(Roughly) Daily

“A suburb is an attempt to get out of reach of the city without having the city be out of reach”*…

The three-story buildings of Bell Labs‘ Murray Hill Headquarters were set in thw New Jersey suburbs within a classic Fredick Law Olmstedian pastoral landscape and helped attract top scientists, who dominated industrial research

In mid-twentieth century, in contrast to the noisy and diverse city, the suburbs were seen as spacious, segregated, and quiet— a much more promising state of affairs to corporations bent on expansion. American cities had been spreading out into metropolitan areas since the 19th century; but for most of that time city centers remained the hub of economic and social life. As Luise A. Mozingo explains, that began to change after World War II; residents and businesses alike began to leave…

… As a number of scholars have emphasized, the iconic suburbs of white, middle-class, nuclear families were a well-known part of this story but by no means all of it. Added to prewar suburban expansion, the rapid restructuring of postwar metropolitan areas formed a complexity of patches, spokes, and swaths of separated, specialized, and low-density land uses in the peripheral zones around older city centers, including industry, retail centers, ethnic enclaves, and working-class neighborhoods. This rapid decentralization created the conditions that were conducive to the invention of specialized suburban management facilities by large corporations.

To many privileged Americans of the 1950s and 1960s, the center city appeared to be in a state of inexorable decline. The proliferating automobile inundated the center city’s gridded 19th-century street pattern, and “congestion” seemed intractable and highly detrimental to economic activity. Increasing numbers of people of color walked the streets. Vacancies and abandoned properties were on the rise as tenants relocated to the suburbs and owners could find no replacements. New construction in the city center required homage to an ensconced and layered system of political patronage. Even then, wedging in new skyscrapers that could accommodate large corporate staffs in a single building proved difficult in blocks divided into multiple parcels of land and built out with varied buildings, including many used for industry. To redress these perceived shortcomings, the urban renewal process acquired property, removed tenants, destroyed buildings, and reparceled land in order to insert freeways, offer large lots for corporate offices, supply parking, and confine the poor to mass public housing. In the process, it took apart what remained of the vitality of the old urban core and added to the inventory of open urban lots and dysfunctional neighborhoods. The center city was noisy, diverse, crowded, unpredictable, inflexible, expensive, old, and messy — a dubious state of affairs for postwar capitalists bent on expansion.

In contrast, the suburbs seemed to warrant a sense of forward-looking optimism. At the city’s edge, an effective alliance of well-financed real estate investors, large property owners, local governments, federal loan guarantors, and utopian planners opened property for speedy development. Building along federal- and state-funded road systems that brought these large tracts of land into the economy of metropolitan regions, this alliance conceived of low-density, auto-accessed landscapes of highly specified uses with plenty of parking, and wrote these forms into stringent zoning and building regulations. Once built, these suburban expansion zones were deliberately resistant to change, with the end of producing both social stasis and secure real estate values.

The suburbs as a whole may have been diverse, but the process of building their component parts created insidious racial and class divisions. While the separation of different classes and races of home dwellers is the best-understood part of this spatial process, all kinds of workers were categorically set apart in discrete landscapes as well — corporate executives from factory labor, retail clerks from typists, electronics researchers from accountants. Hence the suburbs were predictable, spacious, segregated, specialized, quiet, new, and easily traversed — a much more promising state of affairs to corporations bent on expansion.

My book “Pastoral Capitalism” describes how pioneering projects established the essential landscape patterns of the corporate campus, corporate estate, and office park and how, from those few early projects, other corporations followed suit in great numbers. 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 six decades. By the end of the 20th century, the suburbs, not the central business district, contained the majority of office space in the United States. This was a new and potent force in the process of suburban expansion…

More at “The Birth of the Pastoral Corporation.”

Mason Cooley


As we ponder the prominence of the periphery, we might send altitudinous birthday greetings to Louis Sullivan; he was born on this date in 1856. An architect, he was hugely influential in the Chicago School, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, and an inspiration to the Chicago group of architects who have come to be known as the Prairie School.  He is considered by many to have been the “father of modernism” in architecture (the phrase “form follows function” is attributed to him) and (as he pioneered the steel high-rise) “the father of the skyscraper.”

Indeed, in Sullivan’s honor, this date is National Skyscraper Day.


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