The Post-Cubicle Office and Its Discontents

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The Post-Cubicle Office and Its Discontents
The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects / © Julian Faulhaber

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The Post-Cubicle Office and Its Discontents
The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects / © Julian Faulhaber

Beige partitions have given way to napping lofts, lunch gazebos and lots of open space. But are employees any happier or more productive?

“I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,’’ begins Theodore Roethke’s ‘‘Dolor,’’ the best poem in English about the grayness of the office. ‘‘All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,/Desolation in immaculate public places,/Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard.’’ For a century or more, office design has been our most useful metaphor for workers’ frustration. The color-sapped tedium of office life runs like a flickering current through the warrens of white-collar fiction — from Bartleby impassively facing his brick wall to Frank Wheeler caged in his dark cubicle in ‘‘Revolutionary Road.’’ The fluorescence, the screens, the fabric-wrapped plywood dividers: They’re demoralizing, humiliating.

But these days, to lament cubicles is to miss the point. Looking at the most sophisticated office spaces is to see that the lessons of Roethke and Bartleby — the design lessons, at any rate — have been learned. The offices of the ad agency Hi-ReS! in Berlin, designed by the German architecture firm Studio A/S, are painted garish colors — the workplace analogue of sucking on a Gobstopper — and crammed with a variety of spaces. No one sits in little cubicles: After a conference at a yellow table, you might climb a red ladder to a small loft, snuggling up against pillows while flicking through emails or furtively napping. The headquarters for the mobile-gaming company King, maker of Candy Crush Saga, is similarly brash and childlike, its employees working among brightly colored pink and green partitions and lunching under yellow-and-white gazebos. At the highest end, big-name architects treat the office like some spacecraft landed from the future. Zaha Hadid’s plans for a research center for Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, explode the usual boxy building envelope in favor of a network of woozily distorted honeycomb cells.

Over the last century, the office has been continually improved upon, in an attempt to make it work better and be a better place to work. But the whimsy and extravagance of the contemporary office is something new. Even when they were luxurious, the early offices of the 20th century were never wacky. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building from 1906 contained a soaring central light court and recreation rooms for its largely female staff: amenities that were unheard-of at the time. But no one was encouraged to take naps; there were no secret doors leading to interior ‘‘speakeasies,’’ like the one at LinkedIn’s offices in New York. Early offices were designed to extract relentless productivity from workers. The prodigal offices of today are the logical endpoint of a decades-long backlash against this way of thinking. […]

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