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The Architectural History of the Office Park

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 27, 2011 09:51 AM

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Everyone knows that the postwar decades saw a mass exodus from the cities to the suburbs, as white-collar workers sought peace, quiet, trees, and homogeneity. Homeowners, though, weren't the only ones who moved: As Berkeley architectural historian Louise Mozingo shows in Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, companies went suburban, too. Many of us live in, or drive by, the "office parks" and "research campuses" that resulted. We take them for granted, but they were once part of a utopian movement in corporate America -- a move, as one General Foods advertisement put, "out of the city ... and into the trees."


G.M.'s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan; more photos at Archive.org.

Before the war, most big companies were located in city centers, where they could be near governments, banks, newspapers, and factories. But during the postwar boom, those companies grew unhappy with city life. There was no room, even in the new skyscrapers, for the army of middle-managers needed to oversee a typical postwar corporate empire. Offices weren't easily converted into labs. And cities, increasingly, were dangerous, dirty places -- overrun with immigrants and labor organizers, saturated with pollution (often from company-owned factories), and targeted by the Soviets for nuclear attack. The same factors that drove individuals to buy homes in the suburbs, in short, drove companies there, too. (Richard Walker, an architectural critic, sees the same "basic pattern of escapism from capitalist reality.")

As they settled on the suburbs, Mozingo explains, corporate executives were driven by two ideals. The first was prestige -- they wanted to build suburban headquarters which were the horizontal equivalents of skyscrapers (one architect, describing a corporate office park, calls it an "American Versailles"). The second was more abstract -- a vision, Mozingo explains, of a pastoral corporate life. Managers and researchers were creative people, and creativity is nurtured by nature. For American industry to win the technological contest with the Russians, workers needed more than money. They needed greenery.

Today we live with the legacy of that reasoning. On the high end, we have sprawling, well-tended corporate campuses. (Some, Mozingo points out, are more like "corporate estates," with huge buildings set at the end of winding driveways, overlooking lakes full of geese.) On the low end, many of us work in scruffy office parks, with buildings and parking lots lovingly edged by shrubs, saplings, and woodchips. Work has been decentralized and suburbanized And the style has spread around the globe -- there are now office parks everywhere, from Singapore and Abu Dhabi to Bangalore and Brazil. America has exported a particular kind of decentralized, management-driven capitalism; it turns out that we've exported an enthusiasm for shrubbery, too.

[Bonus video: The "Initech" office park from Office space.]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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