Dearborn, Michigan, grew up alongside Ford. The automaker was born here. He built his factories here in the 1910s. The eponymous corporation’s global headquarters was completed here in the mid-1950s. And now, Ford’s presence in Dearborn is set to evolve again—as its 64-year-old research and engineering campus is completely overhauled over the next eight years.
Ford’s campus, like those of other American carmakers, feels like a city designed for cars, by cars. An endless parade of new automobiles driven arrive each morning—some of them prototypes, many just the preferred means of transit by proud employees of a car company—and they always find a parking spot. Not necessarily because parking is convenient, but because the parking spots are endless. And as employees go from meeting to meeting throughout their workdays, they usually drive. It’s too far to the next building anyway. It’s no wonder that much of America, crafted around the golden age of vehicle design, is similarly paved, unwalkable, and shaped to the ergonomics of four-wheeled vehicles.
When Ford was considering an update to this aging campus a few years ago, it was doing so in a much different cultural, political, and environmental climate than the one that had produced it in the 1950s. Today, the world’s greatest cities are simply becoming too dense for cars. Personal transit is clearly trending electric, self-driving, and in many cases, just plain smaller than it’s been. We live in the age of electric scooters and bike shares filling the gaps between the subway and someone’s workplace. The car of the future might not be a car at all but a gradient of mobility solutions, perhaps used on shared services like Uber and Lyft. By comparison, Ford’s monolithic, glass office tower and sprawling corporate campus designed by iconic midcentury architects Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois in the ’50s are a monument to a different time.
Recognizing all of this, Ford hired the Norwegian-American architecture firm Snøhetta to design an all-new campus, which will be constructed in several phases over the next eight or so years. It’s easy to interpret the project—and the choice of architect—as symbolic for the 116-year-old automaker. Snøhetta designs buildings that are in a close harmony with their environment. The firm is noted for its context-sensitive approach to architecture and landscape design both—it’s also known for designing super-efficient buildings (which it calls “Powerhouses”) that generate twice the energy they use.