Intended both as a physical space and a powerful symbol of organized labor, the office provides an opportunity to question contemporary methodologies of working—from automation, neoliberal dystopias and the all-you-can-work freelance economy, to elevated ideas of “everywhere studio.” What happens when this highly-canonized space, along with all its practices and mythologies, falls apart all of a sudden?
The last two years I lived in London, 2015–16, I rented a studio in a former office building in the City of London—an odd location for an art studio. My neighbors were Amazon and Goldman Sachs, but somehow a combination of bureaucratic loopholes and a moment of oversaturation in the City’s otherwise booming office real estate granted me, and many other artists, an unlikely postcode. This wasn’t a unique case of an empty office building waiting for redevelopment, but was surprisingly the only one repurposed partially for a cultural mission and partially to absorb some of the management costs. In fact, many offices in the City seemed perennially empty, behind different brands of high-performance triple glazing, square kilometers of synthetic carpet and halogen lights awaiting to be inhabited by Taylorist rows of desks. I wondered if these towers popping up everywhere, with their branded false uniqueness, were developed purely as tradable financial assets, rather than to answer a specific demand for office spaces. It’s a situation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Today, according to The Economist, more than 50 % of office buildings in the City have been vacant since 2020. Their monumental stone-cladded lobbies and the elaborate flower arrangements that decorate them await their fate once the pandemic is over. Will people return to offices in global metropoles? McKinsey Global Institute interviewed 800 executives from large to gigantic companies, that employ millions of people worldwide. According to their report, the answer is simple: not quite. The pandemic has massively accelerated an already ongoing trend towards remote work and working from home, registering an increase of up to 50 % of the workforce (in the US) working remotely at least some of the time, and 6 % exclusively working remotely. These figures are likely to grow in the near future, even after the pandemic is over. Some of the most innovative companies are already envisioning a future where the need for offices and headquarters is drastically reduced. Twitter is offering completely remote employment, having determined that they would save on average, 10–15000 USD a year per employee. But will these savings be used to reimagine work and the workplace, as some have said?
To envision such changes it’s necessary to understand the radical changes brought about by processes of digitization and how they transform work, collaboration and the very nature of space. Portable devices, cloudbased workstations, and online collaborative working tools such as Dropbox, Zoom, Drive, Teams, Slack, Discord, Asana, Trello etc., are already dissolving the relationship between knowledge, work, physical tools, and designated spaces. In a pre-digitized world, the employee would have to be present in a physical location to access materials and tools necessary to their work. Think of 19th-century offices where access to documents and proximity to coworkers constituted the fundamental means to work. Today these tools can be cloud-based, so all one needs to access their tools, is a generic device. It’s only a matter of time before offices adapt to this emerging scenario. Even if this is the state of the art in work technologies, not all workplaces and working cultures have adapted to it. Some even remain entirely analogue, as many of these technologies are expensive, and because they require a workforce that is already proficient with digital tools, which might be the case for innovation-based workplaces but not, for example, for public administrations. However the pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital workspaces, and we need to consider the impact of this transition on space and spatial practices in relation to work. As up until now, the spatial planning of an office reflected a specific management culture and could be read as a diagram of a company’s structure, hierarchy, and workflows. Architecture has historically been a discipline concerned with the spatial embodiment—and reification— of abstract organizations. A good way to think about this is through the so-called “Ars Memorativa,” something Aristotle, Simonides, and Cicero spoke about, which is the art of remembering information. According to the philosophers, architecture is the metaphor through which we can structure our cognition. This was a way of organizing information in the human mind, using an architectural structure to envision the management of data. In fact, Ars Memorativa later became the principle behind database architecture. In contrast, architecture can be understood as a set of techniques used to overlay an abstract order on the unruly sensible space. This is very true in office planning, and its history demonstrates how in different periods the emergence of new management cultures was rendered in space. An example of this would be the Uffizi in Florence, arguably one of the first modern office spaces that today is known as one of the most visited museums in the world. The Uffizi were designed as the administrative offices of the Granducato di Toscana in a significant effort to strengthen its governance using the soft power of bureaucracy.
“Portable devices, cloud-based workstations, and online collaborative working tools are dissolving the relationship between knowledge, work, physical tools, and designated spaces.”
Architect Giorgio Vasari designed the Uffizi (literally “offices”) as a modular spatialization of a major innovation in governance: the unification of all eight magistracies and the five guilds under one rood. In order to accommodate and organise them according to their varying importance, functions, and dependencies, Vasari designed a modular volumetric unit that could easily be halved or doubled according to the occupants’ needs. This adaptive yet “typical” plan was comprised of an almost cubic, double-height audience chamber that was directly accessible from the continuous external porticoes, and furnished with benches and a fireplace. On the top floor, there was a public art gallery—an important element in this Machiavelli-inspired public infrastructure that only much later would take over the entire building. The articulation of an innovative management structure spatially was taken to an extreme by Taylorism and open office plans, where knowledge work was managed in the guise of a production line, a homogeneous grid divided into ever-shrinking individual spaces. The paradigm established by the Uffizi remained unchallenged through 18th and 19th century colonialism and industrialization, which required gigantic office floors filled with clerks, accountants, managers, and lawyers. (See the famous East India House in London, which functioned as the headquarters of one of the largest companies of the 19th century). It was only in the 1950s when Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle, who started out as furniture makers in Germany, set out to challenge the established standardization of office planning with a more adaptive and irregular office “landscape.” We can see the burolandschaft (office landscape) as the extreme version of spatializing a management culture. In fact, if the irregular plan broke away with rigid hierarchies and monotony, it also reinforced the lack of privacy and potential chaos of the open plan. Arguably, the office plan reflected how byzantine and complex business management had become, rather than significantly challenging the spatiality of work, something that ultimately would not happen until digitization.
Around the same time in the US, Robert Propst, an inventor and designer working for the furniture company Herman Miller, adopted the German burolandschaft, and devised new types of office furniture for this new spatial model which had been previously realized with regular office furniture. Among his designs are what we know today as the office cubicle, a piece of light furniture which combines some privacy with an open plan. In the designer’s intention, this would generate an office space centered on the human experience. Propst’ project from 1964 seems to echo both an almost cybernetic sensibility, and the countercultural milieux of the 1960s. With its effort of breaking with the rigid formalities of the past, the office landscape proposed a human-centered and endlessly transformable office environment, in a manner similar to much more radical propositions by Ettore Sottsass and Archizoom. Robert Propst’s “Action Office” set out to liberate workers’ creativity with easy-to-readapt office furniture systems, which would dominate the market for many years to come. Propst’s intuition was transformed by managers into the infamous “cubicle farm,” which revived Taylorism, and even allowed for workstation densification as a direct product of the increased privacy afforded by the cubicle. A significant leap in office design occurred during the middle of the DotCom bubble in the early ’90s, when then little-known architect Frank Gehry was commissioned to build a headquarters for Chiat/Day, an ad agency based in Venice Beach, California. The building is best known for a giant pair of binoculars—a sculpture by the artist Claes Oldenburg—which constitutes part of its street facade, but its interiors are far more interesting. The client’s intention was to develop the first “Virtual Office,” one with no clear hierarchy or fixed program: an office landscape without organs, and a place open to the workers’ creativity and self-organization. Every morning, equipped with cell phones and personal computers, they would check their personal belongings in their lockers before finding a spot to work for that day. The Frank Gehry designed interior featured his signature collage of materials and forms—cardboard, raw plywood, exposed steel structure. It’s stylistically in line with his early punkish projects, such as his house in Venice Beach, where he opened skylights by hammering through the ceiling. Via Gehry this DIY ethos, which started with the architect’s participation in the LA art scene in the 60s, will ultimately influence contemporary Silicon Valley offices.
Looking at the pictures from this 1991 project, we see the infamous quirky decor which is now the standard for many companies (i.e. a bar made of surfboards). But the experiment at Chiat/Day was closed in 1994, citing major troubles in adapting to this new model. There just weren’t enough laptops or space to work, which forced employees to take meetings in their cars. It’s a failure that was only surpassed by the company’s headquarters in New York, which was designed by Gaetano Pesce, and described in a 90s Wired article as “walking in a migraine.” Regardless of its failure, this model would shape what many digital technology offices look like today. Facebook hired Frank Gehry to design their new gigantic open-plan offices in Palo Alto, whose last phase opened in 2018. The Facebook office represents the pinnacle of this trend that Gehry himself had in the 1990s—taking the office out of the office as much as possible, and instead modeling the workplace around leisure and informality. The Facebook office is in many ways a 3.0 version of what Gehry did in Venice beach, a collage of uniquely furnished break-out rooms and “living rooms” surrounding a sea of open-plan desks, this time made functional by the implementation of relevant digital technology to support such spatial “informality.” This office model is designed around amenities that keep workers in the office as much as possible, offering services that go well beyond what one would normally expect in a workplace. Today, office design is a major asset in the competition to attract high-skilled workers. But how can this model translate to a labor market in other sectors that are not driven by the same competitiveness and innovation? What is compelling about Gehry’s project for Facebook is its attempt to refuse architectural cohesiveness in favor of a collaged approach, using seemingly ad-hoc, random. It doesn’t really have a facade, save for a large roof terrace, and its interior looks like it’s been put together by a carpenter. It’s a far cry from the heroic modernist projects of 20th-century American capitalism, with their prismatic glass minimalism. Think of Kevin Roche and Eero Saarinen’s projects for IBM—well-crafted minimalist sculptures immersed in pastoral landscapes, monuments to extreme rationalism and organization—their spacious rationalism communicated American efficiency and economic strength as a product of technological and managerial innovation. The Facebook office reveals how rationalization and management have now migrated to the “architecture” of software and artificial intelligence, which is able to find adaptive and precise solutions even in a seemingly chaotic physical space. A Facebook employee can pretty much wander into the headquarters like a situationist dérive, while still being plugged into a networked workplace where her labor is measured and tracked.
“The Facebook office represents the pinnacle of this trend that Gehry had in the 1990s—taking the office out of the office as much as possible, modeling the workplace around leisure and informality.”
The office model devised at Facebook successfully demonstrates the methodological shift necessary to design office spaces post-digitization. However, its effort to keep workers on-site for as long as possible conflicts with the emerging shift towards remote work, which is another radical consequence of digitization that the pandemic has drastically accelerated. The temporary success of WeWork and other co-working models demonstrates that even free-lancers, who could technically work from anywhere, look for designated spaces to work. The neoliberal tendency towards precarization and gig-based work has given rise to its specific office culture and consequent spaces. Co-working spaces have pioneered the idea of the office as a collage of many different spatial conditions and interior typologies of which. We could speculate that it is specifically this new working culture that companies are competing with when designing their offices. Today between 10 and 50 % of all work globally can be done remotely, so what will offices look like in the near future? Certainly not like the headquarters designed by Fosters and Partners for an ad agency in New York, where digitization has been translated by the architect into the massive presence of pretty meaningless projection screens everywhere—a decidedly boomer approach to the issue. My vision is that in the near future offices will simply stop being offices for the most part as once knowledge work can be executed through online collaborative tools from anywhere, the main raison d’etre for traditional offices will be gone. Future offices will be responding respond to the following agenda: provide a space to build a company culture, a space for socialization and collaboration, a place to measure “affinity distance,” and a place for representation and symbolism. Future offices will be a hybrid between cultural institutions and social spaces like clubs, restaurants, and cafes, where workers go from time to time just to meet their co-workers in person or do specific activities on a voluntary basis. This transformation disrupts the urban ecology which for the last 200 years has developed around offices agglomerations in urban centers. If it’s true that for every worker in an office there are four service workers who are dependent on them in the surrounding urban area, such geographies of interdependence will radically change and redistribute.
Perhaps the era of downtowns and business districts, which were imagined in the ’60s to give an urban form to knowledge work, will stop attracting corporate chains that absorb a large chunk of the commuter economy, and this capital flow will be redistributed to the territories around cities where remote workers continually gravitate. A successfully managed transition to remote work will be focused on this redistribution, away from an economy built on aggregation and monopoly and towards a granular model of small to medium enterprises that serve the specific needs of their communities. So the balance between offices, which will perhaps remain in city centers albeit with a radically changed purpose and a distributed network of alternative spaces for remote work, will radically reshape our cities geographies and economic patterns from a centripetal model based on density, to a distributed model more adaptive to individual needs. This would equate to really taking advantage of the promises of digitization. This process of redistribution could happen on greater scales than from city to periphery. Territories currently far from the global metropolitan epicenters could compete to attract workers and investments once the centripetal model is fundamentally challenged. We’re already seeing this in the US, with the growing number of people moving from Silicon Valley to cities like Portland, Austin, and Miami. In Europe could this be an opportunity to rebalance north-south inequality? It’s a compelling thought. This shift towards a new office model and the potential resulting redistribution is by no means a smooth transformation in regards to changing business strategies and public policy. As outlined in a 2021 report on public policy around remote work published by the London-based think tank Autonomy, to which I have contributed, remote work presents major challenges to public labor policy, and a drastic evolution of labor rights is urgently needed to account for this evolving scenario. Remote work should not mean longer and completely unstructured working hours, a risk that can be observed in long-established creative work where life and work are indecipherable. This transformation would have to be rapid if we consider the fact that we’ll emerge from the pandemic with massive unemployment and an increased number of jobs being lost to automation. Perhaps one outcome to be hopeful about is the shortening of the working week. Much like during the industrial revolution when the increasing automation of industrial machines led to the 8-hour work day and 5 day work week, digitization might ultimately lead to a 3 or 4 days work week. Perhaps we could return soon to an ancient roman model where negotium (work) is literally intended as a temporary pause from a leisurely life of otium (leisure).