Essay and sketches by Frank Harmon, FAIA
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill said, and perhaps no place has the power to shape us like the place where we grow up.
Lyndon Johnson was born in the hardscrabble and desperately poor Hill Country of Texas. His life and political legacy were shaped by the threadbare surroundings of his childhood.
Steve Jobs grew up in a small, modern house in Mountain View, California. So important was the house that he took his biographer, Walter Isaacson, there to show him the many ingenious details of its design — like the radiant floor and the open plan and windows that brought the outdoors in. It’s nice to think that the man many call a genius grew up in a house with ingenious details.
Joseph Eichler, a California developer noted for bringing good design to the mass housing market, built Jobs’ childhood home. Eichler homes were airy and modern in comparison to most of the mass-produced, middle-class, postwar homes being built in the 1950s. Eichler believed that people of modest means could have beautiful things.
Including the modest family who adopted Steve Jobs.
The clean elegance of the Eichler home, available to everyone, was the original vision for Apple, according to Jobs. “That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac,” he recalled. “That’s what we did with the iPod.”
Paul Jobs made a place on his garage workbench so his young son could work beside him. Outside he built a fence around their Eichler home, crafting the back of the fence to look as good as the front. Steve Jobs never forgot that lesson, and would insist that every element of his Apple products should be beautiful, not just on the outside but even on the inside. “But no one will see it,” his engineers groaned when he insisted on a beautiful hidden circuit board. “But I will!” Jobs replied.
Apple stores were conceived of and meticulously supervised by Steve Jobs. From the open plan to the glass stairs, no detail was unimportant. They are the 21st century embodiment of Paul Jobs’ workbench in Mountain View. We are used to thinking that the digital world is placeless, but in the digital world of Jobs, place mattered.
A student of Zen, Jobs absorbed the belief of Dogen Zenji, a Zen master who wrote, “Whoever told people that ‘mind’ means thoughts opinions, ideas, and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles, and grasses.” And, we might add, IPods, workbenches, and Eichler homes.
Like Eichler, Jobs brought beauty to ordinary things. He shaped the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Now they shape us.