The death of the suburban corporate campus

The allure of suburbia as the home of corporate headquarters is over. Like Weyerhaeuser, companies are coming back to the city.
Weyerhasuser current corporate headquarters, a symbol of another time.

Weyerhasuser current corporate headquarters, a symbol of another time. Credit: www.greatbuildings.com

Last week, political and economic shock waves rippled through two Puget Sound cities when Weyerhaeuser, the multi-national giant, announced that it was moving its corporate headquarters from Federal Way to Pioneer Square in Seattle. Much has been made of the “game changing” impact this decision will have on Seattle’s First Neighborhood. The significance is not only economic, but cultural and architectural.

After many decades spent next to a grimy, undulating patch of asphalt, Occidental Square will soon be bordered (along its east side) by a contemporary symbol of global commerce. Designed by The Mithun Architects, the new Weyerhaueser headquarters will undoubtedly stand as a testament to state-of-the-art sustainability and urbanity. But that is not my story for today.

Just as momentous as its arrival in Seattle is the significance of Weyerhaeuser’s exit from the bucolic campus it has occupied for more than 40 years. Its iconic, terraced headquarters, deftly spanning a gentle valley and nestled alongside a reflective lake, was the subject of photographs and articles in scores of books and journals on design. It represents the apogee of the idea to insert a corporate symbol into the Arcadian ideal of American suburbia. The design was a collaborative effort between architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) and landscape architects Sasaki Walker Associates (SWA).

Not long after the building was finished in 1972, this bit of architectural mythmaking devolved into what we have since seen replicated all over the country: hundreds of soul-less “office parks” whose generic glass-walled or concrete tilt-up buildings could be anywhere. Office parks built along I-90 in Bellevue could just as easily been seen in the outskirts of Kansas City or Atlanta. When I travel around the country now, I see many of these buildings with their parking lots barely half full.

As with many idealized concepts in design, it doesn’t take long for the mundane “merchant builders” to water down the original concept into buildings designed by accountants to maximize floor area and minimize costs. Of course, this actually translated into lower internal costs but higher externalized costs in the form of highways, long utility lines, widespread destruction of forests, farmlands and wetlands, and the slathering of suburban subdivisions across the landscape. It was the equivalent of pouring library paste across a bed of delicate lichen. That is, essentially, the story of the country over the last 60 years.

I once had a long conversation with a local elected official whose mission was to protect his beloved suburban community from what he saw as an onslaught of undesirable change: apartments occupied by “transient renters,” buildings higher than two stories and, of course, low-income minorities. He ended his monologue by exclaiming that suburbia was America’s gift to the world. Indeed, one can see that pernicious present playing itself out in the exurbs of Paris and London and, now, in Chinese cities.

Concurrent with the rush to build Levittowns and their countless carbon copies in the years following World War II, another trend was quietly taking place. In 1957, the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company built its new headquarters in Bloomfield, Connecticut. The building was designed by Gordan Bunshaft, a star architect of the time who was with the New York office of Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

Three years earlier, SOM had designed the Lever Building on Park Avenue. Much more than merely a symbol of the soap company, the building came to represent a distinct departure for the ziggurat-shaped office buildings erected in the previous decades. (A year later, Mies Van der Rohe added his own riff on this with the nearby Seagram Building.) The Lever Building was a tailored, taught and tightly composed assembly of boxes sheathed in a gorgeous, green glass curtain wall. We have a younger sibling of this well-known structure here in Seattle with the Norton Building.

For Connecticut General, SOM did something quite startling. It transported the same crisp, rectilinear box-like forms used in the urban Lever Building to the verdant countryside. This was the original “skyscraper on its side,” a phrase attached to the Weyerhaeuser headquarters 15 years later. The glass structure was not rooted in an urban streetscape in Manhattan but instead appeared to levitate above a pristine landscape. This was the idea of commerce separated from social space. The setting was merely a set piece for an enormous, free-standing, three-dimensional sign.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

In the list of costs of suburban 'office parks' Hinshaw neglected to mention the main one- desertion of the city itself. That's of course what happened in Detroit and the case of Connecticut General Life is a prime example. Insurance companies, among the richest corporations in the country, were then clustered in Hartford. As they (peopled of course mainly by white men) moved to the suburbs, they left behind a hallowed out inner city, the very place where they used to work (and dine and drink). Though the insurance companies held millions and millions of our dollars in their coffers, they chose to let their own city wither and die.

thoughts

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for this article, Mr. Hinshaw! I am one of those who don't really "get" architecture, and I really appreciate the information. I live in Seattle but recently took a couple of bus rides south of the city limits. I saw several of those office parks with empty or half-empty parking lots. I found myself wishing they could be demolished and the land used for P-Patches or restored as wetlands. My next thought was, gee, I guess I need to go into politics.

SMullen

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Mark- Glad to see your byline on this story. After many years living DownIsland on Mercer Island, we now live in Island Square, a very well designed downtown apartment by Mithun Associates. (Omer was one of my profs in UW Architecture).
At a certain time of life, different answers are the answers. Jerry Gropp AIA longtime residential architect- retired.5

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

What would we do without broad generalizations? Whenever I see statements as absolute as "Millennials...They aren’t having kids. They aren’t even marrying. Nor are they buying cars. And not because they can’t afford them. They don’t want them" I'm suspicious of the credibility of the tacit message being espoused. In this case, the "my generation is so much more enlightened than the previous one." Give the densification movement another several years, and overcrowding and crime may start the cycle all over again. I fear for a society that is self-obsessed to the point of not marrying nor having children, if that proves to be true.

From the latest issue of Fortune:
"It is clearly tricky to make generalizations about 75 million consumers, and many researchers fall back into bromides and tautologies. Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle reports the unsurprising news that “as we start to see the emerging family among Millennials, needs for Millennials will change dramatically in terms of cars.”

stan

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Higher densities generally don't coincide with crime. That's a US phenomenon, from the days when density was usually only for poor people. Go to most world cities or US neighborhoods that have densified in recent decades and generally the opposite is true.

I don't know about birth rates, but the point about millennials and cars is correct in that there's a reduction, even before the downnturn, even though the statement isn't literally true.

mhays

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I have had conversations with many Millenials, and nearly all of them say while they now live in the city, they fully expect to marry, move to the suburbs, have kids and have a minivan in the driveway of their detached suburban house in the not-too-distant future.

I could see that happening in Seattle sooner than most other places... the cancer-like proliferation of nondescript, 4- or 5-story apartment/condo boxes is blotting out sunlight and swallowing open space. They tried this in Europe in the 1950s and 60s, and such areas today are ghettos for the poor and non-white...

orino

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Old folks homes should go out of business too, because old folks tend to die eventually.

But wait....more people are getting old. And more 25-year-olds will arise if the others move away.

mhays

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Mark. What a great article. When I lived in Seattle, I used to constantly ponder, What if Microsoft had been a little forward thinking and located in downtown Seattle or downtown Bellevue from the very beginning? What if there was a Microsoft Tower along with the Columbia Tower or the Washington Mutual Tower? Imagine how totally different the population distribution of the region would have been? Instead of wasting decades and billions trying to widen the 520 or 405, the money could have been spent on rail transit, which is now just getting a strong foothold in Seattle, decades too late.

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course the true irony is that Microsoft is now running it's own bus service!

Bellevue and Redmond would have been a lot better off if they hadn't zoned that area around overlake for the Microsoft campus. As I recall it's initial zoneing was rejected as it would have generated too much traffic. As it is, they generated so much traffic that they had to move on campus food service.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's a class being taught in New York City as part of One Day University that talks about this exact topic.

https://onedayu.com/events/detail/191
The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving
Leigh Gallagher / Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune
September 10, 2014
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM

"In 'The End of the Suburbs' journalist Leigh Gallagher traces the rise and fall of American suburbia from the stately railroad suburbs that sprung up outside American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries to current-day sprawling exurbs where residents spend as much as four hours each day commuting. Along the way she shows why suburbia was unsustainable from the start and explores the hundreds of new, alternative communities that are springing up around the country and promise to reshape our way of life for the better."

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Mark. Here's an idea for a future article. Perhaps cover the changes in malls and shopping. In this show, they say that up to half of the malls in America may close due to the Amazon.com revolution of shopping at home.

American shopping malls struggle to survive
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBmvMpZCNJg

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 2:45 p.m. Inappropriate

What do you think about the new Apple Campus 2?

Seems so bizarre to me that they would build a huge new suburban campus now.

andy

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4:02 p.m. Inappropriate

San Jose and Cupertino don't really have a "downtown" there, there. That whole Southern Bay area is one giant sprawl. It's hard to see short of a major destructive earthquake how it will be rebuilt into centers of concentrated offices and housing. But we may not have too long to wait for that event.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4:10 p.m. Inappropriate

"Another century now. One with its own very different cultural and economic imperatives. The entire country, not just the big cities, is much more racially and ethnically diverse."
What a quaint word "diverse" is coming to be.

How ironic, this bit of architectural mythmaking on the same day the Times publishes:
http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2024441089_suburbanpovertyxml.html
[Poverty rates higher in suburbs than cities, including Seattle area]
" Last year, Brookings Institution researchers using the federal benchmark for poverty from 2010, which for a family of four was an annual income of $22,300, found that two out of three Seattle-metro-area residents who were at or below the poverty line were living in the suburbs.

In fact, the number of poor people in the suburbs increased by 80 percent between 2000 and 2011 — with much of that growth concentrated in the cities south of Seattle. The rate outpaced the nation’s and ranked the Puget Sound region as the 23rd fastest growing for suburban poverty among the largest 100 metro areas. At the same time, in the core cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma, poverty grew by 31 percent.

Nationally, there’s no single path to poverty in the suburbs. Some of suburbia’s poor are the formerly middle class who were walloped by the 2007-09 recession, losing jobs and homes when the housing bubble popped. Some are immigrants who bypassed the traditional urban route and headed straight for the suburbs. Others are lower-income African Americans and Latinos who were pushed out of gentrifying cities as housing prices skyrocketed. Other people, some of them with federal housing vouchers, left cities looking for jobs, safer neighborhoods or better schools....“They move from depressed cities to depressed suburbs. They are trying to move to opportunity, and they are failing. Opportunity is moving away from them....People of color in the suburbs are disproportionately likely to be poor and much more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. "

And if that were not enough:
http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2024441142_acaruralaccessxml.html
[As more people get health-insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, the doctor shortage in rural areas is worsening. In Port Angeles, for example...]

" They aren’t having kids"
Come now. The cohort larger than the baby boom 1946-64, because it's the boomers' offspring, has decided on its lonesome to skip kids and present the world with another 'lucky generation' born during depression and global war?

Oh, what a grand world it would be if we were all as carefree as an urbanista!

afreeman

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Dear Crosscut:
How about taking your writers out of their silos? For example, what if Hinsaw and Locke were to compare notes?

Locke on the age of suburbs:

" Overwhelming numbers of African-American children who were born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s are in far worse shape economically than their parents. Sixty percent of black children whose parents were in the top half of income distribution during this 30-year period have fallen into the bottom half as working-age adults.

My own family reflects this sad reality. The difference in income between me and my two adult daughters mirrors the trend highlighted by the NYT’s op-ed. The age-old American expectation that our children will do better economically than we have simply doesn't hold true for this huge swath of Americans.

Those of us who came to adulthood in the ‘50s entered the workforce during a period when black progress was measured by the "firsts" that were happening all around us...."

afreeman

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Probably more important than Saarinen's John Deere headquarters was the building he designed a few years before, the Bell Labs Holmdel campus. Set in rolling countryside, it's hidden from the main roads around it, and exists almost as a world of its own. Today it's empty, not because it wasn't a pleasant place to work, but because Bell Labs itself is a victim of a new business climate. Large research labs were the luxury of companies with government-protected monopolies, or patent-protected virtual monopolies. Companies like AT&T;, Westinghouse, IBM or RCA are mere shadows of their former selves, if they still exist at all.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Thoughtful article. If 'Microsoft ever abandons their Redmond Campus for downtown Bellevue and/or Seattle, perhaps instead of using it for a global training facility for Microsoft staff, Mr. Gates could bankroll the formation of a premier technical university to meet the growing demand for secondary educational capacity in the region. It could be called Gates Institute of Technolgy, or something like that. Similarly, perhaps Mr. Allen could buy the Weyerhaeuser campus and start a liberal arts college in Federal Way. Plenty of room for practice fields and stadiums. Just saying.

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Anybody else see the central-planning/authoritarian tone in this? And indeed, why just say that large corporate facilities should be in some city, why not require ALL of them to be in, say, New York? Much more efficient that way... Indeed, why not require the whole population to live in some small patch of land somewhere in the east??? That way it would be easier for you central planner types to keep them all under your thumbs...

Happily in the real world cities and towns have to compete for residents and businesses, and not all residents or businesses want to be in or anywhere near "the center of town." Indeed, I find most of Seattle to be ghastly. I can see why Weyerhauser would move to smaller quarters, but why on Earth move into a congested hard to reach area sometimes overrun with drug dealers? We'll see how this plays out...

As for all the suburban office buildings lacking style or character - do you really in your heart of hearts believe anybody but building geeks cares at all? I worked two decades for MSFT and we all cared a lot about how nice the interiors (our offices) were, and basically couldn't care less about the exterior.

If buildings are empty it's a sign of economic malaise, not some grand cultural desire to move back to cities.

Also, be careful what you wish for - moving the entire MSFT campus into Seattle would drive up all sorts of rents and create even more of the pressure people are already complaining about coming from Amazon.

bw

Posted Tue, Sep 9, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

You're missing the point. Companies are moving to urban cores (especially ours) because they want to. And they want to in part because recruiting and retaining staff is easier. Even if "not all" want to work downtown, enough do that it's an advantage.

mhays

Posted Wed, Sep 3, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

While I think it will always be a mix - I mean Bellevue is a city to itself now, not just a bedroom community - there is a definite trend of firms moving their city center. That is where the talent lives - they don't want to commute/live in Federal Way or Kent, or even Redmond.

Microsoft is pretty set - but newer firms - Amazon for instance, and transforming ones, Weyerhauser for instance, see distinct advantages to moving to a city center.

And it has nothing to do with any "central planning" -- just plain old free market decisions.

Treker

Posted Thu, Sep 4, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Right, and a trend in one direction is not the "DEATH" of the other. Trends reverse.

Companies will always consider taxes in their locational decisions. Until central cities control their spending appetites, suburbanization of business will not die. Which is OK, because that's where most people live. Architects won't change that.

I live in Seattle because I want to. Others also have the choice to live where they want, and they make different choices. They deserve more respect than some posters give them.

simorgh

Posted Wed, Sep 3, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Mark- There are a lot of very good comments preceding this second one of mine. And there are certainly times when living in a "right-size" Suburban DownTown like Mercer Island's is the only way to go- for companies or those working for same. In the middle of UW Architecture School, I considered switching to Industrial Design and took some classes from Walter Dorwin Teague's Boeing man Frank Del Guidice. I liked these very much and did well but decided Detroit or somewhere like it was not at all the place for us to live and raise our family. DownTown MI works very well for us now but it wouldn't have done so back then. The same goes for companies. Weyerhaeuser will manage its present day holdings quite well down in Pioneer Square in a well designed purpose-built building.

Posted Thu, Sep 4, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

One thing not mentioned in this article, nor in any of the comments, is that Weyerhaeuser originally was headquartered downtown. Downtown Tacoma.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Sep 4, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Surprised they didn't move back to DownTown Tacoma. There are worse places. JG-

Posted Thu, Sep 4, 10:59 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a pretty simplistic notion "The allure of suburbia as the home of corporate headquarters is over. Like Weyerhaeuser, companies are coming back to the city."

Consider the fact that another corporation is very likely to buy this Weyerhaeuser campus and move there - instead to the city.

The suburbs are thriving. Just look at the real estate sales data and see for yourself.

Posted Fri, Sep 5, 8:32 a.m. Inappropriate

No doubt in my mind, that's exactly what will- and should happen. Another large corporation, on the way up (instead of down) will buy this really well designed and maintained headquarters. Much better than starting from scratch, less time away from maintaining momentum of a growing company as any good RE Broker would
explain to those alert CEOs who see, or are made to see this great opportunity. JG-

Posted Fri, Sep 5, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

There is an ebb and flow between the city and the suburbs. Young, unmarried or newly married tend to settle in cities because of commutes, nightlife, etc. They tend to move to the 'burbs when they start having children - there are positives for both city living and suburban as well as drawbacks.

Seasoned

Posted Sat, Sep 6, 7:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the ebb and flow may be coming to an end with the rise in fuel prices and fewer people driving cars. Cities are naturally more efficient at transporting people since things are closer together and mass transit, taxis, biking, walking are all options that don't work so well in the suburbs.

In an era of Peak Oil, where production is declining and prices are continually rising, the cost of driving and commuting is not longer cheap like it used to be.

Posted Sun, Sep 7, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

But the bus trips in from the 'burbs plus light rail make suburban commutes more pleasant and about equal in time with inter-city commutes.

Seasoned

Posted Sun, Sep 7, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

But the bus trips in from the 'burbs plus light rail make suburban commutes more pleasant and about equal in time with inter-city commutes.

Seasoned

Posted Tue, Sep 9, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I like this article for the comments. After a few years of doing it downtown, I am seeing some of the wisdom (SOME) that my parents used in their suburban flight used to raise us. Living downtown was fun, but just too noisy in our so-called upscale apartment - noise caused by guys our age that were still living their dream I suppose. Maybe I'm an exception but downtown driving in ridiculous traffic is bad but better than riding the Metro, and...I haven’t missed my bike after it was stolen from a locked area. We all need to share without hating each other’s ride. As for offices, sometimes cool urban spaces are less than the sum of their parts for all that we have to tolerate to enjoy them. Still, for a great job I’d work in a garage! ;)

TimH

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