Toyota’s New Plano Headquarters Is an Architectural Camry: Safe but Boring

Staff Photographer

A rather forlorn bus stop sits on the sun-bleached curve of Plano’s Headquarters Drive, just a few yards from the entry to the new campus of the Toyota Motor Company of North America. On a recent August afternoon, I spied a lone woman waiting there uncomfortably in the heat, and found myself wondering just how long it would be until her bus came along.

Before that thought had time to germinate into larger questions about the location of this complex in the bosom of North Dallas corporate suburbia, an SUV pulled up and whisked her away. And it was a good thing, too. The ride just to DART’s Parker Road Station is nearly 40 minutes, and that’s if it’s running on schedule.

The headquarters of Toyota North America, in Plano. Corgan, Architects.

It was telling that she was not waiting for the bus at the bus stop. If you are working at Toyota, it is presumed you will arrive by car, which is perhaps understandable, at least from the company’s perspective — it is, after all, an automaker. (If you are, say, a janitor commuting from southern Dallas, it’s a lot less than ideal.) By next year, some 4,000 employees will be based on the 100-acre campus, and there will be plenty of room for them to park. Four garages surround its buildings, with additional surface lots in front and in the rear, space enough for 6,547 cars.

Atop those garages are vast arrays of solar panels, more than 20,000 of them, that will power the complex, with any shortfall supplied by Texas wind farms. The project, designed by the Dallas-based architectural firm Corgan, aims toward LEED Platinum status, the highest environmental standard. It is nevertheless reasonable to ponder whether the campus of a company that makes automobiles — even electric ones — and that is poorly served by public transit can be considered “green.”

It is possible that this will be mitigated by the rise of autonomous, self-driving vehicles in the future (but if that will mean fewer drivers, why the need for all that parking?) and credit Toyota for its leadership in the field of hybrid vehicles.

But for all of the company’s technological advancement, Toyota’s new headquarters is very much rooted in a particular architectural tradition, a form of corporate modernism that emerged in the postwar years when the managerial class abandoned the industrial American city for the bucolic comforts of suburbia.

Look at northern Dallas from above — the satellite view of Google maps is especially handy — and you will see a patchwork of these corporate estates, generally on arterials not far off the Dallas North Tollway and U.S. Highway 75.

Legacy, the planned business development in Plano where Toyota is based, might just be the epicenter. Several Fortune 500 companies call it home; there are several on Headquarters Drive, as its name suggests. Just across the road from Toyota’s campus is the landscaped home of Frito-Lay. And so a titan of automobiles sits adjacent to a titan of junk food, both apparently benign in their pastoral environs, and never mind the hazards their products pose to public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32,000 Americans are killed every year in auto accidents, and another 2 million injured. Add bad diet to all that driving time and the problem is exacerbated: In Texas, nearly 35 percent of adults have obesity, according to the CDC.

North Dallas is a headquarters magnet, but it is Silicon Valley that has spawned the new generation of backward-looking corporate design of which Toyota’s headquarters is representative. It is a development not short on hypocrisy: While preaching the gospel of the decentralization and openness born of the internet, tech industry giants including Apple, Google and Facebook have all recently consolidated operations in signature suburban facilities.

These campuses pretend toward urbanism — with open spaces and retail options — but of a hermetic kind that is closed off to the public. In this, Toyota is no different. Indeed, Corgan’s architects visited the darlings of Silicon Valley corporate modernism, including Frank Gehry’s Facebook mothership in Menlo Park, when they were envisioning their design.

A small store for employees (top) operates on campus at the Toyota headquarters. The entrance to the pharmacy and convenience store run by Wal-Mart (below) is next to a Be Well medical clinic.

You might not know this to see it from the road, however. The first impression, from Headquarters Drive, is of an upscale but rather anonymous office complex. Matching the arc of the road is a long, low reception building clad in broad horizontal panes of black-tinted automotive glass above a base of beige stone. All of the campus buildings are similarly dressed in this black glass — some 12 acres of it — manufactured by the same Minnesota company that makes the windshields for Toyota’s vehicles.

That detail aside, the effect is largely impersonal. Toyota worked through an intermediary on the project, the Dallas-based developer KDC, which in part explains its conservatism. Instead of something extravagant, like the futuristic doughnut Norman Foster designed for Apple in Cupertino, Toyota opted for an aesthetic closer to its own spirit: dependable, efficient and comfortable, if lacking in inspiration. Think of it as the architectural equivalent of a Camry.

As on a college campus, the buildings are arranged around landscaped open areas. There are six main buildings, each five stories tall, accommodating Toyota’s financial services division, its Lexus brand, its information technology division and an engineering research center, complete with a looping quarter-mile “check road” (don’t call it a test track) at the rear of the 2.1 million-square-foot complex. You can get a good view of the $350 million project from a broad, covered terrace on the front building, which has pleasant seating areas beneath a large oculus in the roof above.

Those interstitial open spaces are designed by the Office of James Burnett, the landscape architect of Klyde Warren Park. The sensibility here is quite different, however. While that downtown park is an assemblage of disparate elements drawn from other places, here the theme is very much localized to Texas, with an artificial creek running down its center (it is fed by collected rainwater) and flanked by large blocks of rough-cut beige stone from Lueders.

The idea is to draw people out into the open, an objective that is somewhat undercut by the fact that the buildings that ring that landscape are linked at ground level. Along that passageway are the various amenities that feed the impression of urbanity: a Starbucks, a health center, a credit union, a dry cleaner, a convenience store (run by Wal-Mart), a fitness club with a two-story climbing wall, and a dining hall with seven food-preparation stations. What it doesn’t have is any kind of child care for working parents.

Walking along this corridor feels like wandering through an airport. It is anodyne and gray, accented here and there by sitting areas and the occasional work of art. The space itself is modern but not in the seamlessly minimal way that is characteristic of so much contemporary Japanese architecture, with its white planes and sheer lines.

Although they do serve sushi in the cafeteria, there is pointedly no Japanese influence on the design of the campus. When I asked a Toyota representative about this, I was virtually reprimanded.

“This is Toyota Motors of North America,” she said, emphasizing the last two of those words.

Indeed, the workspaces themselves look very much like those that that have become standard in corporate offices across this continent: bright, with quadrants of desks in mostly open plans, and lots of meeting rooms and lounge spaces to promote collaboration. Centrally located stairs encourage people to move around, which is particularly important at a complex that essentially demands its employees commute by car.

The architects have even thought to reduce the number of garbage cans, both in an effort to reduce waste and to get people out of their seats. There is little customization: Flexibility is a central design principle, such that work areas can be easily reconfigured should the company decide to shift use patterns.

Spacious and open office spaces in Toyota’s new North American headquarters campus in Plano.

Or, frankly, it could someday leave altogether, when corporate America accedes to some new paradigm of architectural planning. For the moment, however, it is very much reflective of who we are as a city, a region and a nation. We like the idea of environmental sensitivity, of sustainability, of public transit and urban connectivity.

But we also like our cars and our junk food and the comfortable lifestyle that the automobile makes possible. And we like these things especially when the costs they entail — on the environment, on the disadvantaged, on our own bodies — are discreetly camouflaged, out of sight and out of mind.

Editor’s note: Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.

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