A Corporate Landscape Urbanism

“Hiding its presence from public view, the cell tower camouflaged as a palm tree becomes an appropriate icon for the private infrastructural network of our day” [image source]

In Varnelis’ Infrastructural City, Ted Kane and Rick Miller’s chapter “Cell Structure” provides a systemic view of corporate urbanism.  The authors explore this urbanism by mapping the operations and spatial discontinuities of corporate cell phone towers in Los Angeles.  In so doing, they reveal a much broader pattern in contemporary cities:

“Unlike previous developments, this new infrastructure is not planned by publicly directed municipal entities, but rather is developed by competing, privately operated corporations…the rise of privately funded infrastructure and the subsequent decline of public control represents a new corporate model of urban planning, with implications for the future development of the city.

…the Private sector has assumed a leading role in energy production, education, prisons, and road systems, all of which seek to move toward a new concept of adaptability and efficiency modeled on the open market using new forms of communication and technology to monitor peak demands and cost models.  The move from government-backed infrastructure to private networks has shifted power to such a degree that city governments are forced to behave like corporations in the market…”

The distribution of Los Angeles’ cell towers is a single physical network among an unknown many in the corporate territorialization of urban space; the multilayered base structure for all U.S. cities.  Collectively, these dispersed systems could appropriately be thought of as Corporate Landscape Urbanism, which both precedes the movement and is far more advanced in its operations than that which has been penned by the design movement’s most preeminent theorists.  Take all the language and nomenclature for which landscape urbanism is both loved and critiqued, amplify it a bit more, and one finds that corporate urbanism still exceeds those desires in its territorial performance.  Corporate systems comprise an entirely different league of landscape urbanism: fully networked, fully constructed, hierarchical in structure yet conveniently rhizomatic, incredibly resilient and spatially ubiquitous.  Corporate urbanism is landscape urbanism’s overlooked prototype that never sought the same recognition for the vast terrains it designed and colonized, with the exception of its multitude of investors.

But the label doesn’t really matter.   The more important issues which Cell Structure probes concerns the implications and effects of this urbanism, which in turn prompts questions related to methods of how it came to be and at what expense.  In somewhat tragic contrast to the type of networked infrastructure identified in Cell Structure, most of what gets published and marketed in the design world as built examples of corporate landscape are largely cosmetic veneer for administrative centers and headquarters.  As such, design practice has been particularly complicit in narrowly defining corporate landscape along these definitions.  Such self-serving designs (for client and designer) operate in the mode of propaganda and the scenography of psychological persuasion, which quite arguably is a significant component of corporate systems.

In contrast to this limited definition, we offer the following provisional guide to the territory of corporate landscape as networked ecologies that “embody the dominant form of organization today”.  Part of the process of “re-imagining how to appropriate the codes, rules, and systems that make up the contemporary city and manipulate them so as to create not a plan but a new kind of urban intervention more appropriate to this century” (Varnelis, Infrastructural City introduction):

Corporate Ecologies: Network Systems and a Multiple Site Condition [U.S. distribution of more than 13,000 McDonald's restaurants.  Source]

Corporations are geographically dispersed networks that consist of modular productive operations. As a network, a corporate landscape is a plural condition.  Corporate landscape is not a clearly defined contiguous physical entity but consists of distinct, spatially separated landscapes that function independently and in unison as a larger system of organization.

Rather than a metaphor, corporate ecologies identifies a unique set of interlaced spatial systems.  Like the natural systems delineated in the conventional application of landscape ecology, corporate ecologies exhibit the same varied richness in structure and form.  As Polis asked in their post on the Cell Structure chapter, “If the processes of corporate decision-making and their impacts on urban infrastructure were creatively mapped and demonstrated, could it influence a recalibration of such procedures?”  We think the answer is a definite yes, as these systems are remarkably understudied except for within corporate entities.

Modularity: Network Repetition of Landscapes and Landscape Effects

[Hexagonal distribution of cell towersSource]

Once a corporation has developed an operational process it replicates this process throughout its productive sites. There are variations in production processes from one productive center to another but, generally speaking, corporations standardize their operations and demonstrate remarkable similarity throughout their landscapes….a peculiar strangeness from one location to another.

[you have been here before even if you haven't]

Due to standardization, all corporations have specific ways that they use, occupy and transform landscapes. Collectively, these occupations and productive processes generate landscape effects. Whether beneficial, benign, or detrimental, these effects are as diversified as corporate entities and can be observed both within and beyond the landscapes that corporations occupy.

Hypermobility: Shifting and Temporary Occupations of Productive Landscapes


Corporate networks are dynamic and mobile. Ease of international mobility and the ability to locate and utilize low-cost inputs for production (such as natural resources, labor etc.) is the single most competitive advantage currently available to corporations. Relatively cheap transportation costs facilitate these globally scaled networks. Corporations are quick to change their production methods and outputs as economic and societal conditions change, and successful corporations adapt their networks and operations to respond to both internal and external forces.

[Schematic architectural diagram of a typical distribution center for big box retail networks.  Source]

Due to their hypermobile ecology, corporate networks are not dependent on a single landscape. Rather, they can acquire, dispose of or sell landscapes with relative ease to benefit or preserve the larger network. One landscape can be substituted for another if it meets the corporation’s needs, or if the productive capacity of a landscape is exhausted. Thus hypermobility contributes to the ephemeral acquisition of productive landscapes and the creation of post-corporate landscapes.

[The standardized processes of hardrock copper mining, per Phelps Dodge]

Permutations and Extensions of Boundary

[Source]

Corporate landscapes do not conform to conventional notions of landscape boundaries. Their dispersed, multiple-site condition diverges from the notion of a bounded landscape. Additionally, the processes and effects of production often extend beyond a corporation’s formalized or legal borders of land ownership in both tangible and less tangible ways.

The Viral Effect: Economy of Scale and the Desire for Growth

[Comparative scale of Manhattan and total floor area of Wal-Mart stores. Source]

Economies of scale work on the notion that as production increases, the cost of producing each additional unit falls. Thus corporations have an inherent drive to continually develop and extend their productive network. This is particularly true if the corporation is publicly held through stockholders.

Site Specificity

[Cell tower customized to the forests of Virginia.  Source]

Even though corporations standardize and replicate their operations, their precise location is strategic and site specific. Their locations are determined according to a variety of factors such as demographic research, proximity to related operations (synergy or competition with other corporate entities), available infrastructure, and natural resources.

Every corporation occupies and competes for specific niches within economic structures and there are endless permutations and adaptations of corporate form that are reflected in their spatial patterning. In the same way that ‘habitat’ and ‘niche’ are used to describe optimal living conditions in natural systems, corporations also have highly specific landscape environments that they occupy.

[the immersive and complete corporate environment]

Each corporate network is both dependent on and in competition with other corporate networks, and thus the concept of corporate ecologies entails the complex layering and interweaving of many productive landscape systems, or as Varnelis put it in the Introduction to the Infrastructural City: “What matters is that we do not think of these ecologies as discrete terrains as Banham did, but rather as the sort of networks that artist Mark Lombardi drew – inextricable and impossible, like balls of yarn after visitation by a litter of kittens.”

(Parts of this post are adapted excerpts from Corporate Ecologies)

6 comments

  1. Excellent. I particularly appreciate the insight that corporations have been far more efficacious landscape urbanists than designers have.

    Is this, in part, though, because some of landscape urbanism’s roots lie in noticing the efficacy of corporate urbanism? I haven’t seen it called out in that specific manner, but the sort of urbanism that prompted many of the landscape urbanists — I’m thinking, for instance, of the frequent mentions I’ve seen of Koolhaas’s observations about Atlanta as an urbanism constituted primarily by landscape — is exactly the sort of urbanism that corporations produce, whether they’re retailers and manufacturers seeking economies of scale, or developers producing housing and office parks. If this suspicion has any truth to it, then it might be entirely natural to expect that the designers haven’t been as efficacious as the corporations — they’re borrowing the methodologies of corporations specifically because they’re so effective, and just starting to figure out what we might do with them towards other ends.

    Either way, there are two things in this post that strike me as lying at the heart of the Infrastructural City project (both the book, and our reading of it):

    – Mapping: the Polis quote you called out, and to which I would also answer decisively yes. We cannot intervene where are completely ignorant, even if perfect knowledge is understood to be an illusion.

    – Hacking: the Varnelis quote from the introduction, calling for alternatives to plans. (Hacking might be a little bit of the wrong word, maybe too limiting in describing what “alternatives” might be; I’m open to alternate suggestions.)

  2. In addition to “hacking”, “co-opting” also seems to describe much of what we have discussed and proposed, particularly in terms of assimilating and using existing urban structures for new means, rather than just starting over. I agree regarding Koolhaas and Atlanta. Also OMA’s Prada stores were state of the art hybrids of both production and facade, and the research that went into them is what I think we need more of. Berger’s Drosscape similarly examined corporate territorialization in a generalized manner (i.e. his mapping transects demonstrating how manufacturing has shifted from the center to the periphery of urban centers). I think the systemic parallel is there between LU and corporate process, but in general the logic doesn’t seem to have followed through to the multi-site modularity of specific networks and how they function, as approached in the Cell Structure chapter. What if we read more corporate annual reports and similar forms of business discourse – which are (incidentally fascinating) manifestos for deliberate spatial colonization. They seem to be particularly effective. Following the conclusions in Cell Structure should designers and planners form our own corporate models and pursue investors through such means? That’s what the AECOM model has mastered and seems to be doing with comparative results…a different form of co-opting than I am hoping for.

  3. I feel like AECOM is one of the most important experiments in (landscape) architectural practice happening right now, but I really know very little about it. I haven’t seen much press at all (there was that one interview Belanger conducted with Joe Brown, and that’s about all I’ve seen). But they’re way ahead of the rest of landscape architecture in terms of extending their reach into the wide variety of sectors — leafing through their portfolio quickly, I see everything from stream restoration for industrial clients to a biodiesel plant in Hong Kong to parks and transit-oriented development. I think we need more reporting on AECOM. (Too bad there isn’t actually any reporting done in our discipline.)

  4. Yeah – I think Belanger’s interview was coming at it from a similar perspective – as an interesting experiment. More followup critical reporting would be much appreciated.

  5. this may not count as it is part reporting, part self-promotion, but ARUP puts out a quarterly detailing several of their recent projects. It’s interesting reading…

    http://www.arup.com/Publications/The_Arup_Journal.aspx

  6. ARUP quarterly – ‘the largest aluminum flat rolled product facility in China’ project (current issue) that they built for Asia Aluminum is interesting (and banal), particularly in reference to the themes discussed here.

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