Every now and then in suburbia, you have to take a chance on greatness. And that's what the circular Apple building designed by Sir Norman Foster represents. It is unlike any structure in Silicon Valley, and for that reason, it will draw attention and acclaim.

No other company -- not Facebook, not Google -- has anything close to such an iconic building. And I don't count that obnoxious "like" thumb at Facebook's entrance.

In a place where icons guide our lives on our tablets, computers and smartphones, the Apple spaceship will rapidly become synonymous with Silicon Valley. It's a far more fitting symbol than the SAP Center at San Jose.

What does that mean? A lot, actually. We have relatively few universally understood marks of place in the valley. There's Stanford University, yes, and Hangar One at Moffett Field. But we have been so busy molding virtual space that we've often ignored the physical.

By that, I don't mean the 2.8 million-square-foot Apple headquarters, which my readers have dubbed "The Core," is beyond criticism. You can label it a fortress. Like my colleague Troy Wolverton, you can fret about the traffic it will produce.

In the long run, however, its benefits as a focus of conversation and identity will surmount the disadvantages. Even if you dislike it, you will talk about it. So will the world. In that sense, it creates a shared symbol, as instantly recognizable as the wheel on an iPod.


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Building blocks

Just the elements of its construction are going to draw architecture fans and students to visit -- the focus on solar energy and fuel cells, the bending of the glass to avoid seams, the fit-and-finish of its pieces, the nod to native species of trees.

For better or worse, you can see in this building something of Steve Jobs' quest for immortality -- the evolution of Apple from garage to office building to campus to an elegant structure that echoes his products. In itself, that is a story worth telling.

Apple could underscore the point brilliantly by holding an all-day open house for a limited number of folks from the public in the new courtyard before the building is occupied. For a security-crazed company, it would mark a victory of public relations. And they could serve mango tea.

Troy argues that the Apple building serves no public purpose -- that trees will obscure a structure inaccessible to the public. And some of that is true, though there is a fence around the property now and the models show you will be able to see the building through foliage.

Private money

Then again, the $5 billion building is not being constructed with public money. A number of backers, including the postmistress of Cupertino, have pointed to the business, jobs and taxes it will produce. Despite what Wolverton says, all those are public benefits.

Here's the key point: With such an iconic structure, Apple is creating a there there. Maybe you think of the former HP land along Pruneridge Avenue as a destination now -- a jumble of low-slung buildings and parking lots. But why would you visit?

As for the traffic, there's no question it will worsen, particularly at Wolfe Road and Interstate 280. The southbound onramp to I-280 will be ugly in the evening. But traffic has a way of evening out over time. And Apple is expanding Wolfe Road's capacity.

There is already a model for the strict consciousness on the traffic issue that Troy endorses. It's called Sunnyvale, Cupertino's neighbor to the north.

Sunnyvale is a well-run city with many fine people. It's a good place to drive through. But save for a one-block section of Murphy Avenue that escaped the wreckers, it doesn't have much that's memorable.

If you ask me, getting the Apple building is worth the trade-off.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.