Virgin on Business: Architecture as Branding

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Weyerhaeuser Co.’s corporate headquarters in Federal Way did far more than simply provide a place for employees to spend their day. It was a corporate branding statement, written in concrete, glass and steel, without benefit of a single logo or name on the façade, long before “branding statement” became standard-issue business jargon.

It told the world, from its impeccably landscaped setting east of I-5, who Weyerhaeuser was and how it viewed itself — a viewpoint it encouraged the rest of the world to share. It said: “We are a big, important company. We do things with trees. But we are not your typical cut-’em-and-move-on outfit. We are closely tied to the natural world, and we respect and take care of it.”

It was a statement reinforced by the setting, complete with pond, meadow, trees, geese that appeared to have been specially ordered for effect, parking lots tucked out of sight and a flat, elongated structure with no obvious entrance, bedecked hanging-garden style with foliage. It looked like no corporate HQ, past or future.

Sometime in 2016, it won’t look like Weyerhaeuser’s headquarters either because the company that commissioned it plans to move to Pioneer Square,  where trees are stunted affairs surrounded by metal grates.

Weyerhaeuser has its reasons for moving, most notably the transformation and downsizing of the company from when the landmark Federal Way building opened in 1971. Weyerhaeuser is also a different company in managerial style and structure; it’s now on its fourth CEO since a member of the Weyerhaeuser family last ran it. An individualistic viewpoint that would go with a highly individualistic headquarters has been succeeded by a corporate mindset more comfortable occupying one more office box in Seattle.

Many of our best-known companies were decidedly low profile and low key when it came to headquarters. Boeing’s home office on East Marginal Way was an unimposing structure that had the advantage of being across the street from and next door to where planes were built and flown, or it was until executives decided to be as far from the actual work as they could get, and split for Chicago. Microsoft sprouted an Eastside campus of anonymous, interchangeable buildings. Would you even know where to look for Nordstrom’s headquarters if you were trying to find it? Costco’s is easier to locate, provided you make a series of wrong turns in a warren of shopping plazas and office parks in Issaquah.

Some legacy companies veered in the other direction. Safeco built a skyscraper with its name on top; it wouldn’t have looked out of place downtown, but it was miles north in the U District. Starbucks took over the old Sears warehouse in SoDo; the eyes of its mermaid logo watch from the top of the clock tower, keeping surveillance in all directions.

The stereotype of tech companies has been that they’re more interested in the statements made to employees with building interiors than to the public through the exteriors. But that’s not universally the case. Amazon has proposed for a building at its new downtown Seattle campus a series of glass globes that will be just begging for a nickname. Down in California, Apple is building a doughnut-shaped headquarters whose design seems to have been lifted from a sci-fi movie.

Note that in most of the cases — Safeco being the exception — the companies that opted for headquarters that said something already had strong corporate personalities and identities. Whatever that something to be said was — we’re big, distinctive, innovative, or we just like to show off — they decided to say it with architecture. That approach can be more effective and long lasting than one more image ad — unless, as with Weyerhaeuser, neither the building nor the strategic message behind it works for you any longer. 

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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