When I was a young man, I promised myself that the moment my work felt like a job, I would quit. This year I did, giving up the corner office I rated as a bureaucrat at Virginia Tech for a small, almost windowless cubbyhole and, more important, the expanse of student desks where I teach design and theory. Though I miss some of the perks of the office, doing what I love and not being part of the more or less 9-to-5 workforce is worth it.
Of course, I am not alone. Though my switch was not really an example of the Great Resignation, nor am I part of the Gen Z cohort that seems to just not understand the logic of spending time in a gridded environment fed by air conditioning and focused on individual computer screens, I am symptomatic of what might be the long, slow death of the office. A particular building type that evolved in the middle of the 19th century as the counterpoint to the factory floor, the office building is, as I pointed out in my last post, losing whatever relevance it still had.
It is thus with an equal measure of pleasure and nostalgia that we can turn to The Office of Good Intentions: Human(s) Work (Taschen, 2022), a collage of images, essays, and a small number of drawings put together by Florian Idenburg, Intl. Assoc. AIA, LeeAnn Suen, AIA, and Dutch photographer Iwan Baan. Here you find some of the most valiant attempts, created at what we now realize was Peak Office at the end of the last century, to turn the office landscape into a place of beauty and even delight within the terms of the type.
The authors let us know from the get-go that they are writing largely retrospectively. Noting both the decoupling of production from place through computer and communication technologies, and the push of the pandemic and the pull of different modes of collaboration and creativity that have arisen partially as a result of these movements, they ask: “How does all this doctoring affect one of the critical places where we convene: the office…herein more specified as the locale of white-collar work…?" The answer is that much of the response, at least so far, has been cosmetic. “In many ways,” the authors point out, “these trends represent conscious efforts to reskin and rebrand willful self-subjugation.” When the office can be everywhere, the tendrils of control, usually in the form of electronic monitoring, extend into your life. At the same time, the transformation of the office into a social space where your ability to get along in packs demands not just that you perform a task, but subjugate your whole personality to the corporation paying your salary. What disappears is the office framework.
Looking at that object fading into the past is this book’s accomplishment. The good thing about Idenburg’s and his collaborators’ message is that it does not excuse architects from the office’s design failures: “For every good intention bastardized by mass production, for every hardship that seeded reform, and perhaps even for every gamble that paid off, there were humans at the helm, making perfect plans, and there were humans altering and executing those plans….” What the authors have chosen to do is reveal the beauty of some of those intentions, as well as the fact that, as evidenced by Baan’s laconic photographs, even the most beautiful monument to work eventually turns into a banal background for everyday tasks that obscure whatever the architect and their client intended us to experience. The book’s cover is well-chosen for showing that condition: A view of the Rocky Mountains, framed by a smidgen of I.M. Pei’s concrete castellation for the NCAR Mesa Laboratory of 1964-67, dominates a small office where an old-fashioned lamp exudes warm, but overwhelmed light while an anonymous woman, her back to us, stares at the oh-so-familiar grid of an Outlook calendar on her computer.
The book’s most hopeful examples come, in keeping with its resolutely anti-chronological and non-conclusive method (it calls itself a “collage” several times), at the beginning, in the discussion of the various homes architects created for the advertising agency Chiat/Day. Its late founder, Jay Chiat, was a pioneer in proposing that computer technology meant the death of the traditional office. In the agency’s temporary offices and Santa Monica, Calif. headquarters, both designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and its Gaetano Pesce-outfitted New York outpost, there were no offices, but only “hot desks” and lockers to store your personal stuff. Employees occupied environments where materials such as plywood denoted impermanence and flexibility and forms derived from Pop and Assemblage Art (including Claes Oldenburg’s and Coosje van Bruggen’s giant binoculars that formed the entrance gate to the headquarters) focused you on out-of-the-box thinking—even if, as Idenburg points out and Baan shows, the buildings were still ultimately office boxes. A move under Chiat’s successor Lee Clow to a warehouse outfitted by Clive Wilkinson, FAIA, continued the aesthetic, adding the informality the surfing, dog-loving new CEO managed to preserve as the agency became part of a multinational company.
In Baan’s photographs, this last iteration still looks alive and like a fun place for both the dogs and their minders to hang out and, by the way, work. That is a strong contrast to most of the other experiments in workplace amelioration the book shows off. Whether the photographer takes us through the former IBM offices in Boca Raton, Fla., where the PC was developed, or the hallowed halls of Louis Kahn’s California-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, what we mainly see is architecture in its guise as form-making framing office landscapes that range from the comfortable to the banal, and from the active to the abandoned, depending not on the design, but on the financial rules and current state of the company running the building. Only the Ford Foundation in New York, the recipient of a recent investment of more than $50 million for its renovation, looks as good as it did when Kevin Roche delivered it to the client in 1967. And, even there, Baan’s shot of floor after floor of office workers toiling away at their desks, no matter that there is a Dan Kiley-designed, drop-dead gorgeous garden outside their window, makes you wonder what all that architecture truly accomplishes.
That is, it is sad to say, not a message that the writers in this book pick up on in any way. The essays strewn throughout the book are often excellent, covering topics as diverse as the impact centralized sewage and flush toilets had on the development of the office building and the tricks WeWork developed to pretend that work was not work. The most glaring omission from these pithy discussions is any analysis of the office landscape and its components. Though the Aeron chair, both as an icon of circa-2000 dotcom culture and as an emblem of the ableism that still permeates the workspace, gets its own treatment, there is no discussion of the development of office systems and how ideas of privacy, collaboration and efficient operation worked themselves out in design. As Baan’s images make clear, the resulting Dilbertland is where white-collar office workers in the period the book focuses on (roughly 1960 to 1990) really lived. That environment constitutes the true “office of good intentions,” at least as the workers might have experienced it after a glance at the grand edifice they were entering and the public spaces they encountered at breaks.
In the texts, though not in Baan’s photographs, we get hints of what alternatives have developed: Warhol’s Factory, Hefner’s bed, Burning Man (though the authors do not explain how that is a place of work), and, more recently, TikTok houses (where influencers live together and create short clips). They are dismissed, however, as just extensions of the office, though how they operate is not discussed, beyond that they “advance an asynchronous concept of space—a space that is never idle—where just-in-time infrastructure is offered as a service” by some now invisible capitalist force. Even if you “logged in from a converted living room workspace,” as the text suggests, you are still being controlled. But what is the architecture of that living room and of that control?
Despite its title, The Office of Good Intentions refuses to ever come to what seems like the obvious, if less forward-looking, conclusion its evidence does offer: that the heyday of the corporate office was marked by architects’ attempts to make a better workspace that were, as it turned out, disconnected from the realities of technology, actual workflow, and, most important, economics. This is a collection not of actual attempts to design a better workspace, but of designs that pretended to do so, but stopped at the making of the envelope, the structure, and the space.
Perhaps the authors thought that conclusion was too depressing and unsalable, preferring to bury it in the resolutely non-rhetorical, unromantic Baan pictures. What makes the conclusion even more depressing is that the buildings on display represent what was as good as it got. These days most architecture is reserved to some pushing and pulling at the envelope, whether in twists and curves or Jenga-like stacks, and in the design of the usually multi-level atrium shot through with stairs, stair/theaters, ramps, and bridges. All the rest is given over to the social engineers and systems designers to evince good intentions and fulfill the call for smooth operation. The office as a site for architecture has been dead for quite a while and somebody will have to figure out how to design that converted living room.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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