Contemporary corporate architecture’s impact on communities examined

Has corporate architecture doomed the city?

Over the last century, corporate headquarters — as well as churches, universities and government institutions — have been pillars of the urban environment, embodying the culture, values and aspirations of their societies.

McDonald's-Finland Headquarters in Helsinki
No retro diner: MacKeith says that McDonald’s-Finland Headquarters in Helsinki “is notable for its resistance to the corporation’s generic design manual in form and materiality … The design is civic-minded in its gate-tower structure at the city’s edge, and in its detailed attention to its immediate landscape.”

Yet today’s corporations — competing in global, open-market economies; distanced and disassociated from the means of production — have increasingly situated themselves on the suburban periphery, replacing civic engagement with simple displays of technological prowess, such as the ubiquitous glass curtain wall.

As a result, “corporations must be seen as potential ‘dissolving agents’ of the cities in which they have chosen to locate,” argues Peter MacKeith, associate director of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also serves as associate dean of Architecture.

In “The Dissolving Corporation: Contemporary Architecture and Corporate Identity in Finland” — a report commissioned by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum (EVA) — MacKeith examines a variety of recently built headquarters around the world: Nokia and Sanoma in Finland; Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Ford and USA Today in the United States; Nike-Europe in the Netherlands; Volkswagen in Germany; and Telenor in Norway.

“The contemporary city of corporate architecture is constructed of standardized elements, homogeneous in their glass-enclosures, planned for maximum flexibility and insured for limited time periods,” MacKeith points out. “Silicon Valley’s landscape of leased, glass curtain-wall or tilt-up concrete slab construction R&D ‘parks’ constitutes the extreme example. In that archetypal IT-driven landscape, the buildings are differentiated only by their corporate signage.

Peter MacKeith
Peter MacKeith

“Legally, the responsibilities of design end at the site-line,” MacKeith continues. Yet architecture inevitably affects its surrounding environment and always represents values, whether elevated or banal.

“More and more, corporations’ headquarters designs internalize their communities of employees and workers. Headquarters now provide cafés, gyms, banks and day-care centers to such an extent that daily contact with the external life of the city is no longer necessary.”

MacKeith also questions whether the typical open-plan, glass-walled corporate working environment truly increases creativity and productivity — as rhetoric would have — or whether the resulting lack of privacy and stability might actually contribute to employee turnover. (The Silicon Valley average length of employment, he notes, is just eight months.)

“Put simply, the correlation of transparency and flexibility in office planning with creativity and productivity is an illusion,” MacKeith contends. “The correlation of open-plan, executive-in-the-open, glass-walled environments with openness, trust, cooperation and informal brainstorming is an illusion.

“Productivity evidence in the knowledge worker office setting is essentially anecdotal and usually the result of the corporation’s own surveys,” MacKeith adds. “In fact, the few academic studies that are emerging contradict the conception of the open office as the most productive office.”

Rekindling ‘architecture’s social contract’

Yet MacKeith does see some positive signs, particularly as corporations focus on issues of sustainable development.

Wal-Mart, though frequently criticized for contributing to problems like urban sprawl, has opened a series of Eco Stores that include solar lighting, high-tech HVAC systems and other energy-saving measures. Ford’s $2 billion Rouge truck plant, in Dearborn, Mich., features a 10-acre “green, living roof,” insulated with vegetation and designed to release run-off storm water into nearby wetlands.

Meanwhile, Boeing in the United States and BMW in Germany have recently opened new production facilities that ingrate administrative offices, “placing designers, engineers and salespeople directly adjacent to the factory floors, giving real attention to the conditions of office workers.”

McDonald’s-Finland Headquarters in Helsinki “is notable for its resistance to the corporation’s generic design manual in form and materiality … The design is civic-minded in its gate-tower structure at the city’s edge, and in its detailed attention to its immediate landscape.” Moreover, the building’s roof is covered in crushed recycled glass while its glass cylinder exterior is wrapped in a wooden shade trellis.

Still, MacKeith worries that, as corporations become ever more “boundaryless” — a term coined by GE’s former CEO Jack Welch — market forces such as “value-engineering, low-bidder contracting, fast-track construction schedules and optimized floor-area ratios,” along with the increasing privatization of urban life, “all combine to slowly erase architecture’s social contract with the public, and place it solely in the service of the bottom line and the brand.”

For architects today, the key challenges, “are not those of technical knowledge or technological innovation, and certainly not ones of creative ability,” MacKeith concludes.

Rather, architects must find ways to rekindle that social contract without constraining social and technical innovation; to create “a means of living and working, grounded in an ethical sensibility and in the natural world.”

The Dissolving Corporation is published by EVA in co-operation with the Creative Finland Association. The report is available both as a printed volume and as a downloadable PDF from the EVA Web site.