Tim Kobe remembers his first visit to Notre Dame fondly. It was about twenty years ago when he first traveled to Paris, and he had two must-see destinations on his list: the cathedral and the Eiffel Tower.
Today Kobe, best known for his work designing the original Apple Stores, has bold plans for rebuilding Notre Dame’s roof and spire, which were destroyed in a devastating fire in April. French President Emmanuel Macron has said that Notre Dame needs to be reopened within five years, and designers across the world have been quick to offer up ideas for the famed monument’s reconstruction.
Italian architects have suggested rebuilding the structure with Baccarat crystal, and others have proposed more outlandish ideas, like putting an an open-air swimming pool or a greenhouse on top of the church. Kobe, in a nod to minimalist, Apple store style, wants to re-build the top of the iconic building using glass.
It hasn’t yet been decided if the church will be rebuilt exactly as it was or if one of the more innovative ideas put forward will be accepted. For now, architects are working to make sure the its arches and ceilings don’t collapse — but Kobe, whose firm Eight Inc. has worked with the likes of Nike, Virgin, Ford, Citibank and the Gap, hopes his idea takes off.
Here’s what he has to say about his radical Notre Dame proposal, working with Steve Jobs, and designing for big brands.
Tell us about your idea for Notre Dame’s reconstruction.
Our proposal is to look at reconstructing the roof portion — which had burned in a formally precise replication of the dimensions and shapes, the forms that were there previously — but to do it with glass.
It incorporates the philosophical approach to what we believe makes good architecture. Most of the proposals we saw were about the ego of the architect who was doing it. We wanted to try to separate from that approach. It’s not as much about the form, because many people were creating all sorts of different forms. It’s much more about — and this is a practice our firm has been built on for the last 30 years — understanding human experience, and the experience that people would have with it.
The idea with glass is to reflect the idea that we had lost this one portion of the building and it has to be reconstructed. We wanted to respect the original proportions, the original scale, the original dimension but use the latest technology, as was always the case with Gothic cathedrals. All of the technology that was in the original structure — flying buttresses and the vaulted ceilings — was ultimately to bring people as closer to the idea of God and the heavens as possible with architecture.
Do you have a favorite building?
I have small buildings as favorites. One of my favorite buildings is the Maison de Verre in Paris, which is a small residence. I like Casa Malaparte in Capri, it’s a beautiful little building.
Tell us what it was like working with Steve Jobs.
We worked with him basically every week for the 12 years before he passed away. We got to know many dimensions of his personality. I hear a lot of rumors about what he was like. I think the most common thing that probably made him seem as if he were difficult is that he was extraordinarily gifted at understanding things from both from an intuitive and logic perspective. He could toggle between them comfortably, but most people can’t, and that caused frustrations.
He was quick, he was very impatient, because he would get things very quickly and want to move on. I think somehow he must have felt that life is short.
What’s one thing you learned from Steve Jobs?
We learned that the most important thing is that all of your design work is about what the work does for people. It sounds a little bit California extra-crunchy, but if you want to create value, people have to want what you have. And to always have a plan B.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest companies in the world: Apple, Nike, Virgin Atlantic, Citibank. Which project was most meaningful to you?
I don’t necessarily want to say Apple because it seems kind of obvious, but the impact of that work is very gratifying because it helped the company go from a very small one to a much larger company. It’s had a lot of impact in terms of bringing technology into society. On the other hand, there’s the negative side of bringing technology into society, so it’s somewhat of a double-edged sword.
Do retail stores have a future in the era of e-commerce?
I think the whole notion of bricks and mortar versus e-commerce … these polarized discussions are always distractions. People will go to where the experience is relevant to how they want to live. Some days, I want to order my dog food on an app. On another day, I want to go to a store and touch and feel and make a choice.
I don’t think retail is dead. Bad retail is dead, that’s for sure.
What’s one innovative idea that you were nervous to implement that worked well?
With everything that you try that doesn’t have a precedent, you’re going to be nervous. You never know, until you open a store. For Apple, the night before, Steve asked, “guys, what if nobody comes tomorrow?”
Do you incorporate sustainability into your designs?
It depends on the customer. In a way, we’re sometimes coercive in the approach we take. Like, if we have a wood choice, we’ll use bamboo because it’s sustainable to grow. We’ll try to do things that they don’t necessarily know that they’re being as environmentally conscious as the are.
Most people don’t know that the majority of Apple stores we designed to be broken down into their component parts and recycled if we ever closed a store. That’s something we’ll bring in to be responsible.
Thirty percent of carbon emissions comes from either the creation of or operation of buildings. Architects have a huge responsibility to change that.
What’s a project that you’d love to work on?
I would love to build a museum one day. There’s something that would feel fulfilling about that.
You have a book coming out later this year about ‘return on experience.’ Can you tell us why companies should be thinking about this?
Companies that focus on the experience that people have with their brand do better. They see benefits across many different metrics, whether it’s changing their brand perception, greater revenue, higher foot traffic, greater advocacy or forgiveness when you make a mistake.
What’s the most interesting project you’re working on right now?
For the first time in my life, someone approached us about redesigning a government. I think that’s an amazing design problem.
—This interview has been edited for length and clarity.