The death of the suburban corporate campus

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

Decades ago, Willam H. Whyte memorialized this new social ethic in a major book titled “The Organization Man.” Smartly clad structures perfectly reflected their pinstripe suited, clean-cut occupants. It was a near perfect match of sociology and architecture. The male breadwinner toiling all day inside a glass box, coming home to the American Dream: a detached “Colonial style” house with a manicured lawn. The Betty Crocker cookbook of that era advised housewives to have a mixed drink ready for their husband’s eagerly expected return, along with tips on how to set a table when the domestic help had the day off.  We all know how that dream turned out.

It took a few years for the SOM building to fully command the attention of other corporations. Perhaps some companies did not initially embrace the idea that they didn't need to be downtown to conduct commerce. But a few more did.

In 1963 John Deere commissioned Eero Saarinen, another star architect of the time, to design its headquarters in the verdant countryside. Saarinen tucked horizontal stacks of steel and glass into a lush landscape. Several other major corporations followed suit. Then came the urban "race riots" of the late 60s. That was excuse enough to decamp to the hinterlands and the story of white flight to American suburbia began.

But we are in 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. We have exhausted the benefits of relentless horizontal expansion; economists even have a term for this: “diminishing returns.” And most importantly Millennials don’t buy into that American Dream. They were raised in it, and they had enough of its boredom and anomie.

Some Boomers smugly claim that Millennials will fall back into line as soon as they have children. Well, guess what? 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.

The folks who run Weyerhaeuser are a smart bunch. I’m sure they started projecting out how long it would be before they would have a difficult time recruiting younger workers to reverse commute. Silicon Valley firms are already seeing this kind of rebellion and are building office space in San Francisco.

In Seattle, Amazon saw it coming, and chose to headquarter in South Lake Union rather than some outlying location. Microsoft has already occupied a number of towers in downtown Bellevue. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was eyeing the soon-to-be-vacated Amgen Campus for its next big move. Imagine Microsoft on the Beach, with its Redmond campus converted to research and training for global employees.

For this region at least, the dramatic move by the Big W represents the end of an era.

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