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Working life.

Loss of a sense of place in the modern office is one of the results of contemporary management systems and increasingly frenetic flows of capital and information. This issue looks at architectural resistance to the trend: buildings for work that still celebrate human values.

There is an almost uncanny similarity between many contemporary expressions of the world of work and the metaphorical arid plain of much Post-Modern thought where everything has equal value, so there can be no directions or pathways. It is no accident that Deconstructionism emerged in the philosophy schools at the same time as received perceptions of space and time began to be dissolved by the revolutions in communications and capital flow. In many ways, the workplace is the arena of contemporary life in which these developments can be seen most clearly.

At the moment, the most obvious instance of the effects of such forces on environments for working in is the hot-desk office, where no-one (except perhaps the few at the very top of the pyramid) has a regular workplace, but each takes a desk as and when it is needed. In some ways, this can be seen as a welcome release from the highly disciplined offices of the first part of this century, with their ethos and layout derived partly from (in our terms) quite primitive industrial organisations, or from military command structures (a strong pattern in an era when two mass wars were fought within a couple of decades of each other). The hot-desking system allows the organisation to maximise the use of its plant, and it can permit individual workers to work flexibly, using centralised or distant facilities as they need them. Ernst Giselbrecht's media centre at Bregenz, Austria (p73) is a case in point, where the journalists use the most up-to-date portable computers connected to headquarters whenever occasion demands by systems of communication so efficient that they could not be anticipated even a decade ago. In effect, the workplace is where the lap-top is, a mobile world in which differences between the individual's space and time and those of the organisation are blurred in a way new to most office workers: in the open-plan prairie of hot desks, individual behaviour can be scrutinised with even more efficiency than the prisoners who were observed in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon,(1) and the activities of out-of-office workers can be surveyed electronically with almost equal precision. At the same time, work in general moves and changes from country to country with ever increasing freneticism as capital chases low-cost labour(2) round the globe. This is the placeless world of Post-Modernism.

Manuel Castells calls it 'the space of flows' which, he says, 'is not the Orwellian prophecy of a totalitarian universe controlled by Big Brother on the basis of information technologies. It is a much more subtle, and to some extent potentially more destructive form of social disintegration and reintegration ... social meaning evaporates from places, and therefore from society, and becomes diluted and diffused in the reconstructed logic of a space of flows whose profile, origin and ultimate purpose are unknown'.(3) This analysis is very worrying and can lead to the kind of fashionable nihilism embraced by architects like Koolhaas and Eisenman, which in many ways is no more than a whole-hearted celebration of the new values. Plainly, the espousal of the new system and abandonment of traditional human values and notions of place have brought the faux avant-garde much fame and work.

The example is copied by thousands of lesser talents, and now has some of the uncriticised influence among students which PoMo enjoyed 10 or 15 years ago. Such uncritical worship of new technology and organisations resembles that of the interwar Modern Movement. But there is a crucial difference: then, most architects had a burning belief that technology and industry could be harnessed to create a world that would be better for everyone to live in. Now we are frightened of the potential of technology and the mighty market. Together, they are more powerful than any individual or even nation: the harsh choice appears to be between collaboration, or resistance to organisations indifferent to human values which, though (as Castells points out) do not employ murder and torture like those of dictatorships (or at least only in remote countries), are as powerful, and perhaps ultimately more destructive of the spirit of the individual and society.

Yet however powerless architects may feel, however marginalised our traditional concerns with place-making may seem, we are not bound to despair. Castells argues that 'the issue ... becomes how to articulate the meaning of places to this new functional space [of flows]'.(4) He suggests the need for 'symbolic marking of places', and the cultivation of local societies linked to generate a broad social framework - using the communication systems of the space of flows for human ends. David Harvey, the most comprehensive analyst of the Post-Modern condition, believes that there is hope in the increasing 'recognition that the dimensions of space and time matter, and that there are real geographies of social action, real as well as metaphorical territories and spaces of power'.(5)

Clearly, there is a job for people who make places in such a scenario. But the architect's role is far removed from that of director of the social play to which the profession so arrogantly aspired in the middle of this century - it is more a humble member of the resistance than leader of the revolution. Yet it is nobler than the trade of exterior decorator which the practitioners of PoMo adopted with such avaricious fervour in the '80s.

The buildings shown in this issue illustrate the new role. They are more modest than many shown in previous issues on workplace: none is very big; none proposes a radical re-evaluation of the office and its life, as Niels Torp did with his SAS headquarters in Stockholm (AR March 1989) or Ralph Erskine envisioned when he launched his Ark (AR July 1992).(6) Several, particularly the German ones, are variants on institutional rows of cellular offices along corridors(7) (we must, it seems, deal with either the electronically windswept hot-desk desert, or the labyrinth of Kafka's Castle). But all manipulate these basic types to provide three-dimensional lattices of potential places. And all have special moments which make them memorable: places which celebrate arrival, social eating, meeting, or conversation. They show how human values can be injected into commonplace and sometimes dispiritingly reductive programmes. And, though most are designed for individual clients, they have lessons to offer for even the most mundane speculative projects.

1 The ideal Utilitarian prison in which the custodian dwelt in a central tower, always and unexpectedly able to observe the activities of the prisoners in a ring of cells round it. I do not mean to imply by this that Giselbrecht's building is like a prison; his system offers many degrees of transparency and opacity in the general office spaces.

2 Low paid, or highly productive, preferably both.

3 Castells, Manuel The Informational City, Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA, 1993, p349.

4 Ibid, p350.

5 Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA, 1990, p355.

6 This most thoughtful and humane building was built by an extraordinarily idealistic developer in London's Hammersmith as a speculative development. Naturally, in the climate of recession and shortsighted management that prevailed in Britain in the early 1990s, it was not tenanted for a long time. Now, Seagram's have taken the building (see The Architects' Journal 31.10.96).

7 Despite (or perhaps because) many of the most humane and influential developments in open planning like Burolandschaft emerged in Germany, most official organisations (and even NGOs) there build cellular offices (see for instance pp45 and 50).
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Title Annotation:construction of modern offices
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Words:1300
Previous Article:Designing for the Disabled: The New Paradigm.
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