In 1903, steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie opened the famous Carnegie Library. During his life, Carnegie built 1,700 libraries across the U.S., costing him $1 billion. He also donated $250,000 for the library in the U.S.’s capital.
Carnegie Library was DC’s first racially integrated library. The Beaux Arts architecture distinguishes the 63,000 square feet building in the crowded downtown. Over the years the library collected over 500,000 books. But in the 1970s the Washington Public Library took over the duties and since then Carnegie Library building stood mostly empty, until 1999 when it was leased by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The building’s purpose will change Apple will set its shop in the main library space of Carnegie Library and the Historical Society will move their offices on other floors. During the February D.C. Council meeting the opening of the Apple Store was set in the winter of 2018.
The building’s exterior will not see significant changes during the restoration, except a subtle company sign. But the interior is another story. Washington Post published in May 2017 that the store will include a tree-lined sales floor dubbed Genius Grove, not the popular Genius Bar. The laylights from the ceiling will be removed to make space for a retail atrium and to install a huge video screen.
The Post wrote that Apple wants to create in the Carnegie Library “a place to hold a slate of free, open-to-the-public concerts, art exhibitions, workshops for teachers, and coding classes for children.” This way it will create foot traffic around their displayed products.
Greg O’Dell, president and CEO of Events D.C. says that they want Apple to create event experiences, not just an open space. “When Apple put forth this concept of a community space, a community forum and event space that was appealing to us,” he said. Apple created a calendar that will transform their stores into a town square, or so thinks Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail.
But this is not a concept new to Apple. They opened the first Union Square store in San Francisco in 2016. It was the first to feature a Genius Grove. The Brooklyn Apple store is where Wu-Tang Clan used to hold their beat making classes. The Apple store in Chicago, by the river, features a sitting area that faces the river. The newest Apple store in Milan was described a as “no better expression of our vision for Apple stores serving as modern-day gathering places.” The store is in the pizza center of the city.
Ahrendts said in a CBS This Morning interview that aired in April 2017 that they want to transform the store into a meeting place for young people. “I’ll know we’ve done a really, really great job if the next generation, if Gen Z says, ‘Meet me at Apple.’”
The Apple store at Carnegie Library will be controlled by the city, as it is the one in Milan. “Apple will have some rights,” O’Dell says. “But all that is in the context of a public park. It will still be a public space where people can gather and use as a park.”
Today’s meeting places have shrunk due to the interference of the digital in day-to-day life. Apple wants to create a balance by blending the virtual life with the social one. The great part is that it also connecting these spaces to American Mythology. You should keep in mind that during the last centuries, shipping had a social aspect. And the successor of shopping streets, the malls, also served as informal community squares. This is what Apple is trying to accomplish, even if most of the shopping nowadays is done online.
Vicki Howard, professor of history at University of Essex and author expanded this idea in “From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store”. “The urban, downtown department store, which was well established by the late 19th century, would look quite different from the department stores you see today. They served a much broader social function. What Apple’s trying to do is rebuild something that has been lost,” the author says. There is also another perspective. Apple is trying to stimulate the times in which shopping had a social dimension, by setting shop in old buildings. Some find this idea ludicrous. “Only Apple’s ludicrous corporate vanity demands its building be a turn-of-the-century public treasure,” wrote Kriston Capps in CityLab just one month after Ahrendts appeared on CBS’s morning show.
Apple, on the other hand, senses the pressure of involving itself into social issues, like the individualization of the society. “Companies have a huge obligation right now, and the bigger the company, the bigger the obligation. We are thinking about what the community needs,” Ahrendts said during Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women conference in 2016. But the town square is a more about than sitting and shopping. They have been the location for defining moments in American History. Carnegie Library is also a place of gathering. So it is hard to envision a company committing to allowing the store’s visitors to be as free as they want. But Apple says that this is want to create: a place for public gathering.
Town squares are at the center of American history and it dates in the early New England. This is where people met, talked and exchanged news and opinions., “Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable,” Michael Kimmelman pointed out in the New York Review of Books in 2016. Because the American town squares were the place for religious, cultural and commercial activities, shops started to flourish around the squares. Therefore, at the beginning of the 20th century, downtown department stores were a fixture in the town squares.
Vicki Howards says that “Department stores over many decades developed this home in people’s hearts. They had community spaces inside them, and all types of services, services that were going beyond just apparel: tea rooms, hair salons, restaurants, child care facilities.” After WWII, department stores morphed into suburban malls. Victor Gruen, an Australian immigrant who fled the Nazis in 1939, is the inventor of the mall, as M. Jeffrey Hardwick, deputy director of the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, recounts in the biography Mall Maker.
Gruen’s purpose was to bring to suburban America the open spaces from Vienna. So he created a mall in the center of the community. “Early malls tried to replicate downtown spaces, even to the point of having things like day care. Chapels, hardware stores, public events, groups had meetings there. … It was retail with the functions of the public realm,” says Souther.
During the 20th century the paradigm regarding the mall changed. It became more about the goods sold in stores and the social aspect was forgotten. Of course, this changed when the internet commerce became popular, leaving the malls deserted. One quarter of the 1100 malls are about to close because of the “retail apocalypse”. But the malls and department stores were never a public place to begin with. “What happens if it’s privately owned but purports to be like a public space? Yet you can’t bring placards or form a picket line; you can’t do certain things in the atrium of the shopping mall,” Souther says. It is a valid point, now that a tech-giant is trying to replicate the concept.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls malls and department stores “third places”. He argues that stores, coffee shops, bars hair salons and other gathering places are essential to the wellbeing of the community. He explains that a public space is “on neutral ground where people can gather and interact while experiencing a sense of ease and belonging.”
Think at the water-cooler effect. These places you will find people with the same purposes and interests. It’s like social media, without being harassed by matters you don’t appreciate.
Starbucks a business that successfully exploits the third-place theory, and Oldenburg agrees. Reggie Borges, a senior manager in Starbucks’s global corporate communications explains: “The reason we constantly refer to it as the third place is because it’s not home, and it’s not work, but it’s this place where you go and you sit and you spend a great deal of your time. We also think there’s a business case to be made for creating a welcoming environment.”
It is safe to say that Apple is following in Starbucks’ tracks. Ahrendts even admitted it. “Starbucks figured it out, you know—being a gathering place.” But the moral problem still remains. You can’t make political rallies when you are a costomer in a private owned business. The question is still to be answered by Apple. Nevertheless, appropriating the Carnegie Library is not the first successful try for Apple. In London, Paris and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal they repurposed hectoring landscapes to storefronts, keeping the architectures and the building’s charm intact.
Jonathan Ive, Apple chief design officer, says that Apple understands that these buildings are important to the city charm, so they try to keep them as they are. “We have a deep commitment to the cities we work in, and are aware of the importance that architecture plays in the community,” Ive said at the opening if San Francisco storefront. “It all starts with the storefront—taking transparency to a whole new level—where the building blends the inside and the outside, breaking down barriers and making it more egalitarian and accessible.”
At Apple’s Union Square store, in the backyard you can access the free WiFi network named “the forum”. This wordplay is important for what Apple wants to create: a place for free speech, a Greek agora, a Roman forum. Ahrendts declares this change in policy. Apple will judge the success of its new store by the number of people who stay a long time in the store, not by sales.
“Did we enrich your life? Did you connect with other people in the community that maybe you didn’t know before?” she said noting that the main purpose of Apple was to enrich lives.
The main question is how many people will have access to these stores, and if there will be any judgment from the business’s part.
Ahrendts acknowledged the incident from April 2017 at Starbucks where two man of color asked if they can use the bathroom. When they were answered that it is only for customers, they sat at a table to wait for a friend. The store manager called the police complaining of the incident. One month later the two man settled with the City of Philadelphia for $1 each. Starbucks’ PR team formalized the Third Place Policy, stating that everyone is considered a customer even if they didn’t buy anything.
Phil Myrick, CEO of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces is asking how open these stores are to the general public. “Will that include people who have nowhere else to sleep? Will they welcome the kids who want to climb all over the furniture? The protestors looking for a place to march and demonstrate?” The answer is probably no.
O’Dell points out that Carnegie Library sits is a public space, so the people visiting are “subject to all the applicable laws of the District. People can do whatever they are allowed to do in a public space.” Placards and demonstrations will be probably frowned upon. On the other hand, nobody stopped an angry grout to picket the price of iPhoneX in Mount Vernon Square. But is this is strategy to rebrand the stores with free speech and expression or it is just a retail front with a cool PR?
The terms town square and public place are interchangeable, but they don’t have the same meaning. The public space is for the public, where people can hang out without having a valid reason, as long as they don’t break the law. Department stores and malls offer the same freedom, but because they are privately owned and that they are looking for profit, they don’t offer the same liberties as the public space. Therefore, regardless of how free and open the Apple store is, you won’t be able to stage a demonstration in the building.
Myrick says that “There’s never been a time or a place where the town square was synonymous with a retail operation.” He thinks that even if Apple is making an effort to encourage free speech, in the end it is still a business. “In the end it leaves sort of a bad taste in the mouth. We all know ultimately, don’t we, that Apple stores are not a town square.”
It’s up to Apple to set an example for the new public space. Steve Jobs said in May 2001a t the opening of the first Apple store in Tysons Corner Center: “Your job is to enrich people’s lives.” So the Carnegie Library has the opportunity to do so, even for people who are not interested in Apple products.