Thursday, October 23, 2014

The death of the suburban corporate campus

Parks Blog readers know that parks and recreational opportunities play a vital role in enhancing quality of life. Many highly educated millennials are rightly making quality of life a primary focus. This is evidenced by the fact that many are choosing a great place to live before seeking out specific employment opportunities. It looks as though some major corporations are following these millennial trends by locating their corporate campuses where the talent is. Investments in parks, recreation, and creating great places to live pay huge dividends in resulting economic growth. A no brainer really.  

Mark Hinshaw, Better Cities & Towns

Political and economic shock waves rippled through two Puget Sound cities when Weyerhaeuser, the multi-national giant, announced in late August 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 (see rendering above) will undoubtedly stand as a testament to state-of-the-art sustainability and urbanity.

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.

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, near downtown, for its next big move. Imagine Microsoft on the Beach, with its Redmond campus converted to research and training for global employees.

The dramatic move by the Big W represents the end of an era.

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner at a Seattle architecture firm. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including "Citistate Seattle" (1999). He can be reached at

Friday, October 10, 2014

that subtle something, that quality of air

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” - Robert Louis Stevenson

"Summer Solstice" by Amy Giacomelli

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pittsboro Hosts Fall Street Fair - October 25, 2014

The Town of Pittsboro’s annual Fall Street Fair will fill downtown with artisans, crafters, food vendors, live music, non-profit organizations and childrens’ activities Saturday, October 25, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

More than 70 artisans from across the Triangle will tempt you with their wares, from hand-crafted knives and upcycled clothing to pottery, metal sculpture and batiks. Stroll the streets of Pittsboro, smell the roasted corn and donuts, try a local beer at our beer garden, dance to the music or check out some of the food trucks attending the fair for the first time.

A stellar local live music line up, curated by Sonic Pie Productions, begins at 10 a.m. with 19- year-old songwriter and guitarist Jason Damico, a 2014 Triangle Blues Society Blues Challenge Winner. Thoroughly multinational but uniquely North Carolinian, Orquesta GarDel thrills audiences at 11:15 a.m. with a high-energy Latin dance music experience. The monstrous thirteen-member lineup replicates the format of a classic Nuyorican salsa dura ensemble – a full deck of horn players, percussionists, and coro singers.  Later in the afternoon, Pittsboro Street Fair favorite, Tommy Edwards Trio serves up some of the best bluegrass in the state. Lockdown Blues Band, featuring vocalist Taneka Clemmons, plays high-energy blues and soul and brother/sister duo The Commanderrs’ soulful folk is recommended for fans of Emmylou Harris and Neko Case.

Pittsboro Parks Director Paul Horne is excited about the upcoming event. “We’re hoping that this year’s fair will be the best one yet. We’ve mixed things up quite a bit while retaining some of the best aspects of prior events.  We’re looking forward to a good crowd.” 

Child Care Networks is also celebrating their 30th anniversary with a big presence. You’ll meet “Elsa” and “Anna” characters from the animated film Frozen, race radio-controlled cars and watch the crowning a youth King and Queen, who will represent Child Care Networks in the Siler City Christmas Parade.

“This year features many familiar vendors, but we’ve received applications from throughout the Piedmont, including new artisans, such as Chatham Country transplant Joshua Martin of Vintage Prints, who will offer a collection of Works Progress Administration reprints of different sizes and price points” says Sonic Pie Productions owner, Tess Mangum Ocaña.

Pets other than service animals are not allowed at the Fair. For more information, visit the Fair’s Facebook Page:

The Bikeways of Bogata

A great video about Bogata's ambitious ~ 350 kilometer bikeway system.

Riding Bogota's Bountiful Protected Bikeways from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Enrique Penalosa, the visionary who implemented this effort in his capacity of former Mayor of Bogata, is no slouch. A long impressive list of highights of his career can be found at this Project for Public Spaces Site.

“The importance of pedestrian public spaces cannot be measured, but most other important things in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love and loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness.” 

 – Enrique Peñalosa

Of course, one could argue that the importance of such spaces can be measured and quantifiable economic benefits can be proven ie.

"In Boulder, CO property values were 32% higher in porperties within 3,200 feet of a greenway.  This resulted in an increase of $500,000 per year in additional property taxes, enough to cover the $1.5 million purchase price of the greenbelt in 3 years."

(Mark R. Correll, Jane H. Lillydahl, and Larry D. Dingell, The Effect of Greenbelts on Residential Property Values: Some Findings on the Political Economy of Open Space," Land Economics, May 1978)

But the romantic quote and the hard numbers can coexist without contradiction.

For more in depth exploration, check out this article from the Urban Land Institute on A U.S. Template for a Third Millenium City

Monday, September 29, 2014

Are Parks and Recreation Important to Apple?

Corporations like Apple seek out the best of the best employees in order to retain their competitive edge. Providing innovative parks and recreation areas for their employees plays a huge role in attracting the best employees, serves a retention tool and also boosts both creativity and productivity at the workplace.

Apple is building a new campus which will reflect their corporate philosophy - parks and recreation apparently play an important role in shaping their creative work environment.  The new headquarters will be centered around a park like campus, will contain an employee fitness center, and feature a large park within the confines of the circular building.

More info on Apple's new campus here:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Urban Form Affects Physical Activity Levels

This infographic from Active Living Research demonstrates how profoundly community design impacts how physically active people are. Bike lanes encourage more biking, dense development, sidewalks and greenways encourage more walking, and parks encourage more play. Urban form affects physical activity levels and physical activity levels are linked to specific health outcomes.

Click to Enlarge
If you're interested in scratching the surface below the level of an infographic, this research paper explores the Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity and Morbidity.

A few quick excerpts:

"Despite the health benefits of physical activity, 74% of U.S. adults do not get enough physical activity to meet public health recommendations and about one in four U.S. adults remains completely inactive during their leisure time."  

"Recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHA-NES) found that 64.5% of the U.S. adult population is overweight and almost one in three is obese (30.5%). Excess weight and physical inactivity are reported to account for over 300,000 premature deaths each year, second only to tobacco-related deaths among preventable causes of death."

"This exploratory study seems to indicate that, after controlling for individual differences, those living in sprawling counties are likely to walk less in their leisure time, weigh more, and have greater prevalence of hypertension than those living in more compact places"

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