushed out of the more dynamic urban cores into sprawling suburbs where the overall cost of each library, concert hall or cultural center is larger per capita than close to the center, and companies pay much less taxes per acre than in central cities. Local governments are cash-strapped and the quality of their service declines.
As we prepare for dwindling public endowments for culture and arts, it’s worth to look at the structure of funding of these activities across the country. A recent report by the World Cities Culture Forum finds that in US cities, private sponsorship makes up an overwhelmingly large percentage of culture financing, which includes libraries. Much like in the age of Andrew Carnegie, business owners otherwise known as “robber barons” were actually dedicated patrons of the arts. There are several museums, parks, concert halls and libraries to attest to their generosity.
There wouldn’t be a lot of arguments in favor should a building of such significance be turned into a regular retail outlet. Some private space dedicated to profit making within a building that will remain open to the public with active, community-building content seems like fair price in exchange for additional tax revenues and new exciting public uses. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that private money goes to add civic value. Philantropists have done it since “The Gospel of Wealth” and modern-day billionaires like Bill Gates continue the trend.
Since the closing of the short-lived City Museum of the D.C. Historical Society, City Lab reports, the recurring question has been what to do with the Carnegie Library. Public funds to update its original use to 2017 standards might be hard to come by.
A solid first step towards social inclusion, cultural development and prosperity in cities and towns is to acknowledge that things happen when there is a partnership of mutual respect between public and private initiative. The people benefit from shade and fresh air from a public park whether its funding came from a bank, a nonprofit or a local government. Gems like Paley Park and the Morgan Library were given to New York City by private support from corporate chums. Inclusive places that restore dignity can happen anywhere, funded by anyone, and neither the public nor the private sector should have a monopoly over caring for others.
So this is my challenge to Apple. Prove to the world that your new retail concept goes further than just adding amenities to your showrooms. Be the gentle corporate giant and show how a real Placemaking process from the private sector can be as beneficial as a public one. Give back to the city whose heritage you benefit from. Let us believe that for Tim Cook & Co., Historic Preservation is more than just a marketing gimmick. Create a Place and not just another store.
I believe in the power of Place to contribute to inclusive, prosperous cities and to create wealth, opportunity, and governance. Firms like Apple have at their disposal tools with tremendous possibilities to make better cities for all. These types of partnerships where a big corporation engages in placemaking practices that benefit the general public will add value to society as a whole. They show us that diversity is good also when it’s part of a conversation between public and private initiatives. They can confirm that Placemaking is not the exclusive responsibility of government but rather an ethical obligation of both sectors to work together and improve our quality of life.