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The Lousy Urban Design Of America's Most Innovative Companies

Why do tech companies keep building suburban corporate campuses that are isolated from the communities their products are meant to serve?

The Lousy Urban Design Of America's Most Innovative Companies

All Images: via Collectors Weekly

When Apple finishes its new $5 billion headquarters in Cupertino, California, the technorati will ooh and ahh over its otherworldly architecture, and Apple will pat itself on the back for yet another example of "innovation." Countless employees, tech bloggers, and design fanatics are already lauding the "futuristic" building and its many "groundbreaking" features. But few are aware that Apple’s monumental project is already outdated, mimicking a half-century of stagnant suburban corporate campuses that isolated themselves—by design—from the communities their products were supposed to impact.

The exterior of IBM’s Manufacturing and Administrative Center in Rochester, Minnesota, circa 1950s. Photo by Balthazar Korab, via the Library of Congress.

In the 1940s and ’50s, when American corporations first flirted with a move to the ‘burbs, CEOs realized that horizontal architecture immersed in a park-like buffer lent big business a sheen of wholesome goodness. The exodus was triggered, in part, by inroads the labor movement was making among blue-collar employees in cities. At the same time, the increasing diversity of urban populations meant it was getting harder and harder to maintain an all-white workforce. One by one, major companies headed out of town for greener pastures, luring desired employees into their gilded cages with the types of office perks familiar to any Googler.

Though these sprawling developments were initially hailed as innovative, America’s experiment with suburban, car-centric lifestyles eventually proved problematic, both for its exclusiveness and environmental drawbacks: Such communities intentionally prevented certain ethnic groups and lower-income people from moving there, while enforcing zoning rules that maximized driving. Today’s tech campuses, which The New York Times describes as "the triumph of privatized commons, of a verdant natural world sheltered for the few," are no better, having done nothing to disrupt the isolated, anti-urban landscape favored by mid-century corporations.

This 1956 brochure advertising General Motors’ new Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, emphasized that suburbs were the future.

Louise Mozingo, the chair of UC Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department, detailed the origins of these corporate environments in her 2014 book, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. From the 1930s designs for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey to Google’s Silicon Valley campus today, Mozingo traced the evolution of suburbia’s "separatist geography." In contrast with the city, Mozingo writes, "the suburbs were predictable, spacious, segregated, specialized, quiet, new, and easily traversed—a much more promising state of affairs to corporations bent on expansion." It also didn’t hurt that many top executives often already lived in the affluent, low-density areas near where they wanted their offices built.

Like the expansive headquarters of many companies who fled dense downtowns, Apple’s new office falls into the architectural vein Mozingo dubs "pastoral capitalism," after a landscaping trend made popular more than a century ago. In the mid-19th century, prominent figures like Frederick Law Olmsted promoted a specific vision of the natural environment adapted to modern life, beginning with urban parks and university campuses and eventually encompassing suburban residential neighborhoods.

"There was this whole academic discussion around what defined the picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime," Mozingo told me when we spoke recently. "Landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing had written extensively about it in American publications, but Olmsted went beyond that, and called his ideal park landscape ‘pastoral.’ He was well-read enough to understand that this combined elements of wild nature with agricultural nature."

Eero Saarinen’s project for the John Deere World Headquarters, which was finished in 1964, exemplifies the corporate estate isolated by its pastoral setting.

The most famous version of Olmsted’s manicured natural world was New York City’s Central Park, completed in 1873. "The vast majority of Central Park was intended to be pastoral," Mozingo explains, "meaning it was supposed to induce a tranquil state of being for the mind, body, and spirit." Across the country, major American cities constructed public parks following in Olmsted’s pastoral ideal, from Fairmount Park in Philadelphia to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Following World War I, as the United States grew into a more industrial, urbanized country with a diverse immigrant population, this pastoral ideal became associated with places where the white upper classes would go to retreat from the realities of the city. "Eventually," Mozingo says, "it became associated with middle-class values, turning the single-family house in the pastoral suburb into an aspirational American object. It’s still quite powerful." At the time, most corporate offices were still in large skyscrapers near a city’s central business district or in a nearby industrial zone alongside the company’s manufacturing facilities. "Executives were often cheek by jowl with their blue-collar workers," Mozingo says, "even though they were in generally a nicer building of some kind."

Meanwhile, as the labor movement gained steam, corporate leaders were struggling to prevent employees from unionizing. "In the early 20th century, there was a limited but influential set of companies engaging in what is commonly referred to as ‘welfare capitalism,’" Mozingo explains. "The idea was to prevent turnover and control workers better by making factory sites that were tidy, safe, and well-ventilated with good lighting and all those things." Many factory grounds were also carefully landscaped with play fields, gardens, and other outdoor spaces for workers to use.

An explanation of employee welfare programs used at the National Cash Register Company’s factory in Dayton, Ohio, 1903.via the Harvard Art Museums

When World War II left Europe’s economy in ruins, American corporations grew exponentially, requiring a massive increase in management staff and office space to handle thousands of new employees. The largest company headquarters were typically housed in several older buildings, leading those flush with cash to start thinking about constructing new spaces tailored to their needs. Executives also knew their preferred workforce (white, educated, married men) was moving to the suburbs and increasingly preferred to drive rather than use public transit.

In response to these shifts, major corporations embraced the notion that suburban pastoral settings were beneficial to their workers and their business. "I was surprised how much corporate executives absorbed this Olmstedian vision of the pastoral context being conducive to clear thinking, decision making, happy employees, and so forth," Mozingo says. "It’s amazing to me—it was repeated over and over again in their public statements, writings, and internal memos. By the 1950s, we had this idea that everyone could work and think better in the country, and the pastoral ideal became one of the primary justifications for moving these offices to the suburbs."

In the early 20th century, employee amenities and access to green space helped maintain loyalty and prevent unionizing, as seen in the women’s lunchroom at the National Cash Register Company in 1902.via Shorpy

Mozingo identified three major forms that dominated these novel projects: the corporate campus, corporate estate, and office park. Corporate campuses were initially developed to house research-and-development divisions, in a decidedly collegiate environment that would allow them to compete with major universities for job candidates. However, all kinds of suburban office sites are sometimes called campuses for their use of low-rise buildings, quadrangles or courtyards, and pastoral greenery.

A "corporate estate" was typically the site of a company’s executive headquarters, along with sprawling landscaped grounds and high-end amenities. "There was usually a long, sweeping driveway, a centrally set palatial building, and big blocks of parking, which was later tucked away so you couldn’t see it," Mozingo says. "The ability to impress visitors was very important." In contrast, office parks were designed as speculative developments to be rented to smaller commercial tenants, like branch offices for major corporations. Areas like Route 128 near Boston and Silicon Valley south of San Francisco were developed from farmland into office parks.

AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories pioneered the first corporate campus, a process that began in earnest during the 1930s. Because of its acoustic components, Bell Labs needed a particularly quiet space for research, so the company started acquiring land where it could expand its Manhattan offices in the sleepy suburbs near Summit, New Jersey.

A drafting studio at Bell Labs with views into the trees, 1942.via Shorpy

When the plan was first made public, local residents balked at the idea, mostly because they feared the site would become a noisy, dirty factory. Their fears were assuaged by a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, which emphasized the number of AT&T executives who already lived nearby and succeeded in changing local zoning to accommodate research and development. After more than a decade of planning and construction, the new Bell Labs—resembling a leafy college campus—opened in 1942 to much critical acclaim. ("BusinessWeek" later ran a story headlined "At Bell Labs, Industrial Research Looks Like Bright College Years.")

General Foods, a processed-food manufacturer that ballooned in size after World War II, was the first company to relocate its entire headquarters from the city to the suburbs. Previously, General Foods’ offices had been spread across three buildings in Manhattan, and after searching all around New York City for a new site to consolidate, they selected a plot in Westchester County. "Moving a major office from Manhattan to White Plains was so remarkable that it was covered by ‘Life Magazine,’" Mozingo says. "It’s so funny—the article actually just covered the movers."

A postcard view of the completed Bell Labs campus in Summit, New Jersey, circa 1961.

For its new facility, General Foods chose a spot adjacent to the Central Westchester Parkway, which would allow employees easy driving access and give their new grounds an envious audience of daily commuters. General Foods emphasized the superior environment in White Plans on employee pamphlets, which used the phrase "Out of the city … and into the trees." Working with the same architects used for the Bell Labs project, the new General Foods campus was finished in 1954.

Another highly influential project was commissioned by Connecticut General Life Insurance, which moved from Hartford to Bloomfield, Connecticut, in 1956. "Connecticut General wanted a very horizontal space with lots of light because they would literally pass these pieces of paper with policies or settlements or whatever down a long line from one desk to another so each necessary employee could process it," Mozingo explains. "It was this clerical factory, if you will." The company selected the renowned firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to design its building in partnership with landscape designer Joanna Diman and artist Isamu Noguchi, who created sculptures for the grounds.

As these huge companies left the city, they often attempted to outdo competitors by hiring famous architects and upping the office amenities. "The first reference I found to a company cafeteria being really desirable was a 1929 memo about the new building for Bell Labs," Mozingo says. "It said they had to have a ‘decent place to eat.’ They also had employee lounges where the scientists could casually interact, like the current trend for collaborative space."

Connecticut General’s new corporate estate included snack bars, ping-pong tables, shuffleboards, bowling alleys, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, a barbershop, beauty parlor, game room, media library, meditation room, and gas station, as well as offsite services like dry-cleaning, shoe repair, flowers, and grocery delivery—more than half a century before Google and Facebook added such benefits. "All these perks had a certain element of welfare capitalism," Mozingo says, "this idea that the all-inclusive physical environment is going to foster certain kinds of behavior, which are profitable for the company."

The focus on amenities for office staff was also a way to prevent them from organizing, particularly the legions of low-paid female employees needed to maximize profits. "They were terrified that female clerical workers were going to unionize," Mozingo says, "In the era before computing, companies ran on vast amounts of paper, and that paperwork was almost all done by women. That was one of the reasons they wanted to get out of downtown—if the secretaries unionized, they’d all be sunk."

With desks like these, who needs a union? View of the reception area at GM’s Design Center in Warren, Michigan, circa 1950s.Photo by Balthazar Korab, via the Library of Congress

Even the shift to personal vehicles rather than public transit was hailed as a perk: Private cars were supposedly more reliable and allowed for more flexible work schedules, particularly in an era before highways were clogged with traffic. In actuality, this encouraged employees to extend their workday past the standard hours of nine-to-five, and helped isolated workers to ensure company loyalty. "This is something that Silicon Valley companies still do—they capture the employee for the entire day," Mozingo says. "The descriptions were extremely explicit about this, about solidifying corporate culture, instilling loyalty, and minimizing happenstance meetings with people from other companies who might steal you. It’s about making the corporation your entire life."

A glass facade reflects the rural surroundings of Connecticut General’s new Bloomfield office, circa 1950s.via MIT Libraries

Beyond keeping staff complacent, the benefits of welfare capitalism provided good PR for powerful businesses that Americans had grown skeptical of. Their modern architecture, landscaped greenery, and latest office amenities were all praised in magazines like Life, Newsweek, Fortune, and Architectural Digest, presenting Americans with a rosy view of the country’s biggest corporations. As Mozingo writes, "The pastoral landscapes of corporations aptly, and vividly, reiterated in everyday physicality the way corporations wished to be understood—as seamless with traditional American culture."

It was important for executives to put the right spin on the story since many were avoiding external pressures to diversify their workforce. "There were absolutely racist motivations," Mozingo says. "The executive classes were still largely male and white, but the secretarial workers in center cities were increasingly diverse. So the euphemism they used was that they were looking for clerical workers or secretaries ‘of a better type.’

"Birmingham was one of the core cities that was targeted during the Civil Rights Era, and it’s in Birmingham that you have the very first office park," Mozingo continues. "It wasn’t built just anywhere; it was in Mountain Brook, Alabama, which is among the most exclusive upper-class white suburbs, a profoundly segregated area with the covenant codes and restrictions disallowing anybody who wasn’t white to live there."

By the 1960s, many of the country’s biggest companies—including General Motors, Deere & Company, General Electric, and IBM—had followed suit and created their own suburban fortresses. The corporate campus had also been exported to the West Coast, beginning with the booming aeronautics industry in Southern California.

An aerial view of the Ramo-Wooldridge campus in Canoga Park, California, 1960.

As more and more companies created their own pastoral digs, mid-size cities like Hartford, Cleveland, Birmingham, and St. Louis were left with huge commercial vacancies in once-bustling downtowns. "These cities lost their tax bases at the very time when their infrastructure had started to fall apart and they were dealing with the increasing social problems of the 1960s and ’70s—homelessness, expanding drug use, all that stuff," Mozingo says. "When these corporations moved out, there were many serious academic studies and journalistic accounts of these devastated downtowns."

Eventually, suburban communities would come to rely on the money generated by large office developments, since residential property taxes rarely cover the cost of public services in low-density areas. In the 1970s and ’80s, as mergers and acquisitions closed campuses in wealthy suburban communities like Greenwich, Connecticut, residential taxes skyrocketed to cover municipal budget deficits. (This conundrum is one that Silicon Valley residents know all too well, as regional city councils continuously work to encourage corporate expansion while preventing residential densification, resulting in an extreme imbalance of housing and jobs that exacerbates real-estate prices and traffic problems.)

The Ramo-Wooldridge complex was featured in a brochure advertising life in Canoga Park, California. "Naturally enough, employment opportunity figures a great deal in the percentage of those who wish to escape the inconvenience of today’s crowded metropolitan areas," the brochure says.

But perhaps even more damaging was the way this architectural trend turned residents away from one another and reduced their engagement in the public sphere. From the 1950s onward, the vast majority of suburban office projects relied on a model Mozingo refers to as "separatist geography," where people were isolated from their larger communities for the benefit of a single business entity.

Mozingo’s concept of a separatist landscape builds off the ideas of geographer Allan Pred, who describes how our daily path through the built environment is a major influence on our culture and values. "If you live in a typical suburban place," Mozingo explains, "you get in your car and drive to work by yourself, then stay in your office for the entire day seeing only other colleagues, and then drive back home alone. You’re basically only interested in improving highways and your office building." Even as big tech touts its green credentials, the offices for Apple, Facebook, Google, and their ilk are inundated with parking, discreetly hidden below ground like their savvy mid-century forebears, encouraging employees to continue their solo commutes.

Today, this segregation isn’t only aided by architecture—it’s also a function of the tech-enabled lifestyle, with its endless array of on-demand services and delivery apps that limit interactions with people of differing views and backgrounds (exposure that would likely serve to increase tolerance). A protective bubble of affluence also reduces the need for civic engagement: If you always rely on ride-hailing apps, why would you care if the sidewalk gets cleaned or repaired?

Executives felt employees could think better in suburban environments like IBM’s Manufacturing and Administrative Center in Rochester, Minnesota, seen here in the 1956. Photo by Balthazar Korab, via the Library of Congress

"This is an extraordinarily different context than the way people lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries," Mozingo says. Before the development of mid-century suburbia with its isolated residential, retail, civic, and office zones, cities were built with a highly varied, walkable fabric where encountering strangers was the norm. Even in smaller towns, people walked or took transit to work, could grab coffee or lunch at a neighboring restaurant, or pop into a public library, plaza, or park. "You’d have a vastly more complex set of people, places, and experiences to deal with and think about," Mozingo says.

In her influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs celebrated this complicated urban landscape, which encourages what she called the "ballet of the good city sidewalk." At a time when cities were being deserted by wealthy companies and residents for more homogenous suburban towns, Jacobs pointed to evidence that communities need walkable, diverse streetscapes that foster unplanned interactions with others in order to thrive.

While many modern office developments specifically include lounges or multipurpose zones where employees might randomly interact with one another, these spaces are entirely limited to office staff—with the aim that conversations would further relationships or spark ideas beneficial to the business. "I look at Apple’s Norman Foster building, and it’s 1952 all over again," Mozingo says. "There’s nothing innovative about it. It’s a classic corporate estate from the 1950s, with a big block of parking. Meanwhile, Google is building another version of the office park with a swoopy roof and cool details—but it does nothing innovative."

Renderings of Apple’s new headquarters, left, and Google’s campus, right, reflect the lasting appeal of low-density, inward-facing suburban offices.

"There are a handful of companies who are finally doing interesting things in the suburbs," she continues. "For instance, there’s a developer in Silicon Valley, Kilroy Realty, building a development called the Crossing/900, which is the new Box headquarters, and it’s going to be high-density and mixed-use near Caltrain, so everybody’s excited about that one." Mozingo also sees potential in a future Facebook project, since they’ve purchased a large plot of land near a disused rail line. "It’s supposed to be mixed-use with explicit public space, and a farmer’s market, and there’s the potential to actually service this area with rail," she says. "I’m skeptical but hopeful."

Clearly these modern suburban offices can’t resolve all of a community’s planning issues on a single, isolated site. But even companies that do try to affect change on a larger municipal level are often turned off by the required public process, which Mozingo calls "long, arduous, boring, and annoying." Despite these misgivings, Mozingo’s understanding of urban history gives her faith that suburban corporate architecture could remedy the problems it has wrought.

The Connecticut General office flanked by a sea of parking, as seen on a 1950s postcard.

"One of the reasons cities function really well," Mozingo says, "is that in the first few decades of the 20th century, after industry had its way, there was a coalition of progressives who said, ‘We want good lighting, good transportation, and clean water in our cities. We’re going to have sidewalks and streets with orderly traffic, and we’re going to do some zoning so you don’t have a tannery right next to an orphanage.’ They put in big public institutions like museums and theaters and squares with fancy fountains. It cost everybody money, but was agreed on by both the public and private sectors. This is the reason why we still love San Francisco and New York City. Even if we don’t live there, we like going there.

"Believe me, in 1890, cities in the United States were just dreadful–but by 1920, they were much better, and everybody could turn on the tap and drink some water. This was not a small victory," Mozingo emphasizes. "Suburban corporations have to realize that they’re in the same situation: They have to build alliances with municipalities, counties, state agencies, and each other to come together and spend the next three decades figuring it out—and it is going to take decades."

This article was republished with permission from CollectorsWeekly.com.

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