Buildings are dissolving all around us. The loft—that basic building block of modernist living, working, and playing—is taking over from the cells in which we sleep, work, and entertain. Our stores are going cloudy too, turning into the abstraction of Apple’s glassy retail voids or being replaced by warehouses we will never enter and from which our goods emerge just in time.
How should we occupy such indefinite spaces? Swiss industrial designer Yves Béhar has one suggestion. I recently visited him in his new office in (of course) a loft-like former warehouse in San Francisco. There, he had turned the loading dock into a set of stairs that focus your eye up to the only vestige of physicality: the building’s original wood trusses. The major spatial distinction in his Fuseproject office is between public (a space for an art gallery and rooms to meet clients) and private (vast space hiding behind white walls where seventy-five employees sit in one expanse).
Employees actually sit on prototypes of an office system Béhar has developed for Herman Miller, which will be released in April. Called Public Office Landscape, it is one more move towards the dissolution of cells into flexible, socially oriented spaces, or what the company calls "social desking." While it retains the basic elements of the traditional office furniture system, including desks, returns, and walls that can be reconfigured according to a company’s changing needs, it takes those elements one more step toward openness and ease.
The central element is a new kind of chair that looks more like a bench. The back of the chair consists of the same sort of mesh material Béhar used in his Sayl Chairs and it provides flexible lumbar support while letting you move in a number of positions. The idea is that it promotes collaboration: People spending more time lounging around working on laptops and speaking with each other than they do sitting behind a big monitor at a desk.
Thus the chair can become a place for a sidebar conversation, providing an alternative to balancing on the edge of the desk when you stop by to see someone; it can be part of a café or lounge, or it can be scattered through the open landscape. When you combine the chair with low partitions that finally seem to be as easy to detach and move as we were always promised such elements would be, with white desks in the background, Public Office Landscape look more like a restaurant than a work setting.
What scared me a little bit was the way in which Béhar kept pointing out how he could make spaces with the system, more or less defining areas of privacy, a focus on a white board, or an openness that encouraged movement. It was one thing for furniture systems to create grids, but Public Office (one of a number of initiatives in this area) begins to rival the activity of creating space for which architects have always been so proud. Béhar, who gave us such ubiquitous tech gadgets as the Jawbone speakers and a cheap laptop for the developing world, has created a stylish alternative to both the grid and rooms.
How should architects respond to such developments? Should they go into the business themselves, as designers from the Eames to Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture have done? Should they think about what they can do with the elements at their disposal to ensconce the places of work and collaboration? Whatever they do will have to be as sophisticated and visually attractive as Béhar’s efforts—and that is a tall order.
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.