For the last few weeks, I have been writing about work. I have also been working in a new, open office environment. Both activities have been a joy.
For years, I loved the idea of having my own office. My first jobs as an assistant professor made me share offices or put me out in the middle of a drafting floor. But then finally I got my very own space: a converted broom closet at SCI-Arc. I enjoyed the drafting floor at the Gehry studio the most, because I was surrounded by friends and colleagues, not to mention the hundreds of models that office produces with a fervor ranging on the fanatical. But I always thought that was because making architecture was creative work, and being a suit meant that you should have your own space.
I eventually moved into an office of my own with a window, and then a corner suite when I became director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Later, as director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, I then had a fully traditional office with my own bathroom and two secretaries guarding the entry to this inner sanctum. It took me a while to figure out that some people were intimidated by the space and I was isolated from the rest of my staff. I was also a bit lonely there.
This February, most of our full-time staff moved into two floors of the renovated former Art Academy building adjacent to the art museum (we now call it the Longworth Wing). We are all together for the first time in the institution’s history. The design, by local firm Emersion Design, makes the most of the fact that we had to gut the whole 1887 building. The floors are open and filled with light from operable windows. The core consists mainly of conference rooms, either open or glassed-in, so-called “phone booths” or huddle rooms, and a few utilities.
The design is simple, making use of as many recycled materials as possible, from wainscoting that we salvaged from a previous renovation of our main building, to carpet remnants on the main floor, second-hard carpets in the conference rooms, and mid-century modern furniture we all had fun picking out together. A few pieces from Ikea, together with new Sayl office chairs, designed by Yves Béhar, and an open-plan office system by Hayworth, make up the rest of our accouterments.
I sit out in the middle with everybody, separated only by a tack-up board from my secretary. I can hide (partially) behind some bookshelves and filing cabinets. Thanks to pink-noise machines, I can hear our curators and learning and interpretation staff talking to each other or on the phone, but I can’t really make out what they are saying. About two or three times a day, I walk the 20 feet or so to a conference room to have a meeting. About three times a week, I use one of the telephone booths to have a private or concentrated conversation. The rest of the time, I enjoy the fact that I am part of what now really feels more like a team of highly intelligent, hardworking and, on the whole, pretty fun people.
It turns out that it is not just making things (or models of things) that works best out in the open. In an era in which labor is increasingly virtual and consists of manipulating information and social connections, usually in relationship to each other, being in a social environment fed by the latest technology is perfect. Around me, the walls that used to denote the work of architecture have disappeared.
Instead, the gathering together of furniture, fixtures, and technology to make us comfortable, to frame us, and to make us feel at home in this continually changing world marks the architects’ achievement. It is to that brave new world that I go off to work each morning with pleasure, where I feel full of energy, and from which I return each day with a sense of accomplishment.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.