Work Situations and Places
A chronological review of the places where work has been carried out brings to light a multiplicity of ideas and practices corresponding to the discussion of work itself (Part 1) and adds a little more focus to the picture of what work means.
Scriptorium : pre 14th century
Among the earliest administrative organisational models outside of the domestic frame were those associated with ecclesiastical and university functions in Europe of the Middle Ages. One example is the scriptorium, a room set aside for writing. In monasteries where early scriptoriums appeared and talking was usually forbidden, teams of scribes made copies of a text that may have come from an adjoining library. So, from the 6th to the 12th century there was a place of work that was often a singular open space with multiple desks occupied by workers all assigned to a common task. Incidentally, this proto office dissipated somewhat in the 13th and 14th centuries when the practice of “putting out” began and the scribes were replaced by private scholars who earned income working by a window at home copying texts – a type of cottage industry that sheds light on the origins of “piece-work”.
Tracking similar organisational models there are also important historical records that reveal something of the world of 15th century Florentine city administration. In Goro Dati’s contemporary account we find the office holders representing the numerous guilds, the signori and priori inhabiting a place of work (and residence) conspicuously unlike anything we know:
During their two months in office the priori reside in the government palace, where they eat, sleep, and assemble each day to discuss and decide the good of the commune. Each member of the signori is assigned a room in the government palace (the Palazzo della Signoria (c1320) – now the Palazzo Vecchio) according to his rank and the district from which he comes; the best room is reserved for the standard bearer.
Palazzo Vecchio (14th – 16th century) Florence
Michelozzo Palazzo Medici-Ricardi (1444 onwards) Florence
From this point forward the archetypal Florentine Palazzo such as Michelozzo’s Palazzo Medici-Ricardi (1444) established itself as the visual trope par excellence for the architecture of administration, banking and commerce almost to the present day. For example, the same architectural type was used for Bernini’s Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi in Rome (begun 1644), John Soane’s Bank of England (1788-1833), JJ Clark’s Treasury Building, Melbourne (1858) as well as in early period Chicago skyscrapers such as Holabird and Roche’s Marquette (1894) and Adler and Sullivan’s Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis.
Bank of England (1788-1833) London
Treasury Building (1858)Melbourne
In late 19th century Chicago however it’s important to note that there were other, more pragmatic, considerations which eclipse the palazzo typology and have a greater bearing on the 20th and 21st century experience of the place of work . It was here that the self-confident design of work space interiors launched the long tradition of being closely aligned to building functional and environmental prerogatives as much as anything else. The late 19th century Chicago buildings were vehicles for real estate investment, they had to make money from renting space to commercial tenants who, in turn, had to make money via the productivity of their staff. At the same time a “downtown” conglomeration of office buildings became a possibility. In the second half of the 19th century office technologies such as the typewriter, the telegram, Morse code, the mail service and the teleprinter made a separation of administrative offices from places of production possible for the first time.
First Leiter Building (1879) Chicago
Post Chicago Fire buildings such as the First Leiter Building (William Le Baron Jenny, 1879) were stripped down and functional contrivances designed to maximise rentable floor space and allow access to natural light (gas lighting was the only option available until it was replaced by electric lighting in the 1890s). The typical floor plan shows a steel frame structure, two lifts, a stair and toilets inside a perimeter of large windows to let as much light in as possible.
Marquette Building (1894) Chicago
Two decades later the larger Marquette Building (Holabird and Roche, 1894) adopted a U shaped plan derived from a double loaded corridor of individual and cellular offices creating a 52 feet overall wing dimension which other projects replicated. By now the focus on (office) labour and the practise of how to best organise it to maximise productivity was becoming codified. Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labour first appeared in 1776 and by 1900 it had filtered into industrial production in nascent forms of the assembly line, particularly in the US. At the same time bureaucratic tasks were reaching an increased level of complexity.
Larkin Building (1904) Buffalo
In the infamous Larkin Building (1904) Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled an adaptation of the industrial production model to office building design. He designed rows of workstations and a system of uniform climate within in a vast centralised interior space and established a new office model in the process. As Inaki Abalos and Juan Herreros note:
Creating an artificially controlled environment using incandescent lights, heating, conditioned and reticulated air, would free the worker from physical dependence on the exterior environment.
Looking at the interior pictures of the Larkin Building it’s remarkable to see the absence of external windows that a standing – let alone seated – adult could see out of. Certainly this would have helped relieve the inhabitants of their dependence on the outside world. Writing about the building, Henry-Russell Hitchcock refers to “… the grim industrial backwater of Buffalo” implying that there may not have been anything to look out onto anyway. However, he identifies Wrights true intent in saying:
… it is open at the sides merely to let in light, not so that space may flow freely between the inside and the out. For the outside environment is instead shut out. Indeed the building was perhaps the first to be truly sealed….
Johnson & Son Administration Building (1939) Racine, Wisconsin
Wright’s Larkin Building was a breakthrough in many ways. It’s often mentioned as a project of firsts: the first fully air-conditioned building and one of the first to address bureaucratic complexity with a design to accommodate the division of labour. At the same time its most audacious proposition was an interior totally disconnected from the outside world in spite of it being a free-standing building set back from its boundaries. Tellingly, Wright reproduced this interior space in the Johnson & Son Administration Building (Racine, Wisconsin 1939), but it was not widely taken up by other architects. The aspiration for a highly focussed central space whose occupants are relieved of distractions is self-evident in both the Larkin and Johnson projects. Significantly it is also apparent in Wright’s own architectural office arrangements, which, it can be assumed, reveal his attitude to work and the place of work. In his offices Wright included a “Workroom” – a large space shared by the apprentices where the bulk of the work was done. For example these spaces are clearly shown on the plans of both Taliesins (1911 and 1938). Wright himself occupied a separate office, designated as a “Study” on the Oak Park office plan of 1895 and on Taliesin West plan of 1938. Of course the sublime architectural character of these Wrightian spaces probably compensates for the loss of contact with the outside world in the Larkin and Johnson projects but it obviously shifts attention onto the quality of the interior which other designers may not measure up to. Incidentally, in Wright’s own offices the exterior was not totally obliterated but the endeavour is still the creation of a world-within-the-world in which one may concentrate unreservedly on the task at hand.
Saint Jerome in His Study (c1475)
There is a distant parallel – albeit in another era and at a smaller scale – in the various Renaissance depictions of scholar Saint Jerome in his study. In Antonello da Messinma’s well known version (c1475) the study is seen as a circumspect architectural space within a larger building which is set in a broader landscape thus representing the three scales of individual, group and the world itself.
The fineness of architectural interiors would likely have meant little to Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the creator of “scientific management.” Published in 1911 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, his Principles of Scientific Management summarised research into industrial production and introduced professional management to the place of work. Taylor scrutinised industrial processes separating each action into small units of movement noting the tools used and the precise time taken for a task. From this he proposed a reworking of the complete cycle into a chain of linked, separate tasks. Each task could then be performed over and over again by one worker in a precisely timed sequence linked to other parts of the cycle. By the time the new managers had finally wrested control of manufacturing from workers in the early 1920s, the new ideas of management were migrating across to the office . As a result “Taylorism” became widely recognised and adopted in the US. Accordingly clerical workers were organised into quasi assembly lines, office work was reorganised into separate, linked tasks, and management inhabited cellular offices separate from the workers.
Mannesmann Head Office (1912) Dusseldorf
At the same time as Taylor’s treatise was published German architects responded in a more orthodox way to the office building brief. Although Peter Behrens was able to present the AEG company with a progressive architectural project for the famous AEG Turbine Hall (Berlin, 1909), his visionary gaze was more precluded in the contemporaneous Mannesmann Head Office (Dusseldorf, 1912) and the Continental Rubber office building (Hannover, 1914), both of which confirm to the Renaissance palazzo typological precedent. Such design dissonance may have been noticed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier (then Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), who both worked in the Behrens office before WWI.
League of Nations Design Competition (1928) Geneva
Olivetti Centre Project (1962) Milan
In the 1920s Le Corbusier came to value Taylorist principles as a theoretical tenant consequential to science and industry. As such it was a significant part of his rhetorical validation of functionalism in architecture, particularly in office building projects. In practice Corbusier’s designs for large office buildings, beginning with his 1928 League of Nations Secretariat competition submission, show a predilection for long runs of single and double loaded cellular offices reminiscent of the late 19th century Chicago precedents (before the Taylorist office assembly line). This corridor and office plan type, which generates very long and narrow slab blocks, reoccurs in other office building projects right up to the unrealised design for Olivetti Centre in Milan (1962) three years before his death. Corbusier’s sectional and interior sketch drawings of these office spaces reveal more of the architectural intent than the mere plans.
Naval Zone Business Centre Project (1938-42) Algiers
In the Rentenanstalt project for Zurich (1933), the Algiers Naval Zone project (1938-42) and the Chandigarh Secretariat (1958) the office space – unified with the outside world – is an open space of abundant dimensions alluding to the distinction of bureaucratic endeavour. Working in this space, buttressed on one side by a Virgilian landscape and the other by a battery of storage and office equipment, one must feel an impetus to think big thoughts, banish petty ones and get things done. A close reading of the interior sketches unearths a strange discordance in the set-out of the workstations: the interior sketches (re-cycled and updated from one project to the next), show workstations at around ten metre intervals, but on the plans they appear around 3 metres at most. The sheer glass external skin in the Zurich proposal evolves with a layer of brise-soleil in the Algiers and Chandigarh designs. The Chandigarh sections indicate double height offices along one entire side of the corridor signifying thus establishing a hierarchy of single and double height rooms.
Concrete Office Building Project (1923) Berlin
Mies van der Rohe also studied office building design in the 1920s. Whereas Wright and Corbusier delved into the place of work as interiority at the same time as creating exterior forms, Mies van der Rohe’s polemical glass-clad Freidrichstrasse Tower (Berlin, 1921) and his Concrete Office Building (1923) were explorations of radical tectonics and exterior form primarily. Neither Mies project was built but, in the theoretical realm, these iconoclastic projects cleared the way and made it possible for other architects (himself included) to contribute to the development of the modern office building later in the century, particularly in the US. With a 2 metre interior sill height and an interior courtyard, the Concrete Office Building project seems to look back two decades to Wright’s Larkin Building and the space of interiority.
House of Industry Design Competition (1930) Moscow
In a 1930 architectural competition entry the revolutionary Russian architect Ivan Leonidov pursued another set of progressive ideas, innovating in both the form and content of a proposed office building. His proposal for the 12 storey “House of Industry” posited a perimeter core containing all services attached to one side of a large floor of open space. Leonidov’s remarkable scheme foreshadowed the open plan office some 30 years before it became a widespread type in the west. His text attached to the competition entry reveal how prescient his work was:
… each floor … is subdivided according to the number of people, with separate spatial allocations of five square metres per person excluding walkways. There are no dividing partitions. Between these areas are planters with greenery; the floor and the ceiling are of soft – noise absorbing material. On the one side of these areas is a zone for relaxation and recreation exercises, structured by sofas for relaxation; there is also a library, spaces for meals served from below, showers, a swimming pool, walking an running tracks and spaces for receiving guests.
Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (1932) Philadelphia
While Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe undertook design research between the wars producing renown theoretical office building projects, US architects at the same time were evolving practical models that responded to real developer briefs, contemporary technologies and changing attitudes about the place of work. Two American yardstick buildings, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building (Howe and Lescaze) and the Rockefeller Centre (Raymond Hood) were both opened in 1932 when the Depression was starting to ease. The Philadelphia project, with a side core was “… the first skyscraper built without pre-determined solutions for its rental floors” which makes it a prototype for the 20th century skyscraper office building with its floors presented as fully serviced, rentable platforms in the sky available for rent. The Rockefeller Centre plan reveals a central core supporting rentable space configured for cellular office or open workstation space with primary circulation around the perimeter of the core. These two paradigms appeared in two buildings in the same year, quickly gained a reputation and the lessons of both were replicated widely.
Rockefeller Centre (1939) New York
In the early post WWII years, an evolution of the Taylorist “mini-task-breakdown” system appeared in factories, and subsequently offices . Setting up teams of workers sharing a task in place of rows of individual workstations each responsible for a mini-task, IWS (Integrated Working System) accommodated new types of work and aimed to initiate a teamwork ethos. In effect IWS was a precursor to the flexible Open Office. The model included advanced office lighting (the fluorescent lighting was introduced in 1938) and HVAC systems of climate control installed together in the new (and soon to be ubiquitous) suspended ceiling. The arrangement of offices as a specific stratum of space sandwiched between relentlessly horizontal floor and ceiling layers spelt a high level of uniformity in offices for virtually the entire second half of the 20th century. SOM’s Connecticut General Life Insurance Building (1957), Pepsi-Cola Headquarters (New York, 1960) and their Inland Steel Building (Chicago, 1957) are archetypes of this development which replaced the more linear Taylorist office.
Typical SOM Office Plans (mid 20th Century) USA
A representative range of Australian office buildings exhibits similar characteristics to this 1950s US model. These include Bates Smart and McCutcheon’s ICI Buildings (Sydney, 1956 and Melbourne, 1958) and Peddle Thorp and Walker’s AMP Building (Sydney, 1962).
ICI Building (1958) Melbourne
ICI Building Interiors (1958) Melbourne
Abalos and Herreros also draw attention to the way in which the high degree of dimensional standardisation and the rigid geometry of these floor-ceiling stratum office spaces enabled a new and direct relationship between office design and furnishings, sometimes called “integrated design” to occur:
Companies such as Herman Miller and Knoll Associates were leaders in this movement, translating the industrial design ideals inherent in European modern architecture into large-scale mass production….These furnishings were treated like components of a series, and featured varied dimensions coordinated with the modules that determined the office layout.
Quickborner Office “Landscapes” (c1960) Germany
By 1960 in Europe the Quickborner management consultant firm (who had established relationships with the furniture industry) challenged these existing models after examining productivity in light of information flow and transfers, declaring that the office should be an “information processing centre.” The new organisational model, Burolandschaft (office landscape) proposed that workstations be arranged flexibly according to the way that information flowed and teams were formed. An emphasis on flexible, column free floor plates with interior walls removed where possible emerged. Now, instead ceiling structural grids being determinants, the loose arrangement of furniture was given priority. The work station became a kit of parts that could be combined together in different geometric formations and the private office was doomed. The Osram Gmbh Administration Building (Munich, Walter Henn 1962) was a pioneering manifestation of the Burolandschaft approach.
Osram Gmbh Administration Building (1962) Munich
Burolandschaft heralded a return to interiority and introversion that had been absent from office design since Wright’s 1939 Johnson and Co Administration Building and his earlier Larkin Building of 1904. But there us a difference: Wright’s interiority relies on the visual structure provided by architectural form, on the other hand Burolandschaft revelled in the absence of architecture apart from its provision of a neutralised container space ripe for office “landscaping.” In the Burolandschaft model the geometric prism of 20th century office skyscrapers became much less relevant – there was not a comfortable relationship between an organic furniture layout and a square or rectangular external wall.
Wills Faber and Dumas Building (1975) Ipswich
Norman Foster’s Faber Willis Building (Ipswich, 1975) retrieved the situation for architecture somewhat. Its looser, organic perimeter wall acknowledged the randomness and variability of the open plan office and flexible services with an irregular form and column grid, but its cores and voids are orthogonal and more rigid. Because they incorporate the relative “freedom” of voids that reading of the plan isn’t borne out in the building’s interior though.
Ford Foundation Building (1968) New York
From the standpoint of the human subject spending a large quotient of time in the office setting a critical assessment of this roll-call of office models over the last seventy years could conclude that that something valuable may have been lost in the rapid progression from one paradigm to the next often in the interest of parties who probably won’t ever inhabit the office spaces they speculate on, build, design, furnish and so on. There is evidence for this loss in the propensity to re-invigorate office paradigms such as the Larkinian interior space and the traditional cellular office that has occurred since WWII, not in a widespread way but in particular landmark projects such as Roche Dinkerloo’s Ford Foundation Building (NYC, 1968) which re-interprets Larkin Building scaled interiority and Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer Building (Apeldoorn, 1974) which re-works the cellular office. These two user-focussed models are different from others and are distant antecedents of BVN Architecture’s workplace projects of the mid 1990s to the present. Another workplace and architecture forerunner though would be John Andrews’ Harvard Graduate School of Design Building (1973) with its cascading space under one roof clearly transmitting the workplace potential of the studio model which all architects encountered in their training.
Harvard Graduate School of Design Building (1973) Cambridge, Massachusetts
Many of the businesses in the office buildings discussed in this chapter either no longer exist or have been radically re-structured, drastically downsized or have moved to cheaper locations. In the 21st century, premium buildings in the central business district often attract financial services organisations and the large professional firms who service them.
Acceptance of open plan offices at the expense of the private office is likely to vary among these tenants while, at the same time, they may be interested in the possibilities of more user-focused, human-driven design and perhaps even a more pronounced interiority, with its character derived from interior qualities and ambience rather than outlook to the outside world.
Centraal Beheer Building (1974) Apeldoorn