At first glance, the shimmering, suburban rim of the American metropolis might seem haphazard compared to the tightly organized urbanism of the center city. Nonetheless, all landscapes, once closely examined, present a deliberate logic. Among those seemingly baffling yet actually decipherable suburban scenes are the offices of corporate management.
Large-scale corporate offices were the last of the center city land uses to emerge in the suburbs, in the 1940s, after housing, manufacturing, and retail commerce. Constructed by the most powerful global entities, these new suburban corporate landscapes displayed a preference for the pastoral. Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes examines the evolution and consequences of this form of postwar American urbanism.
Pastoral capitalism results from the intersection of three forces: the structure of corporate management; decentralization of American cities; and the dominance of a pastoral aesthetic. These forces convened to produce three interrelated suburban forms: the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park. These landscape types, with their distinct layout of buildings, parking, driveways, and surround, materialized to serve a particular stratum of the corporate hierarchy.
In the 1940s and 1950s, corporations such as AT&T, General Electric, and General Motors devised the corporate campus to valorize the industrial scientist and validate the use of science for profit. The corporate campus became a strategic management tool, attracting scientists and facilitating technological discovery. Modeled on the American university landscape, it contained office and laboratory facilities surrounding a green space or quadrangle, encircled by a drive, and peripheral parking. The corporate campus spearheaded the move of white-collar work out from the city center. It is a genre of corporate building that persists to the present day.
In the wake of corporate campuses, large firms built the corporate estate for top management. Such suburban headquarters evolved through three canonical projects: the 1954 General Foods headquarters, the 1957 Connecticut General Life Insurance Company headquarters, and the definitive 1964 Deere & Company Administrative Center. These sites, and those that followed, testified to the prestige of executive status and acted as a stand-in for the myriad dispersed properties of global corporations. With 200 or more scenically designed acres and a sweeping entrance drive culminating at a central building complex, the sites were broadly appealing. Corporations used the image of suburban headquarters as public relations tools in communicating with employees, local residents, stockholders, competitors, and bankers.
Created by speculative real estate developers in the 1950s, the office park provided a lower cost, flexible alternative to the corporate campus and estate. The office park housed third-tier corporate management, “back office” functions, small local and corporate service businesses, and start-up technology corporations, particularly in a specific version of the office park, the research park. Besides market pressures, office parks appeared because of shifts in the fiscal management of suburbs, new zoning regulations in suburban jurisdictions, and the construction of federally funded transportation corridors. Office parks provided building facilities surrounding by ample parking and framed by a concise scheme of parkways, parking lot berms, and landscape frontages. As the most widespread and large-scale type of suburban corporate landscape, they proved particularly useful to corporations in volatile economic times, as they could easily expand and contract personnel and offices.
Pastoral capitalism restructured the metropolitan landscape of American cities and accounts for well over half the office space in the U.S. Corporate campuses, estates, and office parks became American norms and as companies moved overseas, they replicated these homegrown patterns. Eventually international corporations imitated their American counterparts and occupied places such as Silicon Fens in the United Kingdom, Telecom Valley in Southern France, and the Singapore Science Park. Now, Indian software companies attempt to keep the brainy in Bangalore by building corporate campuses.
Because landscapes of pastoral capitalism are engrained in the fabric of low-density, auto-dependent suburbs, they present an obvious target of re-design as we confront the challenge of a post-peak oil metropolis. Rethinking sprawl might begin most effectively with the forms and uses of corporate campuses, estates, and office parks, especially their vast parking lots, roadways, and bucolic greenspaces. In so doing, they can be transformed into places that are both dense and connected, an essential step in building sustainable metropolitan regions.