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The Corporate Suburban Campus



This is a good piece dissecting the continued dominance of the suburban corporate campus in an age of climate change and higher desire for dense living. What makes this more interesting is that so many of the Silicon Valley companies who are building these huge campuses that require automotive transportation are claiming to change the world, yet in action are just repeating the planning mistakes of the last 70 years. This history of these corporate landscapes are important.

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.”

“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.

What I didn’t know was the anti-union aspects of them.

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.

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.”

And then there is the racism.

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.”

Today, I think the core reason for Google and Facebook and these other companies building these campuses is primarily hubris. They have lots of money and this is how a company spends it to make themselves the envy of the others companies. It becomes an arms race to build the biggest, most modern, corporate campus, environmental and land-use consequences be damned.

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