The TBWA\Chiat\Day offices in Los Angeles, built from 1996 to 1998.
Photo: Iwan Baan
It used to be that offices grew as the world shrank. Twilightless empires and vast trade networks have unleashed oceans of paperwork which, in turn, have created demand for archivists, copiers, storage systems, evolving communication technologies and real estate to accommodate them. all. Offices have become the material manifestation of trust. If you knew that a man in a dark suit, sitting in a large stone building at a reputable address in London, had signed a particular document, it gave that piece of paper weight and reliability, even in New York or in Kathmandu. Great distances also required proximity. Tight rows of office workers, insurance adjusters and financial analysts churned out numbers that affected lives and fortunes in distant time zones. Five afternoons a week, these white-collar forces dispersed, repopulating neighborhoods and suburbs that stretched from the canyons of office towers. This weekday network, intertwined by telephone, ticker, elevator, subway and commuter train, gave meaning to the modern city.
This set of interconnected physical structures is now a relic, and not just because of the pandemic. A strange and seductive book, The Office of Good Intentions: Human Labor(s), by architects Florian Idenburg and LeeAnn Suen, chronicles numerous attempts to adapt the old analog scheme to the digital age, with results ranging from whimsical to utopian to sinister. The collection of essays and case studies does not explicitly argue for or against the office, nor does it offer mundane architectural solutions (more living rooms, more outdoor space). Instead, the authors unroll a brutal analysis of an entire class of potential customers. With every change in technology, they suggest, companies have tended to treat employees like lab mice, handing out treats, monitoring their behavior and creating ever more elaborate illusions of freedom. In this scheme, the employee doubles as a product, a data policy that can be packaged to be exploited by other companies.
While the authors don’t quite say it, employers who talk about breaking paradigms are also making suction cup architects believe they’re shaping new forms of fun, places where employees can breathe deeply, bask in the constant 68 degree daylight, casual socializing and healthy eating. They design spaces designed to comfort the body, stimulate the brain, and facilitate collaboration — only to find they’ve provided authoritarian employers with insidious new tools of social control. In this yellowish vision, the purpose of architecture is to disguise, not reveal, the structure of our times. Long hours spent sitting masquerade as wellness, insecurity is alleviated by snacks, and flexibility is just another name for no time.
The root story of this dark vision is the description of the advertising company Chiat\Day’s headquarters in Venice, California, an early 1990s hellhole where inflexibly imposed flexibility lurks behind the binocular portal designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Frank Gehry’s plywood and cardboard aesthetic provided the backdrop for an environment determined by decree: grab a laptop and find a seat anywhere, as long as it’s not the same place you worked yesterday. Nomadism was mandatory, colonizing your own corner verboten. It didn’t last long, but there were countless versions of the same experience.
Photo: Courtesy of TASCHEN
The authors present this environment as the precursor to the gig economy, which not only eliminated traditional workplace concepts like stability, advancement, and loyalty, but also fostered a culture of fragmentation and distraction. “Today’s worker is surrounded by swarms of [apps], each speaking contradictory orders. Taylorism on algorithmic steroids has shattered work rhythms into a pandemonium of fractured schedules, collapsing in an economy just too late. The bursting of space and workers follows the movement.
This does not apply to me, I said to myself. I’m just a writer. And then I counted the number of apps I use to communicate with editors, find out about packages sent to the office, write and edit text, book work trips, file expenses, transfer and collect large electronic documents, managing photos, watching videos, listening to music, scheduling meetings and exploring archives: about 25 different software programs that I use more or less constantly, all recording my sedentary activities in tiny and highly specific – and therefore marketable.
The book traces the evolution of algorithms that subject employees to the same real-time data collection and performance management systems that govern public services and security. The badges employees use to unlock restroom doors, call elevators, and pay for lunch have turned humans into components of a system of sensors and tracking devices. The more you know, the more you control. The big movie of 2006 The lives of others depicts life under constant surveillance: a Stasi officer in Cold War East Germany eavesdrops on the home life of a dissident writer and finds himself falling in love with the family he is meant to victimize. At the time, it sounded like a horror story; now it reads almost like a fairy tale, enough to make you nostalgic for a time when Big Brother was human.
Idenburg and Suen, their prose fleshed out with dozens of photographs by Iwan Baan, navigate a dizzying array of situations: pajama guru Hugh Hefner shaping the Playboy aesthetics of its circular command post bed; invisible cleaners agitating for more humane conditions in Los Angeles; server farms buzzing in the desert; suburban office parks; the networking extravaganza that is Burning Man; Andy Warhol’s factory; research laboratories trying to imitate the conditions conducive to the inspiration of Archimedes’ bathtub; box grids suitable for dogs; high-tech towers; supposedly ergonomic furniture designed for the non-existent average body.
Employers have been steadily reinventing the office for at least 30 years, gradually dismantling the appearance of regimentation while camouflaging the pursuit of efficiency in an ever more funky costume. The book tells the story of centralized surveillance of segmented lives, wielded not by some Dr. No guy in a high-backed executive chair, but by an impersonal, intangible power that runs on a lot of electricity. And because it can exist anywhere, like the Holy Spirit, workers take it home or take it on the road. The work-from-home revolution is turning the bedroom into just one more branch of the data pipeline.
“Awakened by a stern but servile, automated female voice, we begin boring in bed, hop in a hangout spot on a shared spin ride, check our biometrics at the Soylent bar, meet for kombucha, take a shareable cooking class that doubles as lunch, host a two-hour a powwow at a working club, another deep dive, and then… #selfietime! Cities are dissolving into an assortment of professional landing offers for this new world of pseudo-work.
What do you mean we? I don’t do exactly any of the trendy self-improvement tasks on this list, and I wonder if work, for most people, has really transformed that much. I suspect that most “digital native” office workers spend their days the same way their analog-born parents did: sitting in the same place all day, performing somewhat repetitive tasks that still resist automation. And that’s not even taking into account the millions of people who spend their working hours packing boxes for delivery, making beds in hotel rooms, or cleaning up stray bodily fluids.
Yet this book suggests that architects have an increasingly minimal role in how and where people work. Some continue to design high-rise office buildings or convert old ones into the types of places where people can sleep, eat, work and commune without ever completely separating one activity from another. Most of the time, professional designers stand aside while people cobble together their own work bivouacs from whatever scraps of square footage they can muster. In a sense, that means we walked a half-circle, halfway through days when most rides were a walk down or at most a few blocks. Today, we don’t live above the store; we are the shop.
The Salk Institute research laboratories in La Jolla, built from 1959 to 1965.
Photo: Iwan Baan
Idenburg and Suen refrain from following their own logic on an urban scale. The realization of this long-term trend of fragmentation and decentralization would reshape cities even more radically than it has done so far. Beyond all the ongoing kombucha-bar email sessions and Uber meetings, cities will once again have to figure out what they’re for. Perhaps companies that take rearguard action will regain daytime density, measure the value of physical closeness, preserve the intangible of office culture, and once again promote eye contact. . In the meantime, metropolitan centers must plan for the opposite result: clusters of semi-self-sufficient neighborhoods and towns 15 minutes away connected by public transport that fewer people take in more and different directions. Moving from a late 19th century commuting paradigm to a future where you want to go where you want could ultimately lead to a better city and richer lives, but getting there will be almost as traumatic because it was about moving the archetypal urban workplace from the factory to the trading floor.