A Peculiar Sort of 'Park'


Do developers build "industrial parks" only when they can't build strip mines, quarries and domed ball parks with Astroturf? One can be forgiven for wondering. These developments take up more and more of the landscape -- economic and literal -- as our cities disintegrate, sending their economic fragments to settle in land previously used only to pasture sheep and the wealthy. The results are troubling.

Just the name "industrial park" ought to arouse skepticism. TC park, after all, contains grass, trees and animals -- the very things obliterated by the industrial park. And the adjective "industrial," paired so often with "waste," seems out of place, if not dishonest, modifying a noun like "park." When you consider further that some "investment company" commissioned the industrial park to "develop raw land" (a euphemism for "cutting down forests" or "paving over farmland"), you begin to suspect that euphemism signals nothing benign.

But first, let us exclude some types of development from our definition. An industrial park is not a sprawling, single-company industrial complex like a refinery or steel mill, nor is it a single-company office campus, often redeemed by buildings that carefully insinuate themselves into the landscape. Nor are we talking about the old warehouse and factory districts outside downtown cores. Nor are we talking about new "edge cities" which -- though empty of culture, history and pedestrians -- at least have density, an occasional whiff of serious architecture, and ample, if banal, amenities.

What we are referring to is a large development reached by a broad access roads -- often the major arteries in the area -- into which feed smaller roads that divide the huge parcel. (Often these roads are crescents or circles whimsically named after the ridges or dells or flora that no longer exist on the site.) The effect, when viewed schematically, is that of a sow lying on her side, nursing her piglets. Many broad buildings, usually less than three stories high, spot the landscape. Acres of parking lots surround them; more acres of asphalt are dedicated to space for turning around large trucks.

More than 30 years ago Lewis Mumford called these expanses of low buildings and asphalt "space eaters." While admiring the parks' distance from residential areas and their effective use of highways, Mumford criticized "the cheapness and convenience of one-story construction [that] has encouraged loose planning and sprawl. Here building on stilts would have permitted the housing of motor cars beneath, protected against summer heat and winter snow, and would have freed space for a noon-hour recreation area, with beneficial results both to work and production."

One can see workers on their lunch hours walking along the roads and through the parking lots for recreation. They seem out of place and tentative, like the small fish who ride the bellies of sharks. There may be ponds and rock sculptures in the development, but rarely is there a decent place to enjoy a meal or even to sit down.

Sometimes one client occupies a whole building, but usually the space is divided for many uses: warehousing and distribution, light manufacturing, wholesaling, retail sales and general office space. With a small manipulation of sheet rock and dropped ceiling, a plant packaging dog food one day can in the next be transformed into a caterer sporting a fancy French name.

These buildings try to distinguish themselves with small atriums or little landscaped nooks, or a column here or there, interesting brick or brick patterning, or highlights of glazed tile. But these are facile gestures at seriousness, a Dale Carnegie architecture where seeming passes for being.

The fact that these buildings look alike everywhere calls into question their energy efficiency. Building in the desert? Flat roof, thin walls, big sealed windows. Building in the tundra? Flat roof, thin walls, big windows. The same design for every location, regardless of topography or prevailing winds or direction of exposure. The climate is not accommodated, but overcome with technology. The old farm houses that previously stood on the site made better use of natural advantages for heating and cooling. The fact that the new buildings are not farm houses does not excuse the reliance on technology to cool a low, flat-roofed building set on a denuded and sun-baked hilltop.

Often the building's utility equipment is stacked on roofs like cases on supermarket shelves, with little thought to aesthetics. The shopping-center simile is appropriate. Writing about a shopping center in Paris, Ada Louise Huxtable described "a standardized nonplace. Inside, everything is carried out at a high level of boring competence. The details are conventionally expert and often quite cheap. . . . There is no real architecture or urbanism here at all, . . . it is hard to prefer this flashy, empty, replicable and ultimately ordinary formula. . . ."

"So what are we supposed to do?" the developer rightly responds, "make every warehouse look like the Parthenon? Put tool-and-die makers in the Paris Opera House?" Of course not. Yet there is a cheapness and insincerity about industrial parks that is matched only by other buildings whose developers don't have to live and work in them. Earlier factories, warehouses, and office buildings gave the impression of being rooted to a community and responsible for its fortunes; that's why abandoned old main streets and factories, though shabby, retain some dignity. Industrial parks have no dignity, and often look shabby when new.

No, flexible commercial space need not resemble the Parthenon, but short of developers pouring more money into design and community (rather than merely adding to that absolution fund known as "the tax base"), they can name their handiwork honestly. Rather than "Heather Hollow" or "Jackrabbit Knoll," why not name the next industrial park "The Ticky-Tacky Capital Gains Farm"?

Daniel F. Rosen writes from Baltimore.

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