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|
|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.