Sunday, March 31, 2013


I spotted an article on the BBC website yesterday about open-plan offices. “They can be noisy and distracting or depressingly quiet, and frictions with co-workers are guaranteed,” the article writes, “so why do so many of us continue to work in open-plan offices?”

It reminds me of another article I read in Wired a few years ago. Both articles reviewed the history of office layouts and accounted the start of the open-plan office to the Taylorist idea of efficiency. In the American industrial boom of the late 19th century, bosses packed more and more clerical workers in a completely open environment, assembling them into rows of desks facing one direction, much like on a factory floor with production lines. We can see this inhuman condition in movies, and the great work room in FLW’s Johnson Wax building is a living example, although better design and better materials did warm up the space. Hierarchy here is clear – the managers oversee the employees from the mezzanine level, from their private offices with a view outside.

King Vidor, “The Crowd”, 1928
Billy Wilder, “The Apartment”, 1960
Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson Wax building, 1939

In the 1950s, Quickborner – a team of management consultants in Germany – developed a new office layout concept called “Bürolandschaft” (Office-Landscape). As a critique to the cold and rigid array of desks, this new plan looked free and organic. Desks were scattered in a seemingly random fashion, and clustered in work units of different sizes. Large plants softened the environment, and created some degree of differentiation and privacy. In fact, this overall arrangement was anything but random. It was based upon an intensive study of patterns of communication – between different parts of the organization and different individuals. The Quickborner team put company staff of all ranks together on one open floor, creating a non-hierarchical environment that encouraged communication, discussion, and debate, and at the same time allowing for future flexibility.
Walter Henn, Plan for Osram Offices in Munich, 1965
Osram Offices in Munich
Office Type Organizational Diagram

I don’t know if it was intentional, Ishigami’s Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop seems like a contemporary example of the Bürolandschaft idea.
Junya Ishigami, Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop, 2008

The Bürolandschaft concept inspired Herman Miller to produce the first modular business furniture system – the Action Office. It had flexible work surfaces that allowed the worker freedom of movement and the possibility to adjust work position according to the task. But the low dividers undermined the original openness and charmingly random quality of Bürolandschaft. Eventually, the competing demands of openness vs. privacy, interaction vs. autonomy landed in a compromise – the cubicle. This new solution defined personal territory while keeping chances to communicate with others, and it was cheap, versatile, and easy to assemble. Soon it became extremely popular and the sea of cubicles (a.k.a. cube farm) was born, although nowadays, especially in sci-fi movies, it has become the symbol of “ordinary and boring jobs.”
Herman Miller’s Action Office system
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, 1967
Tron, 1982
The Matrix, 1999

A more open office environment may be too noisy and distracting. It may cause more conflicts, over minor things like windows open or not, absent-minded comments, inappropriate jokes, or even ring tones… But I am so glad that I don’t need to work in a sea of cubicles. I guess at the end a healthy office environment really depends primarily on the people who work in it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Phone calls – two new fictional stories

#1: Tokyo, Japan

Ito: Moshi moshi?
Sejima: Sensei, congratulations!
Ito: Oh you.
Sejima: We haven’t talked for three years…
Ito: Well, you never called. What do you expect me to do?
Sejima: I still felt guilty after we spoke last time. But now I am really happy. You finally got what you deserve!
Ito: Everybody says “finally,” like I’ve been really waiting for my whole life and my chances were gone. Well, nobody was betting on me this year anyways, not right after you and Wang Shu.
Sejima: Yeah, I was a bit surprised that Yung Ho was powerful enough to get two Asians in a row. Thank Buddha they didn’t pick that Danish kid.
Ito: I would have had a heart attack if they did that.
Sejima: You should have got the prize right after Sendai. It’s truly a masterpiece. The jury was very impressed by the structural tubes.
Ito: I just did what the computer showed. I am glad that it didn’t collapse during the earthquake.
Sejima: The earthquake actually gave us architects some interesting new work. Your “Home-for-All” was great at the Biennale last year.
Ito: I just wanted to bring some young energy and variety to the show, you know. Cheaperfield is quite boring. Can’t believe people bet on him this year.
Sejima: Yeah, he doesn’t change. But you’ve changed quite a lot. Yung Ho said you keep pushing the boundaries of architecture and you are “not afraid of letting go what you have accomplished before.” That’s very nice.
Ito: I am surprise to hear that from you. You know I don’t fix on skinny columns and white buildings all the time. I like to try new things, but they are not easy. People say I’m getting crazy with age. They hate the towers in Barcelona and the solar stadium in Taiwan, for example.
Sejima: It’s OK, sensei. They are not so bad. The jury citation calls you “a creator of timeless buildings, who at the same time boldly charts new paths.” you’ve developed a “syntax” that combines “a spectrum of architectural languages.” Those are very kind words.
Ito: They are basically saying I’m swinging a lot. I think last time they said sometime like that was to Philip Johnson. I guess I am officially the new whore of architecture now.
Sejima: Oh by the way, are you trying something new for the M+ competition in Hong Kong? What is it like?
Ito: Hold on. That’s really why you are calling, isn’t it? Would you tell me what your scheme is like also?
Sejima: Ano…
Ito hangs up.

Nishizawa (staring at Sejima as she puts down the phone): Seriously? The towers in Barcelona? That ugly blue thing in Taiwan?
Sejima: If I told him the truth, he would have hung up right then!

#2: Chengdu, China

The phone rang. Holl picked it up. The other side of the line kept talking but he just remained silent, staring blankly at the Sliced Porosity Block across the street from his hotel room. After what seemed like an hour to him, he slowly put down the phone, shook his head, and huffed, again.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Massive Messe

The new hall of Messe Basel by HdM had been standing at the end of Clarastrasse for some time before it officially opened a few weeks ago. Much debate was going on about this new gigantic structure: Is such a big building necessary for Basel? How bad is it to block the view towards Messeplatz? In response to the controversy, Jacques Herzog reiterated his vision of a metropolitan Basel that could adopt this large scale, and stated the fact that there had never been an axis intended through Messeplatz in history. On the contrary, the new “City Lounge” provided a covered public space with a dramatic open oculus, continuing traffic and activities from Clarastrasse, and creating a compressed threshold into Messeplatz and the fairs.

I couldn’t decide until a recent tour into the newly finished building. It was mind-blowing. The building is what it needs to be: a very large box with wide span and high ceiling. Standing inside the overwhelming exhibition halls, I felt the scale well justified. I guess it was the only time we could see the entire hall completely empty. But one thing was clear: size does matter.

This vast emptiness will soon be filled with pavilions for the upcoming BaselWorld – the annual international watch and jewelry fair. Rumor has it, the pavilions inside cost twice as much as this already fancy-looking “shell.” And the fair is so profitable that with only 5 days a year, Messe Basel can pay off the construction cost within three years. Crazy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Clarity vs. simplicity

According to Oxford Dictionary:

the quality of being clear, in particular:
– the quality of being coherent and intelligible
– the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound
– the quality of being certain or definite
– the quality of transparency or purity

– the quality or condition of being easy to understand or do
– the quality or condition of being plain or uncomplicated in form or design

By definition, both words mean directness of expression. But being simple implies being basic, free from complications and elaborations, while being clear requires sharpness in communication, free from obscurity or ambiguity. Some people get the two words mixed up, assuming something simple would naturally mean it’s clear. In my opinion, clarity is far more demanding than simplicity. Clarity is good with or without simplicity. In fact, it requires more effort to achieve clarity with complexity. On the other hand, simplicity is only good when it’s clear. Simplicity without clarity is just dumb and meaningless.

Design is an art of communicating ideas. Clarity is intelligence and simplicity is just form.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Even the Death Star has a dent

Human Wu: Hello Darth. Hello Dave. It’s an honor to have you both here today and discuss Brutalism in architecture. Let me start with Darth. You are currently supervising the construction of the Death Star.

Darth Vader: Yes. It’s the latest project by the Empire. It features the most advanced technology, and it’s very sustainable. Tarkin and I are very proud of it.

The Death Star under construction

HW: It’s not a concrete structure. Do you think it would look less powerful than those rough concrete buildings on Planet Earth?

DV: Come on you Earth people! Who says concrete means power? Look at Dave. I don’t even know what his 2001 monolith is made of!

Dave Bowman: I can’t tell either. I woke up in my room the other day and there was this mysterious black thing standing in front of my bed. It was not very big but extremely imposing. I think it was the pure geometry that gave it the powerful look, just like Darth’s sphere.

HW: It seems there is a new trend in architecture that everybody is doing pure shapes—circles, triangles, cubes… Would you define that as the new Brutalism?

DV: It depends. The idea of our Death Star is actually trying to blend in. Look around—all planets are spherical. So in a way the Death Star is highly contextual. Camouflage, you know. Someone from your planet stole the design and put it in the desert. That doesn’t work. That’s just brutal. I also saw you guys building a giant ring in a small town with a forest in the middle. I just don’t get it.

HW: It’s interesting that you brought up the issue of context. Dave, do you think that explains what happened to the monolith?

DB: You could say that I guess. But there’s absolute beauty in platonic shapes. They are so perfect and universal. They have this omnipotent capacity to accommodate any program. If you can solve problems with simple geometry, why use all those blobs and twists? When you have a pure form, even apes understand it’s something special. It makes the concept clearer and stronger.

DV: Fuck concept! Even the Death Star has a dent, for the force’s sake. You do what it takes to make it work. Architecture is not just about form after all. Over-simplification only causes problems. I do hate those pretentious twists and shit though.

HW: With that remark, I’d like to conclude our conversation today. Thank you both very much. I can’t wait to see the completion of the Death Star.

DV: Thanks. I just hope Luke doesn’t come and demolish it 50 years later. Kids these days never respect their fathers’ achievements. Maybe I should apply for a landmark status right away.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview do not represent the views of the author.)