Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Swedish capital has rebuffed the tech giant’s scheme to build a new Apple Store in the Kungsträdgården, the city’s central square.
Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.
Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.
Before readers join the chorus of disgust at Apple’s unmitigated gall, you should know something else about the chosen site. It’s already occupied—by a TGI Fridays. The kitschy U.S. fast-casual chain might seem like unlikely tenant for such a beloved historic plaza in a European capital, but was allowed there because local zoning permits restaurants or cafés that serve park-goers.
You might assume locals would thus be less bothered about what came afterwards. The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.
Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions that provide unique opportunities for social exchange. These are not electronics stores—they are “town squares,” places where, according to Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts, “everyone is welcome.”
To boost the public-meeting spot image, the retail of goods comes with a side order of educational uplift in the form of courses and workshops on, say, iPhone photography or movie-making for kids. These aren’t just mammoth gadget emporia, the rhetoric goes, they’re community spaces that offer not just goods but also practical courses and workshops (mainly about using Apple products) and different forms of art (mainly created with Apple products). Think of them as a modern version of the Athenian Agora—just one where, instead of pontificating philosophers, you get someone to show you how to take a better selfie.
These sites don’t stop at posing as a form of town square, however. They often attempt to insert themselves into real town squares. Thus Apple’s plan to launch a major “flagship” store in Melbourne, Australia, involves remodeling the city’s pivotal Federation Square. The store would take over the site of an Aboriginal cultural center (slated to be relocated nearby) and demolish a landmark building (albeit one whose life may be saved by a push to give it heritage status).
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., an Apple retail site is set to open in the stunning Beaux-Arts husk of the city’s former Carnegie Library, transforming a public if long under-used utility into an electronics megastore. Thus places which were once about feeding people’s minds and helping them to expand their cultural breadth are now converted for the sale of consumer electronics, just with a dash of mind-feeding and breadth-expanding added on as a marketing tool—a form of culture-washing.
It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.
The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.
Thus under an apparently upbeat, pro-Apple attitude is a strain of bleak pessimism. It leads to tortured arguments like the one in this CityLab piece that states that an Apple store is like an art gallery because people can buy equipment to make art there, which is like saying going to Home Depot is just like attending art school, because paint in various forms is present in both.
Perhaps a sleek flagship Apple Store is a more pleasant place to spend an afternoon than, say, your average 1990s Radio Shack. But even a nicely laid-out retail space is a singularly un-ambitious definition of what a proper modern agora can and should be. Stockholm was right to reject Apple taking over a corner of its beloved central park, and to contest the idea that a private company can be allowed to dominate public space; the corporate town square is a latter-day version of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Pottersville, just one that’s been tastefully renovated to resemble utopia.