Apple’s new Michigan Avenue flagship store opens for business this morning. The Cupertino, California computer and gadget company made a splash several years ago when it revealed that it would shutter its 2003 flagship at Michigan and Huron and move six blocks down the street to take over the underground cafeteria and utility space at 401 North Michigan Avenue.
The most important thing the building did is create a workable connection between the elevated Upper Michigan Avenue, and the pedestrian walkway that runs along the north bank of the Chicago River. A cascade of stairs now runs down from the existing public plaza to a new public space on the edge of the river. It is reminiscent of Rome’s Spanish Steps, but instead of flowing around a 17th-century observation point with balustrade, Chicago’s steps flow around a retail store.
As promised, the actual “retail” portion of this retail space is subtle. While tables and trees and seating cubes suitable for under-30’s who haven’t had back problems yet are visible from the public areas, the actual merchandise is tucked underneath the plaza at the back of the store.
What we didn’t get is the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired wood-and-leaded-glass pavilion we expected. The monumental glass walls are curved. The supports inside are metal. The floating roof — the store’s most prominent architectural feature — isn’t that familiar, organic, wood frame from the sketches. Instead, it’s a shiny man-made bulge that looks like a 1999 iBook, though without the Bondi blue accents.
Admittedly, 90% of visitors will never see the roof. They’ll see the underside, which actually is lined in wood. That’s the same angle that was presented in all of the pre-construction sketches.
Overall, the building appears to be a success. When it opens in a few minutes, we’ll find out for sure. It accomplishes a pedestrian connection that the city never could. It turns a disused, confusing riverside location into an active public space. And even though Apple, as a company, seems to have lost its way in the post-Jobs era, it’s still cool to have a big honking Apple Store in the middle of your city. This is a trophy worthy of Chicago.