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Apple's Chicago riverfront store is its latest statement piece

The glass structure seemingly flows from the downtown area to the Chicago River. It's meant to be the best representation of Apple's "Town Square" vibe.

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Apple Michigan Avenue provides an unobstructed view to the Chicago River just below.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Apple's new Chicago store is practically invisible.

Nestled on the Chicago River, it's surrounded by 32-foot glass walls that provide an unobstructed view of the water. Neighboring buildings are reflected in its facade. Sunlight streams right in, a luxury on this chilly October day. It's about as unobtrusive as a building in a busy downtown can get -- almost like you have to know what you're looking for to find it. And yet, that likely won't be a problem for the tech giant.

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Apple Michigan Avenue, the company's new flagship store, opens its doors on Friday. The two-level building is topped by a thin, 111-by-98-foot curved carbon-fiber roof that's supported by four interior columns. At the press preview on Thursday, curious observers were already trying to poke their heads in, hoping to catch a better glimpse. 

The store is the latest and most prominent example of the "Town Square" concept -- one that transforms its retail location more into a community center and public space -- and is the brainchild of retail head Angela Ahrendts and design chief Jony Ive. The concept, which kicked off with the re-opening of Apple Union Square in San Francisco last summer, meant they weren't just places for you to pick up the Apple products, but also to attend free educational seminars and concerts.

"We really wanted to create the ultimate Town Square for Chicago and for the Midwest. There's a little of my soul here," said Ahrendts, who is from Indiana. "It's an honor to be able to unveil our newest, greatest project here in Chicago."

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The Forum at Apple Michigan Avenue is the largest of any Apple store. 

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

The crop of hip stores that first popped up 16 years ago helped define how a consumer-electronics company could use its own retail locations to both push products and strengthen its relationship with its customers. But that novelty has waned, as Microsoft and Samsung have successfully mimicked the feel of Apple's stores.

So Ahrendts was tasked to reboot Apple's retail strategy, and Ive the look of the store. The resulting Town Square motif includes five new design elements that'll be headed to future Apple stores -- and eventually to many of its nearly 500 stores around the world.

They include "The Avenue," which is meant to replicate the look and feel of a town square with several product displays; the "Genius Grove," a newer, more laid-back model of the Genius Bar; "The Forum,"  where classes and sessions are held around a 6K video wall; "The Boardroom," where business customers can get advice and training from the store's Business Team; and "The Plaza," an outdoor seating area with free Wi-Fi that's open 24/7.

The Chicago location is the first to feature a "Genius Gallery," a series of long wooden benches in the store's upper level, where customers can drop by for quicker help from Apple Geniuses.

The design

The store was designed by architecture firm Foster + Partners, which was also behind the creation of Apple Union Square and the company's new Cupertino headquarters, often referred to as the "Spaceship."

The carbon-fiber roof of the Chicago flagship is designed to withstand the city's harsher climate. The architects accounted for both the lift of wind and the weight of snow when designing it. The overhang helps provide some shade on sunnier days -- but not too much.

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The Genius Gallery lets customers get quick help from Apple Geniuses.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

"We did want the space to be the most light-filled space you could imagine," said Stefan Behling, senior executive partner at Foster + Partners. "This is the most transparent store, just to give people more light. There is no other store in the world that is this transparent."

And for anyone who was worried that the roof might have a giant Apple logo on top of it, you can breathe easy: it doesn't.

The Chinese granite floors continue from the indoors to the outdoors, helping to blur any distinction between the two. The European white oak tables that display Apple products and the American white oak ceilings give the store a sense of warmth.

The designers placed an emphasis on connecting the building to its surroundings. 

"The whole idea is that the plaza comes down quite gently to the river. It does it on the outside, and it does it on the inside," Behling said. "You almost don't see where is the inside and the outside of the store."

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The two-level building features European white oak tables and American white oak ceilings. 

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Like Apple's other stores, Apple Michigan Avenue is powered by renewable energy -- though there are no solar cells at the Chicago store. Behling said it was a relatively small area for trying to conduct on-site power generation.

The store is located at 401 N. Michigan Ave., and replaces the previous Apple store at 679 N. Michigan. That location opened back in 2003, and was Apple's first flagship in the US. It opened with about 58 employees, while Apple Michigan Avenue will open with about 250 employees. The older Chicago location permanently closed its doors at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

"Apple's come a long way, and we work a little differently now," Ahrendts said. "We're thrilled that we were able to take the promenade, have an amazing team design this incredible space and help the city revitalize the riverfront."

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