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Imma Forino

Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Offices: Architecture, interiors, furniture

1. EVOLUTION OF OFFICE SPACE | Modern-day offices really began to break with past designs – late 19th century individual office rooms, office pools in the 1930s (borrowed from factories) and open-space designs after the Second World War – when electrification was introduced and then, most significantly of all, through the computerising of intangible data transmission and storage processes (for administration, accounts and creative purposes): the differences machine (1822) and Charles Babbage’s analytic machine (1860), viewed with both curiosity and a certain amount of suspicion by his contemporaries, eventually led to the modernisation (the first electronic calculator was brought out in 1945) of working methods, spatial layouts and furnishing. The creation of standard sized paper, first experimented with in the late-18th century in France (now DIN A4-serie ISO 216 in Europe, Letter in the United States and Canada), and means of writing on it, such as the steel pen (1820) and inkwell, biro (invented by László József Bíró in the late- 1930s), mechanical writing machine (approximately 1866) followed by the electrical-mechanical machine, and finally various ways of duplicating documents (manual copying, carbon copying, photocopying) and sending them off (the telegraph was in 1844 and the telephone in 1871) gradually felpe shape the structure of clerical work, the various types and styles of furnishing (containers, files, writing desks, chairs) for performing it and their spatial layout, designed to make it easier to move documents around the various departments of an office.

Electrical components had notable implications on the modern style of Bürolandschaft, first developed in the late-195s thanks to German designers at Quickborner Consulting Group, headed by the brothers Wolfang and Eberhard Schnelle. The guiding concept was “you cannot get good work out of a bad office” or, in other words, the idea that the environment directly affects the quality and quantity of work being carried out. The open office – successfully worked on by Philip Johnson at the J. Seagram & Son Admn. Building in New York, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1958, and Gordon Bunshaft at the Knoll Planning Unit for Lever Bros. House in New York, designed by SOM in 1951-1952 − was transformed into an informal, fragmented and privatised environment full of plants and ergonomic furnishing aimed at enhancing the physical and psychological integrity of office staff. Furniture was expected to divide up and improve the interior layout, which was arranged to enhance the physical organisation of office duties – i.e. subordinating them to the prior arrangement of the main work flows –, landscaping and furniture enriched and embellished the visual perception of workers. The wide-scale incorporation of nature meant that it was legitimate to talk about an Office Landscape, drawing on an expression mainly used in America, but this approach, long considered to be revolutionary due to the democratisation of relations between staff it implied, hit a crisis due to the need for electrification, which, during the 1970s, turned this kind of informal setting into a labyrinth of orthogonal screens for concealing the increasingly vast array of electric cables, while a constant “white buzz” toned down the background noise.

Alongside the advent of electronics, the phenomenon which had the greatest impact on work, and hence relations between people, spaces and furniture, was connectivity or, in other words, the possibility of having “horizontal” information, thanks to a kind of technology which cancelled out distances between the people using it. In the mid-1990s, the Web spread to a worldwide scale and connectivity – which can be traced back to the late-1960s with the Arpanet Web, which later became the Internet – soon became the linchpin around which all manufacturing sectors rotated. The consequences of this included the possibility of working anywhere, particularly from home, replacing the rhythmic patterns of old society with the tiring 24-hour society, with no more distinctions between leisure time and working hours.

Nowadays, the office reflects the flexibility of wireless technology, just as forced nomadism and a general sense of uncertainty due to the precarious nature of the working world are reflected in the temporary nature of working environments, the transience of spatial layouts and rapid obsolescence and replacement of furniture. In future, the models experimented with in the past will be meaningless, already called into question a few years ago by the revolutionary cable table, approximately 200 m long, designed by Mario Cucinella Architects for Uniflair (Padua 2005): a vision of the office which breaks down managerial hierarchies and enhances the shimmering, fluid flow of information. Scenarios in the future, geared to the necessary instability of employment, will, on the other hand, increasingly hinge around the co-office or sharing of spaces and equipment (PC, table, room, meeting room), mainly rented out. The visible consequence of this will be a general lack of any definite place embodying the personal traits of its user. This panorama, at first sight dehumanised and apparently a far cry from the work of the space planner, will however have positive consequences if the people inhabiting the spaces are creative workers, freelancers or young business people keen to start working on their own.

Indeed, it will gain in value if viewed in light of the re-appropriation, again on a temporary basis, of the city’s abandoned spaces. The need to occupy a primary work place, display your work to clients and organise subsequent phases in it, and bearing in mind the excessively high rents for people starting their first job, all call for a rethinking of the meaning of an “office”, giving it different connotations. Ubiquity, transient boundaries and flexibility will underpin a new and more elastic concept. On one hand, it means developing a different organisational layout of the “city of work”, unstable and constantly changing, and, on the other, of envisaging office design as a more flexible and economic project. Transforming the dilapidated parts of the city, mainly represented by the suburbs and its abandoned buildings, into a pulsating machine for creative work, means furbishing them with stable facilities (bars, restaurants, miscellaneous services) and different kinds of furnishing – to be assembled, dismantled and reused differently within these abandoned places. In other words, they need to be envisaged as temporary but site-specific projects, borrowing an increasingly fashionable idea from the art world. The renting of temporary office spaces, already available for some years now in Northern Europe and the United States (even just for a few days) could be enriched by a more global vision of settings bringing all the different variables involved into play, even if these settings are extremely constrained in size.

Within a setting which needs to be constantly updated, product design could provide its own contribution to variability through mass-produced products. But, as these products adapt to the instability of the corporate and operating system, they must be devised with the qualities of an exhibit or, in other words, those traits which generally characterise an installation project for temporary or travelling exhibitions. Poor but fireproof materials, simple modularity, versatile components and the possibility of altering the aesthetics of elements assembled for personal usage with almost “graphic” simplicity, might be some of the coefficients to be brought into play. This would create a highly varied workscape or workscape composed of macro-objects, which, in turn, become micro-places where people work.

Transience, instability and discontinuità are raised to the status of positive design features. This produces a very simple kind of aesthetics, which, however, is much more suitable for the office of the near future than all the elaborately created designer spaces and furnishing abounding on the present-day scene. As opposed to the virtual office and home office, which appeared to be transforming the layout of the modern-day working world until a few years ago, it is more realistic to propose the temporary “spare office” as a chance to turn mobility into creative motion.

2. GLOBAL OFFICES | The 2008 financial downturn still is not over, despite the safety measures being adopted by governments to combat the economic recession: there are no jobs or at least not enough for everybody and they are often poorly paid; young people now have the tricky task of inventing them (for themselves), very often without any outside help, attempting to come up with new ways of offering their services to the market and making do with facilities that are not always “custom-designed” but just adapted for their usage. Temporary offices, co-working offices, and small hub-worked companies created to carry out social projects, are just some of the most recent forms of organisation in the services sector in accordante with the changing spirit of the age. The free market is catered for by organising short-lasting spaces and then renting them out (on a daily or monthly basis) on a rotor basis, likewise the furniture and technical facilities required for this kind of work are also for hire. The World Wide Web ensures that all the necessary data can be found and guarantees visibility for the people involved.

On the other hand, those multinationals that are managing to cope with the ups and downs of the stock market are still closely tied to the paradigm of the open-space office: desks in rows with flat ceilings fitted with rows of fluorescent lights, alternating with private offices that are slightly bigger than the cubicles of the 1970s, more or less transparent meeting rooms, and vending machines in the corridors. Meanwhile the staff regularly take their breaks on the stairs or outdoors to smoke one last cigarette. Despite the quality finishing, opalescent or clear-glass dividing partitions, and the most up-to-date furnishing (provided the company has invested in furnishing as well as constructing or reconstructing the building), the officescape is very often obsolete as soon as it is completed, yet it is still the shared scenario for the everyday life of staff, managers and consultants inside buildings with cutting-edge elevations: promotional marketing has its various facets and, even today, promoting the company’s visual identity still takes precedence over the staff’s mental well-being, as is clearly embodied by the tangible presence – even when it is seemingly dematerialised – of the building. Only a few enlightened companies allocate part of their financial resources for company crèches, vital for allowing women to keep on working, preferring to win over the favour of staff by providing amenities such as a fitness room, coffee bar or relaxation area, while public administration is, as a matter of fact, still resistant to any innovations. The final user is only rarely consulted by managers and designers, even though he or she should be a key player in the office design: in the best of cases, staff are only consulted through their delegates or, in other words, through “sample groups”, so that they end up inhabiting, mostly on a daily basis, environments developed based on the corporate strategies of facility managers and delegated administrators, mediated through the perspectives (increasingly less utopian) of the architects. The final result is often a place envisaged for some standard person, who nobody can really identify with, but everybody is forced to reluctantly conform with.

During a rapid process of development that began towards the end of the 1960s, plenty has changed in the organisation of services work: the ease of access to information through the Internet, productivity focused almost exclusively on the aforementioned information, the speed of financial processes, the outsourcing of tasks based on partnerships, and the mobility of staff increasingly involved in multitasking. The modern-day smart city – intelligent because it is constantly connected – is matched by a fragmented work environment that spreads right across the globe and seems to physically replicate the volatile breakdown in the storage of knowledge: no longer down-to-earth, written on sheets of paper, locked away in filing cabinets and drawers or saved in files on the hard discs of computers, but now up in the skies, a cloud among the clouds. Indeed, cloud computing is not just a revolutionary system for storing and accessing data, totally getting rid of the cumbersomeness – because it is now so much smaller – of equipment, it is also the latest way of organising work and the people who carry it out: no longer “through matrixes” or “through networks” (already superseded by hierarchically pyramid-style planning), which become productive through contacts and transnational exchange nodes based on a collective, ‘aerial’ sharing of ideas.

And yet a “new Taylorism” seems to be imposing itself on everything: globalisation is a general law, progressing at the kind of rhythms and rates American engineering experimented with on workers the beginning of the 20th century. Thanks to all this, work never stops, since the freedom of wireless technology means we are always connected and can always be reached, our minds never stopping. Nevertheless, the globalisation of labour is not in any way matched by any kind of standard practice in how it is carried out: in the real world prescribing this “intellectual machine-operating” clashes with differences between different nations, the various kinds of professions to be carried out in the service industry itself (from administrative tasks to creative jobs) and their degree of internal hierarchy and the gender of workers.

Compared to the intangible nature of working lives, one final bastion still remains, a sort of life raft to be grabbed hold of: My Desk is my Castle is the title of a research project carried out by Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff (Birkhäuser, 2011), paraphrasing the well-known legal expression coined by Sir Edward Coke (“For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique tutissimum refugium”, 1628).

And the desk or rather worktop, even when dematerialised by the latest trends in office design – thin surfaces, slender supports, no drawers, clear plastic or dark glass coatings -, is still a real symbol of individuality, of belonging to a place, of self identification and, in a broader sense, of the individual’s resistance to the company’s dictates – apparently necessary in this precarious and ever-changing work scenario. Tamed by personal objects, symptoms of brief daily affection or other artefacts instantly identifiable as status symbols (hyper-technology, Italian or Japanese style, luxury), which are expected to serve the comunicative purpose of self-promotion, the desks is turning into the incessant monologue of self-assertion, identity and difference. Whereas in shared offices self-narrative has to come to terms with the inevitable rotating of workers around the same work area, it is in call centres, with all their deafening shifts aimed at covering the entire working day, where it is finally reduced to silence ultimately revealing how identity can, in reality, easily be absorbed by global dictates. Uno, nessuno e centomila (One, No one and One Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello’s novel): is this an inevitable break down caused by the fluidity of the market?

(IMMA FORINO is the author of the book Uffici: interni arredi oggetti, Einaudi, Turin 2011)


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