Changing office

Jeremy Myerson charts the history of office design, from management control to individual freedom.

It is quite possible to review recent developments in office design entirely through the prism of a dynamic tension between the organisation and the individual. Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1904 Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York set the tone for the modern workplace – its towering atrium with corporate slogans signalling the dominant role of the corporation over the individual – designers and architects have tended to give priority to management efficiency over personal fulfilment.

What the Larkin mail-order company did at the time was to adapt the draconian Taylorist time-and-motion methods of factory management to its largely female workforce. This orthodoxy of management control at the expense of individual comfort went virtually unchallenged for the next 85 years.

From the modernist bullpens in the sky of the Fifties to the sealed environments in deep space of the Eighties, which produced their very own sick building syndrome, any notion of more relaxed or comfortable work was sacrificed on the altar of organisational demands. Even the gurus of business process re-engineering took a giant spanner to organisational systems and structures with no regard for the effect on the individual worker.

But the more the Nineties have progressed, the more management theorists and workplace designers have started to entertain the idea that the old Miesian concept of an office as “a machine for working in” has real human limitations. The notion of “relaxed work” has begun to emerge. This is more in tandem with the driver of new technology, which has uncoupled work from the workplace and given us the ability to work any time, any place, than as any real deep-rooted response to individual needs.

It can be found in the social science papers of workplace psychologists which suggest that gossiping and flirting at work can actually be beneficial, not harmful to office morale and productivity. It can also be seen in some of the blueprints for new office designs which reinvent the office as gallery, coffee house and club.

These new, more relaxed offices are, of course, deceptive. They tend not to be the workplaces of giant oil or pharmaceutical companies with large traditional white-collar workforces. They are staffed almost exclusively by young, educated and motivated people who work in creative or deregulated industries such as advertising, management consultancy or broadcasting.

Two of the best known new-wave offices in New York belong to advertising agency Chiat/Day and children’s cable television company Nickelodeon – the former designed to spectacular material effect by Gaetano Pesce, the latter an exercise in interior landscaping by architect Fernau Hartman.

It is no surprise that both of these case studies find their way into Francis Duffy’s latest magnum opus, The New Office. Duffy is one of the world’s leading authorities on office design and architecture, using his base in Britain and his global consulting role as chairman of DEGW to explore the differences between what he describes as the North American and North European traditions in office design.

Wright’s 1904 Larkin Building marked the start of a North American tradition which, according to Duffy, used office architecture to express the importance of corporate discipline above all else. This approach has dominated city skylines and been widely emulated in the UK.

The northern European tradition – in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia – has been much less of a city centre, high-rise phenomenon and much more influenced by the needs of the worker. This is due to the relative strength of workers’ councils in these countries, as well as the centuries-old evolution of north European cities. ©

If you compare the Johnson Wax or Seagram buildings in the US with Herman Hertzberger’s 1972 Centraal Beheer insurance offices at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, Ton Alberts’ 1987 ING Bank in Amsterdam, or Niels Torp’s 1988 SAS headquarters just outside Stockholm, then you can immediately see what Duffy is talking about. While the individual roles of office workers in the great iconic US offices of the 20th century have been totally overshadowed, European themes have increasingly stressed participation, circulation, openness and relaxation.

It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the impetus to greater physical and psychological comfort in offices is a trend being led entirely by north European design. Young US companies such as Nickelodeon are now exploring more relaxed work settings with a real vigour. And Duffy points to the Broadgate development in London, 1985-90, as trail-blazing a new approach which derives from neither the North American tradition (which is “too inhuman and too fundamentally unpopular with users”) nor the north European tradition (which is too narrow in culture and “too expensive to be competitive”).

Broadgate reinvigorated the office design debate in Britain and we are now reaping the benefits. Six of the 20 exemplary “new offices” described in Duffy’s book are British. In a way it is possible to view Duffy’s substantial career and long record of publishing about the office as an attempt to reconcile the changing corporate needs of organisation with the ever-present demands of the individual for a greater say.

Duffy was a founder of DEGW in the early Seventies at a time when consumer rights and workers’ rights were on the rise in Britain – and at least some of that flavour influenced the practice’s strong commitment to user consultation and participation. But Duffy and his colleagues had also spent time working amid the commercially-driven realities of the North American office design scene – they learnt at first hand how client organisations were in a constant state of change and how time and space related to each other.

DEGW’s vast armoury of intellectual tools to assess how organisations occupy offices, to classify generic building types so that comparisons can be made, and to measure and evaluate the response of buildings to the needs of their users over time, are replayed to considerable effect in The New Office. One of the most powerful tools dates back to Duffy’s Princeton doctoral thesis of the late Sixties. This is a simple and elegant theory based on two organisational variables – interaction and autonomy – which remains enormously relevant today.

Traditionally, the modern office from Larkin onwards has been a place of low individual autonomy over work and low interaction with others. This produces the office factory or “hive”, as Duffy calls it. The “den” defines a setting in which highly interactive groups such as project teams would work closely together (high interaction, low autonomy). The “cell” is a setting in which a worker of some skill and responsibility would be involved in highly concentrated, autonomous work requiring little interaction with others. The “club” offers a rich and complex setting where sophisticated and highly autonomous “knowledge workers” could interact constantly with each other.

Clearly the opportunities for relaxed work occur most clearly in the interaction-high autonomy model of the “club” (BT at Stockley Park, IBM at Bedfont Lakes, and the British Airways Compass Centre at Heathrow Airport are UK examples). But the “den” also provides expression for the individual, albeit within a team framework. Ron Heron’s Imagination Building, Richard Rogers’ Channel 4 headquarters, and the Michaelides & Bednash media office, all in London, are Duffy’s pick of the UK in this category.

Work at Michaelides & Bednash, designed by architect Buschow Henley, is described by one employee in The New Office as “like sitting around one big coffee table”. Quite a change from Buffalo 1904, but Duffy’s brush with the bigger global corporation also suggests that, while new ideas are being explored which redress the balance between organisation and individual, managements still largely hold the whip hand.

The New Office by Francis Duffy is published by Conran Octopus, priced 50

Latest articles