Corporate Families and Dreams

by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

This story was published in issue 1 of The Alpine Review in 2012.

Utopian visions of the city weren’t only the remit of Archigram and comic books. Companies like Ford, Olivetti and Disney, driven by strong ideas about the relationship between community & business, tried building their own versions. This blending of relationships between the private and public might become potent in the near future in the technology industry as our governments promote more industrial action in society.
Illustration by Aleš Motyl

Despite what Adam Curtis might say, Ayn Rand really did do something quite interesting by writing The Fountainhead: she made everyone want to become an architect. Any building ever built after the Second World War feels like a geo-located political act on the part of its owner. Symbols that, in our day and age, we could really use.

Back in 2004, I moved from Montreal to Ivrea to start a master’s degree in Interaction Design. Ivrea is an hour’s train ride north of Turin, just before you hit Aosta for a bit of skiing. If you weren’t an architecture buff, you’d be forgiven to think it was just a small insignificant Italian town. However from the 1920s, until his death in 1960, Adriano Olivetti ran the most successful Italian business of the region, one that made typewriters. Ninety thousand people worked for Olivetti in and around Ivrea. The company built buildings, houses and a swimming pool for its employees to work and live in among its many fascism-led social achievements.

This concern for the welfare of the workforce wasn’t new. In 1914, Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company, shocked his competitors at the time by paying his workers $5 (USD) a day. He instituted programs to teach his employees how to spend their new high wages responsibly, cut an hour off the standard workday and provided on-the-job educational facilities. Ford even tried to build cities and communities for his employees and creative workforce but was only able to accomplish this with mixed success.

In 1966, two months before his death, Walt Disney pushed the envelope even further by presenting to the city of Florida, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). This was to be a futuristic planned city (also known as Progress City). He envisioned a real working city with both commercial and residential areas, but one that also continued to showcase and test new ideas and concepts for urban living. Walt Disney said, “It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed.” EPCOT finally opened in 1982 and has remained popular since, welcoming nearly 11 million guests in 2010. Not bad for a business built on selling tickets for the movies.

What Ford, Olivetti and Disney shared was the desire to go beyond what the business did. They wanted to materialize the businesses outside of the corporate office. These cities, buildings and attraction parks were places where corporate ideals and social desires were made real. They wanted to be architects.

Adriano Olivetti, as an engineer, understood the importance of having an internal marketing team and building relationships with up-and-coming designers. He had the ability to see the advantage of collaboration in a corporate, paternal setting, something that comes with running a family business. He was 32 when he took over from his father and was named General Manager. As for Disney, his legacy was pushed through by his brother Roy until his death in 2009. The Ford family is still involved in parts of the business.

These dreams were dreams for everyone: the business, the cities they worked in, the political parties they supported. They were a time of ‘corporate utopia’ we seem to no longer be capable of. The word ‘utopia’, coined by Sir Thomas More as a paradise, partly comes from the Greek: (“not”) and (“place”) or, “no place.” Ideas that have no place, that do not belong.

Fast forward to 2012 and our relationship with corporations is very different. All you have to do is open a newspaper and read about Rupert Murdoch. Splashed all over the news since 2011, he represents a way of working that is now dead: family businesses ruled by corruption. Unfortunately, unlike Gail Wynand, he never commissioned a modernist building.

The banking industry is seldom a family affair but it’s got that Cosa Nostra thing about it that also explains levels of corruption we’re now bored with. They’ve read the The Fountainhead too, it seems, as large financial groups have fallen in love with architecture. The Shard in London is funded by the Halabi Group who were having trouble paying their bills four years ago but here it is, on time and pompous, despite the economic downturn. A ‘sod off’ to the Occupy movement in nearby Finsbury Square. It’s a political message made, not by business owners or politicians, but people with more money than sense. It’s not even the HQ of an interesting business, it’s an office building and a hotel that’s mostly empty.

Even in Silicon Valley, the winds are changing. Google has slowly been reducing their $8 a day investment in free food for employees, their biggest contribution to changing the face of corporate America. Zynga seems to have taken up the baton but for how many more years? Last June, Microsoft announced it will be asking their employees to contribute to their health care from 2013 on, after over 20 years of covering 100% of their medical bills.

The industry around technology and the Web isn’t as young and foolish as it once was, it’s growing up, but in a haphazard kind of way. In the current economic climate inspiration is best delivered online, not offline in the real world, and quickly. Large projects like Blueseed, “the Googleplex of the sea,” which could hypothetically last for 10 to 20 years, feel rushed and less ‘full of vision’ than the drawings for the EPCOT centre that Disney drew up in the 1950s. You just have to look at their concept vessels to realize that the intended audience for the project was not for people who might buy into the vision, rather, it was for investors who had no idea about visionary architecture. Build it quickly and they will come, it says. There is hope perhaps, not in the sea, but in the middle of the desert. Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, wants to redesign a part of Las Vegas to relocate their operations and revitalize parts of downtown:

When he was thinking of building a dream campus for Zappos, he initially thought of modeling it after Nike or Apple or Google. “We realized those campuses were actually really insular and didn’t contribute or interact with the community around them,” he says. “We decided to turn it inside out, and rather than invest in the campus solely, let’s invest in the community ecosystem, which will then feed upon itself and become a win-win-win for employees, for Zappos, for local businesses, for the city.”

It’s important to keep in mind that Tony Hsieh is now 36: to consider your community and its surroundings as part of the ecology of your business requires a change of mindset, one that comes with the ripening of an industry. It requires us to focus less on a ‘rock star’ model of innovation and more on a morally responsible one. One that is concerned with legacy, sustainability, with the long term, with organic physical growth and not just digital growth. If most dot-com successes were started by 20 somethings, they are now in their late 30s, more aware of their impact on the world and their local communities. They have partners, children and do school runs. As the industry gets older, so will its golden boys and girls, and their focus may shift outwards like Mr. Hsieh.

If future visions created between the 1900s and the 1960s by businesses have sometimes failed, it’s all the more exciting what the likes of Mark Zuckerberg might do in the next 10 years. While the young keep building iteratively and selling their companies, the pioneers and their peers might start looking beyond the screen into our streets, homes and cities to make them better and more exciting places to be.


Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a product and interaction designer and entrepreneur. She has been designing products for the “Internet of Things” since 2005. She co-founded Tinker London, runs a design consultancy Designswarm Industries and is the founder of the Good Night Lamp, a family of internet-connected lamps.

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