From the outside, the Apple store on the corner of West 14th Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan plays it safe. Built in the early 1900s, the brick structure has stood sentinel on this busy corner of Ninth Avenue since long before the galleries, bars, and boutiques displaced the meatpackers for whom the area is now named. Aside from the modest steel sign with the Apple logo, there’s little to identify it as anything more than a respectful reuse of an old building.
Open the doors, though, and a vision of modernity emerges in the form of a three-story atrium awash in light. Intense daylight streaming through specially designed glass windowpanes shimmers against a monumental staircase, a glowing structure that forces your view upward. On this glass cylinder, shoppers move up and down its two-story height—a breakthrough scale matched only by the staircase in the Boylston Street store in Boston—as they transit the store’s three floors, each teeming with shoppers staring at glass screens to check e-mail, watch a movie, or try out the latest sleek digital wonder on sale from a company that has made innovative design its calling card.
Stepping onto a staircase made with glass treads and supporting walls is a “leap of faith.” Glass, long seen as fragile and something most of us have personal experience breaking, is being transformed by technological and engineering breakthroughs into a strong, safe material that gives the uncanny and magical appearance of walking on air. It’s not hard to see how the instantaneous redefining of your view of glass from a material that shatters to one that supports your full body weight can be a profound one, skepticism giving way to faith along with thrill and exhilaration, all of which forges a strong psychological bond with the company that created the staircase.
The impact of glass in Apple’s retail empire has been maximized by tying the material to a sense of movement, incorporating it into entranceways, sky bridges, and staircases, areas with which almost visitor must interact. Designed by architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and made possible by structural engineer James O’Callaghan, now of Eckersley O’Callaghan, the roots of the 14th Street store’s centerpiece staircase, built in 2007, can be traced to another New York store, where the computer giant quietly introduced its first glass staircase in 2002 in a former post office.