LANDSCAPES, LIKE BOOKS, tell stories, and corporate landscapes come in all sorts of narrative shapes and sizes. Microsoft's campus, says Kristina Hill, assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington, contains a "rhetoric of knowledge, of the university." An older but more provocative landscape sits in the woods in Federal Way, where Weyerhaeuser opened its present headquarters in 1971. The landscape group for the site, headed by Peter Walker, then of Sasaki Walker and Associates, recently won the annual Classic Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for its work. The headquarters, which can be seen from I-5 and Highway 18, "represented a major shift in the way landscape architecture, architecture, and corporate identity relate to one another." It also serves as a testament to both the expressive power of landscape and the subtlety of that expression.
The long, low, gray cement building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, spans a depression in the land between two slight hills. Its five floors, each a different length, are terraced, so that the building steps back as it elevates. Each terrace—the roof for the floor below it—is planted end-to-end in ivy, which grows over the horizontal cement lines of the building. Sashless glass walls separate the terraces, and the floors inside have open plans—that is, they are without closed offices, a layout that was revolutionary at the time. Acting as a dam, the building holds an artificial lake on its north side; the south side of the headquarters faces a large, inviting meadow. A second-growth mix of Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar forms rough perspective lines that frame the building on both sides, much as 17th-century French landscapes of trees framed palaces.
Professor Hill, who was on the jury for the ASLA awards, says that two particular aspects of the design made the Weyerhaeuser world headquarters landscape groundbreaking: the substitution of a meadow for the typical corporate lawn of the time and the distinctive siting of the building. She explains that "because the land comes up on the two sides, the building seems contained within the landscape, rather than having the landscape contained between the building and the parking lot. So that was a change in the hierarchy that we usually think about in terms of spaces."
This shake-up of hierarchies works beautifully. The ivy spread across the terraces blends the building into the deep green hills and woods around it. (Though at the moment the ivy doesn't quite create this effect; due to some leaking problems last year, the ivy had to be taken out, the concrete rewaterproofed, and the ivy replanted. As it grows, it will again cover the concrete.) The glass walls sometimes reflect the trees and other times draw one's eyes straight through the open plan of the building to the trees on the other side. In both cases, the building acts as a means of displaying the woods.
Today, the lines of evergreens framing the headquarters have grown taller than the building. Peter Walker, principal designer for the project and now with Peter Walker and Partners, writes with Melanie Simo in Invisible Gardens that "viewed from the highway, the building and the landscape seem to merge so that barriers and boundaries disappear." What one notices, he continues, are "a few natural elements that seem to dominate: water, sky, and forests of Douglas fir." The site tells a story about a company that respects, even defers to, the woods.
NATURALLY, THIS READING suits Weyerhaeuser. Frank Mendizabal, the company's director of media relations, says, "This building, it's subservient to the landscape, fits into the landscape, is in concert with its place. That kind of quality is what it symbolizes."
The story written in the Weyerhaeuser landscape, however, is more complex than that. While Weyerhaeuser is an author of its site, as are the architects and the landscape designers, it can only have so much control over a viewer's interpretation of the area. Matthew Potteiger and Jamie Purinton explain in their book Landscape Narratives how a landscape allows for even greater reader control than a book does: "With few protocols for reading a landscape from right to left or front to back, the viewer enters at different points, is free to pause, take in the whole image, inspect its parts, or review. This changes the traditional relationship between author, text, and reader, where the author exerts control over the telling. Instead, the spatial narrative is more about showing, relinquishing control to the viewer/reader who must put together sequences, fill in the gaps, and decipher the meaning."
As many of us would, Professor Hill fills in the gaps by referring back to the company's day-to-day operations, which complicate the story offered by the site. "The fact is," she says, "that it's Weyerhaeuser, and they're in the business of cutting down trees—old growth trees in particular—and then replacing them either with monoculture trees or houses or resorts. I find there to be a real contrast between the actual activities the company is engaged in and the message of the design, which is that 'we're benign.' And yet, who has more incentive out of all companies to make themselves seem environmentally benign in their symbol of themselves than a company which actually is not?"
Given her knowledge of plants as well as design, Hill can take her reading even further. She explains that English ivy is one of the most severe invasive plant problems in the woods of the Northwest. "So," says Hill, "at the same time that Weyerhaeuser is saying, 'We are environmentally benign,' they are speccing one of the plants that is one of the worst problems in ecological restorations." The ivy, which spreads up trees and eventually kills them with its weight, can be seen as a symbol for destruction of the woods. Presumably Weyerhaeuser didn't intend to plant anything that could yield such a reading, and yet the symbol is available in the landscape. In much the way that a deconstructionist reader of a novel would, Hill reveals an inherent contradiction in the site/text—one that perhaps tells a more honest story about the company than does its intended straightforward reading.
It stands to reason that Weyerhaeuser would want its headquarters to promote an image of itself as respectful of, even deferential to, the woods that supply the raw materials of its wealth. It is an image the company itself seems to believe, and it comes through to great effect in what former president and CEO Jack Creighton deservedly calls a "masterpiece" of a site, just as it does in the stories Weyerhaeuser tells in its written promotional materials. But the richness of landscape as a medium is such that it opens itself to more participatory readings. And the true depth of stimulation to be found at the headquarters in the woods in Federal Way is a measure of the eyes the viewer can bring to them.