Environments I. The retrofit of suburbia; A. The office park

Suburbia was conceived in the desire for blandly pleasant places. It sometimes achieved this, particularly where maturing landscape obscured infantile architecture. But visual satisfaction upon arrival at fullness now often obscures an underlying irony; suburbia has begun losing value, both because of technical obsolescence and generational uncoolness. To use a term intrinsic to our consumption-based society, the first generation of post-war suburbia (1945-1968) is “outtadate,” and elements of the second (1969-1989) are getting there.

The next Technical Pages will examine how outmoded places may be remediated. Because one premise of suburbia was segregation of uses, installments will proceed by use categories, showing how to retrofit commercial centers, residential pods, and the thoroughfares connecting them for greater suitability and flexibility. Discussed earlier in connection with the live-work unit, the office park will here be considered again as a place in transition.

Office parks clearly manifest “outtadate” with their horizontally extended boxes, rarely more than three stories tall, strewn on parking lots. They emerged in the 1970s when the boss comprehended that he and his employees were living in suburbia. He asked, with the brilliance of a Reddy Kilowatt lightbulb, why not move the office out here from downtown, where there was never enough parking anyway?

The evolution of office parks

Office parks evolved from curtain wall boxes equipped with parking lots and artificial plains of grass, to slightly different boxes (brick skins with angled corners supplanted panel systems and square corners) flanked by parking lots buffered with three-dimensional berms and trees. Both the thinner former model and the thicker latter one are now regarded as outtadate. They are not really less habitable, though glazing and mechanical systems are obsolete. The more basic issue is a workforce that has changed attitudes, including its own self-characterization. Once one is a member of the “creative class” (as white- collar employees construe themselves), working in an office building, even with a double-height atrium, is uncool.

The style cycle, now moving more swiftly than technical obsolescence, has dated these places as surely as the suits that were once expected business attire. Informality now characterizes all but the legal profession and entry-level account executives. This corresponds with the currently desirable workplace model: the loft. Since people regularly change jobs, roles, and locales several times during the course of their careers, it should be no surprise that stable building types that sheltered the stable status of “housewife” or “businessman” should no longer be judged a good fit for shape-shifting companies, jobs, and workers. Lofts are.

The self-image of office worker as cultural creative — whether accurate or a desperate rationalization — corresponds with the high ceilings, rough finishes, and open informality of the loft. Young and talented recruits look for these qualities in the workplace. Older suburban office buildings are promising candidates for retrofitting, especially where center cities do not offer such loft space.

The buildings themselves are relatively easy to retrofit, as discussed in the previous Technical Page. To remodel them as loft offices and loft live-work units, low partitions, ceilings raised to full structural height, maximum use of existing windows, minimal and decentralized mechanical systems, and quantities of black spray paint will often suffice.

No less important to the creative artist self-image is working 24/7, but knocking off at will to stroll out for distraction at all hours. Retrofit to this end requires that the office park be urbanized. Surface lots must evolve into structured parking, the vacated ground platted for infill shops and residences that will transform the office park into a 24-hour neighborhood.

The retrofitting process is aided by the fact that office parks are usually held in single ownership, without existing residents. Their conversion into mixed-use centers, adaptable to still more future change, is thus in some ways more practical than retrofitting shopping centers and housing subdivisions. Nonetheless these also offer possibilities to be discussed in the next Technical Pages. u