martes, 26 de junio de 2012

Pastoral capitalism. How companies left city centres behind (and why this is probably over)

The book Pastoral capitalism. A History of Corporate Suburban Landscapes, by Louise A. Mozingo, addresses a historical perspective on how and why large corporate developments have spread out in suburbia as the main feature of the spatial organization of industrial production in the past decades. How did we come to the conclusion that suburban areas were the most suitable space to host R&D activities of large corporations, the headquarters of those companies or office parks devoted to the service sector? Answering these questions is the aim of this book which deserves to be read by both those  interested in economic geography and business management, architecture, urbanism or landscape studies, as the book is based on a particular economic context (post-World War II in the U.S.) and on a particular business context (the rise of large bureaucratic, hierarchical and functional corporation) to explain the reasons for the dawn  and proliferation of this urban typology, which is so crucial in the American urban model that has been, moreover, the dominant model of territorial expansion in the developed world in the last fifty years.

Mozingo distinguishes three types or evolutionary steps in this kind of industry spatial organization, from corporate campus (centralization and suburbanization of the first centres or corporate R&D divisions), corporate estates (centralization and suburbanization of administrative buildings and corporate offices) and office parks (large urban developments located in the city peripheries intended to be hired by new born or established companies active in high-tech or service activities). Corporate campus represents the first step in this process in which the most important large corporation in the U.S. started leaving city centres (traditional location of factories and industrial production)  in the mid 1940's, while in the early 50´s corporate estates emerged as a second stage, some years before the first office park developments came to light in late 50´s. All of them, despite their different functions, share some  design patterns that have remained consistent until today and form a common landscape: 2-4 storey buildings with large windows, with an avant-garde but discreet design, diluted among a large, bucolic paradise of green trees, rolling terrain lines, artificial lakes, quiet, large areas of parking, entrances, immediate access to the highway, etc. This scenario of naturalised fiction/artificialised nature is used by the author to explain the quick success of this spatial fix in the form of bucolic suburban developments prepared to offer high skilled and white collar workers a suitable place to work out of the saturated, conflictive and chaotic urban centres which had hitherto operated in. An aestheticized nature used as a lure to complete the true suburban living in which living and working could happen in suburbia. In fact, large factories had started to be located out of urban centres in the '20s and '30s and now was the time of the R&D divisions and corporate administrative services, providing skilled workers in their workplace the same aesthetic the suburban housing was offering, the only way to attract engineers and scientists and, at the same time, to avoid labour conflicts by dispersing trade unions activities and de-concentrating workers.  Joining a new architectural design aesthetics, a new scheme of urban zoning with the emerging and soon hegemonic imaginary values ​​of bucolic life, technology optimism, progress and family built the perfect mix that helped to expand this crucial movement of new industrial and economic activities out of cities and towns.

This way of re-organising factories, headquarters and corporate estates reflects the birth of post-industrial work, when large corporations expanded their research staff to increase their R&D activities in a time when scientific corporate management was developing a new theory of business management based on functionalism and structured division of functions. The book brilliantly delves into the intricacies of the decisions taken by the biggest names in business at the time, negotiations with authorities, their vast expenditures on advertising to sell the wonders of these developments, hiring renowned architecture firms, etc.. becoming more than a history of landscape architecture, but a contextualization of different factors that explain the social and business dominant atmosphere in those decades of the 20th century. In fact, this is not the first attempt to understand the birth and role of large corporate industrial parks and, the author recognizes that, among others, the book Technopoles of the World: The Making of Twenty-First-Century Industrial Complexes (Manuel Castells and Peter Hall) advanced the relationship between capitalism, politics, education and these technological power centres, but Pastoral Capitalism now adds a concern for space, architecture and urbanism.
The huge marketing effort done in those days to mainstream these new suburban industrial developments is one of the most significant aspects highlighted in the book. After all, the American dream of suburban life and "your little piece of paradise in nature" was at that time in full swing and it was necessary to embed it in the collective imagination based on ads, brochures and cathode rays. The pastoral green colour always looks good in any real estate brochure and even today is still a general rule in any large development marketing strategy. This strategy of "escaping the cities" even made sense in the Cold War, and was also used by companies as a national security argument pointing out the nuclear fear as justification for the need to leave cities and disperse production and business areas to decentralise potential risks.

There are also the days when the first spatial concentrations of tech-intense activities in the form of clusters sets begin and most of them have survived to this day. The birth of pastoral capitalism is also the birthof Route 128 in Boston or Silicon Valley in San Francisco. This is why the new Apple headquarters (mostly celebrated as another innovative idea of the company) is nothing new and, in fact, is the perfect example of pastoral capitalism as described by Mozingo, mimicking, step by step, business logic, architectural guidelines and urban form that can be found at the corporate campuses built in the '50s such as General Foods or Deere & Company. These are also the days when the Stanford Research Park was born (crucial in the Silicon Valley narrative) or the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, historical reference of the major technology parks most regions are trying to imitate. These are the times when all these developments were created by the first multinational corporations (in some cases, convicted of monopolistic practices) but with extensive government support, something Margaret O'Mara noted in Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley when she explained Silicon Valley legend cannot be interpreted without considering the role of public investment in the generation of these areas of knowledge.

Regional and urban economics cannot be understood today without considering the role of technology and industrial parks as places of economic activity concentration and this spatial organisation has been replicated everywhere outside the US. While the model of residential suburbanization has been much more difficult to settle in Europe thanks to the predominance of historic centres -although it is true that in recent decades there has been a significant effect of urban sprawl-, this model of suburbanization of economic activities has been completely hegemonic to an extentthat city centres and surroundings have not been considered as a suitable location for this. In recent times, almost every municipality has developed its own industrial park or office in the suburbs and technology parks in the suburbs have been planned, isolating these creative and most knowledge-intense activities from the possibility of taking the best from cities: diversity, serendipity, complexity and cultural mix. This is why, to rethink sprawl, we´d better start with offices.
Today we see how cities like London and New York understand that we are facing a new economy that is having its particular spatial expression. Looking at their maps of start-up and technology hotspots, we discover there is a change pattern underway. In every city, coworking and collaborative workspaces arise as decentralised hubs of workplaces in a time when the workplace is becoming less a set of office+desk+chair+PC, but more of a continuous flow of moments and spaces in which workers keep digitally connected.  Even some large corporations are starting to go the other way and are re-locating their headquarters in city centres, assuming that high renting prices in city centres are worthy provided this means taking advantage of the possibilities urban life offers.

We now know that the model of spatial organization of labour in post-industrial economy has had a pattern and an explanation. Companies looked for monofunctional and isolated areas as a way to create a productive workspace, leaving back stressful cities to build a perfect paradise of controlled working environment in which hierarchy and specialization could be properly managed. We can also understand why these types of large suburban industrial developments may no longer make sense in the not too distant future, as far as the way we work and the way companies try to interact and create innovative contexts is already changing. The urban melting pot is becoming a spatial condition for creative business environments.
See also:
Image 1 taken from Saarinen´s last experiment
Image 2: Bell Telephone Company. 

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