Corporate Suburbia

Post-war Fordist capitalism not only produced the well-known and frequently discussed “suburban solution” with suburban housing, but also gave rise to a discrete set of corporate landscapes: the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park, all defining the new american corporate suburbia

As corporations had reinvented the production system during the first part of the 20th century, so too they reinvented management facilities in the second half in order to accommodate a new scale and scope of management under the name of managerial capitalism (Chandler, 1977) as an evolved expression of Fordist industrial production (Harvey, 1989). This pattern might be seen as the ideal state of a Fordist enterprise, as defined by Alfred Sloan at General Motors.

This new form of organization consisted of three tiers of management: lower management, which was immediately responsible for production, sales and purchasing; middle management, which coordinated the activities of lower management and provided operational resources through finance, sales, production, purchasing, traffic, and research departments; and top management, which coordinated the activities of middle managers, allocated overall corporate resources, and initiated competitive strategies (Chandler, 1977). The hierarchy enabled corporations to direct increasingly dispersed and diverse enterprises and production centers by distributing management across the corporate landscape while establishing a clear chain of command and accountability.

Rationality of corporate geography

Each level of management carried on its activities in different facilities: lower management in factories, sales, and purchasing offices; middle management in departmental and divisional offices; and top management in corporate headquarters. A big advantage of this rationalized hierarchy was the concentration of business decisions over geographically and technologically vast enterprises in large headquarters (Chandler, 1977), while at the same time separating and decentralizing production facilities, regional and divisional offices and most notably research, which will become the main motor of suburban corporate expansion and later on, the creation of a new type of corporate landscape.

As the corporation was growing ever more powerful at midcentury, the American city was also undergoing a period of fundamental change (Fogelson, 2001). While urban decentralization in the form of middle and upper-middle-class residential suburbs, suburban industries, and working-class suburbs had been extending metropolitan zones since the nineteenth century, the dense and diverse city center remained the energetic hub of American cultural and economic life before the 1950s. (Beuregard, 2003, Fogelson, 2001) The postwar milieu tipped the balance toward the rapid decentralization of urban cores and their concentrations of commerce, industry, and residential neighborhoods. This rapid process of decentralization created the perfect conditions required for the invention of the specialized suburban management facilities by large corporations, which tried to reinvent their image and attract new high-profile employees from these new segregated suburban communities (Lang, 2000) for whom the suburbs seemed to warrant a sense of forward-looking optimism and the epitome of the Keynesian social mode of economic regulation (Jessop, 2013).

Postwar pastoral capitalism

The postwar structure of corporations, the decentralization of American cities, and the dominance of pastoral taste convened to mold a discrete set of three suburban forms comprising “pastoral capitalism” (Mozingo, 2011): the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park (Mozingo, 2003). For both functional and emblematic reasons, these three interrelated landscape types materialized in the suburbs to serve a particular stratum of the corporate hierarchy. Each has a distinct layout of buildings, parking, driveways, and pastoral surroundings, but as a latecomer in the suburban landscape they never required the large scare social infrastructure investment of the early company towns.

From these three, the corporate campus, which first appeared in the 1940s and contained office and laboratory facilities, was the one that initiated the shift of white-collar workers into the suburban settings (Lang, 2000).

The corporate campus gave birth to the corporate estate in the early 1950s, which consisted of an imposing building complex built for top executives. For large corporations it created the suburban alternative to the urban skyscraper (Mozingo, 2011) and as the former ones, they represented a public relations tool in communicating with employees, local residents, stockholders, competitors and bankers (Klingmann, 2007).

Democratizing office parks

While these two phases of office development were in many cases strictly directed towards large corporations, it was the office park which appeared in the late 1950s that democratized this new corporate landscape. The office park provided lower-cost flexible alternatives to the first two, which allowed for expansion or contraction of companies, but also offered cheap alternatives for smaller firms, start-up companies and corporate service providers (Logan, 1987). It was these characteristics that allowed for this model to be easily exportable and by the 1980s office parks emerged as the iconic landscape of international managerial capitalism all across the world. These landscape types became embedded in the expectations of the corporate class and could at a glance embody both the reality and prospect of capitalist power. Hence, the development forms have remained remarkably consistent for the past six decades (Mozingo, 2011).

In Europe, corporate management still resided either in offices near industrial plants or in the city business districts as it had in the US before WWII, but by the 1970s this began to change as American corporations started to establish substantial overseas facilities, but also due to rising global competition and the constant need for innovation which raised the importance of research facilities in companies, universities and other institutions (Drucker, 1993). This shift towards a more knowledge intensive economy also created the preconditions for a shift from the sterile mono-functional corporate landscapes of the Fordist era.

The first country to adopt this model was the UK (Mozingo, 2011), which already had its own established model of corporate office space, but with the substantial deregulations and the shift to new types of governance structures supported by the Thatcher regimes catalyzed an escalation in office park development all across the country but most notably around established higher education institutions like Cambridge or Oxford. In general, this proliferation of office parks outside of America, came most often under the rubric of science, software and technology parks with the promotion of the unparalleled technological and economic productivity of Boston’s Route 128 and Silicon Valley.

Unsurprisingly, considering the impressive flexibility of these designs,  the corporate headquarters of today still consist of the same overall site configurations as their predecessors, while their interior has been reshaped to serve the growing diversity of work patterns found in todays knowledge economy.

For a quick look at a selection of contemporary company headquarters check out the article entitled “Corporate Landscapes


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