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2 March 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 7:35am

What Ford’s new headquarters tells us about the future of transport

The company that built the culture of universal car ownership is planning for a world where no one owns a car.

By Allison Arieff

The first Ford car, the Model T, was produced in 1908. It wasn’t the first car, but it became one of the most transformative inventions the world had ever seen, radically altering economic growth, the built environment and American culture. The Model T, and the subsequent development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, gave rise to the American Dream, which has dictated the aspirations of every generation since.

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A century later, Ford was still around – an achievement in itself – but it was far from innovative. Its cars sold (the F series truck is one of the top-selling cars of all time), but they sold because of reliability and a globally recognisable brand.

When the new mobility revolution hit in the 2000s with the arrival of Tesla, Uber and a growing sense that the future would be moved by everything from scooters to autonomous vehicles to flying taxis, Ford was unprepared. Behind the scenes, its priorities began to shift.

By 2017, the market intelligence company Navigant Research placed Ford at the top spot of companies working on autonomous cars, not only ahead of tech companies such as the Alphabet-owned Waymo but also other car manufacturers such as GM and Toyota. The findings led the tech website The Verge to observe that, in the race to build a self-driving car, “Detroit is kicking Silicon Valley’s ass”.

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Over many years writing about tech headquarters, I’ve often observed that while technology is fast, architecture is slow. The difference in speed between these two essential elements of corporate identity means that by the time the “most technologically advanced campus ever!” is finished, the company has already sent several iterations of the iPhone to market. It’s almost impossible to future-proof a building, and they can’t be easily replaced like gadgets.

So it is with the proposed Ford campus in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford’s first headquarters here was a 12-storey, International Style building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Chicago firm responsible for several icons of postwar modernism including Chase Manhattan Bank and Lever House. The address was One American Road.

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The glass and steel building opened in 1956, the year the conservative columnist George Will described as “the peak of American confidence”. It was the man in the grey flannel suit in architectural form.

Detroit and its metropolitan area, which includes the city of Dearborn, was then at the centre of the American economic universe. It was not difficult to recruit employees to Michigan: there were jobs at all levels of entry, from factory work to car design to upper management. But in the 60 years since the opening of the Glass House, as the car giant’s Dearborn headquarters became known, the job landscape and Ford itself have changed dramatically.

Like other companies – not just car companies, but banks, retailers, publishers and energy providers – Ford has sought to keep pace by becoming a tech company. Nowhere is this intent more evident than in the designs for Ford’s new expanded $1.2bn headquarters.

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Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is still designing corporate headquarters, but this time, Ford chose the edgier Snøhetta. A Norwegian firm known for its ultramodern designs for the San Francisco MOMA and the Norwegian Opera House, it was tapped to be lead architect, landscape architect and master planner. The project brief describes a Silicon Valley of the Midwest, based on “integration, interaction and co-location” and designed “to advance Ford’s vision to serve customers through a winning portfolio, new propulsion choices, autonomous technology and mobility services”.

No mention of cars in there.

The renderings at this stage look like a mash-up of Silicon Valley’s greatest hits: the low-slung forms evoke Bjarke Ingels Group’s Mountain View Googleplex; the amenities are reminiscent of the “Main Street” on Facebook’s campus; and there even appears to be a sort of mini version of Norman Foster’s Apple doughnut.

That Ford, in embracing its tech-led future, is emulating the typologies of the Valley is not surprising. What’s more interesting is that the company, which for a century embodied the dream of universal car ownership, now appears to recognise that the car as we know it is nearing obsolescence.

Ford has invested robustly in things such as ride-sharing and e-bikes over the last few years. Its huge investments in technology – such as a $29bn, five-year programme to develop electric and autonomous vehicles – are not aimed at personal ownership, but mobility services.

Moving from The Car to mobility (or “new propulsion choices”) means that this is an HQ designed for people, not cars. The new Ford campus, the architects explain, is “pedestrian-focused and transit-rich, connected directly to amenities”. The Glass House was built around a three-storey parking garage with 1,500 spaces and multiple routes to the expressway. The new campus employs “a shared transportation loop, limiting personal vehicular access to the site’s perimeter.”

Ford is in the strange position of being famous for a product it isn’t planning to sell for much longer. Still, you have to hand it to them for seeing the writing on the wall.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fast transition to remote working (of white-collar jobs, at least) throws a wrench into Ford’s plans. The company has planned for a radically changed economy and the end of car ownership, but it has not planned for a world in which people do not commute at all. If such changes are permanent, then the new campus may represent, before it is even built, a work culture that is already a thing of the past.