The Story of Saarinen's John Deere Headquarters
He met with Saarinen and the project team on site and worked on the exact placement of the building. As part of the site planning process, Sasaki raised balloons to outline the building configuration and placement. This enabled the design team to fully integrate the building and site.
The dramatic entry drive beginning at Coal Town Road, paved and later renamed John Deere Expressway, presented the entire landscape. Sasaki's project manager, Stuart Dawson, worked and reworked the interior road system through an iterative process of repeated grading and modeling.
This evolutionary process resulted in a roadway that is an active element in the experience of the landscape, orchestrating the views to maximum effect.
The looping driveway lassoed the building complex, moving from the ravine bottom at the road intersection, rising along the ravine embankments and revealing stunning views across the ponds to the building facades, banking upward into the woodland landscape, eventually arriving at the principal parking lots disclosed at the last possible moment, and then dropping back down again to encircle the building complex at the rear to provide service access.
Besides the manicured upper pond, Sasaki conceived of the rest of the landscape as a native woodland: oaks and maples, complemented with understory shrubs and contrasted with meadows of unmown grasses. Only 30 acres immediately surrounding the building and upper pond were to be mown and obviously tended; the remaining 690 acres were to be left as they grew.
Although the existing trees on site inspired Saarinen's concept of the building (after his death, Hewitt dedicated a large oak Saarinen particularly admired as a memorial), the site was sparsely wooded to begin with, and in the first years, over a thousand trees were lost to Dutch elm disease.
The landscape concept required tree planting to an extent unprecedented in Dawson's experience, with thousands of trees planted in the first years and assiduous replacement as necessary in the years thereafter.
The landscape design would function peculiarly and particularly to smooth the way for Saarinen's daring building, which went beyond the new modernist aesthetic of the era to an even more provocative expression of functionalism and mass-produced, industrial materiality. Saarinen used the cage of Cor-Ten steel not only as an exterior manifestation of structural members but to form exterior louvers over the banks of glass wrapping the building's seven floors.
As Saarinen explained: "Having selected the site because of the beauty of nature, we were especially anxious to take full advantage of the views from the offices. To avoid curtains or Venetian blinds, which would obscure the views, we worked out a system of sun-shading with metal louvers and specified reflective glass to prevent glare."
Saarinen also considered that the glass-paneled bridge connections between the main building and the wings "should give the users a wonderful sense of actually being up in the trees."
Saarinen's choices for the exterior manipulation of the Cor-Ten certainly expressed the building's horizontal straddle of the ravine, binding it into the surrounding landscape.
After the building's completion, the rust's organic, earthy patina would elicit fortuitous recollections of both the surrounding tree trunks and the color of plowed fields, but at the outset, the unproven concept was easily perceived as bizarre.
Hewitt later recalled his engineers' reactions: "[They] were a little alarmed, thinking 'We've been warning farmers against rust for 120 years, and now Hewitt wants to build a big rusty building — and make us work in it.'"
Displaying a rare loyalty, Hewitt did not waver in his support of Saarinen. As Dawson assesses it, "There was not another industrialist who would have agreed to a rusty building."
Louise A. Mozingo is a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a practicing landscape architect for nearly a decade.
This article is excerpted from Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes by Louise A. Mozingo, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, the MIT Press.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...