REMARKS ON THE DESIGN OF CONTEMPORARY WORKPLACES
We see an architectural model made of balsa wood, printed paper, coloured cardboard, Plexiglas, and adhesive. White plastic figures populate the scene. The situation comprises two levels of a large interior set in relation to each other. They are clearly community areas with open kitchen islands and tables, chairs, even deckchairs. Spatial elements are depicted which indicate other parts of the building: glass doors in the rear walls printed with woodland motifs lead into the interior of the house. Behind the kitchens there are undefined yet openly accessible rooms. An outside staircase on the right leads to the upper level. One of the figures is climbing the stairs to a kind of bar or counter behind which a man stands … cooking? Kitchen components are shown in warm orange-yellow tones. A woman is seated at the balustrade in front of the kitchen, gazing into the distance. The seat opposite her at the small table is empty. On the level below, a Persian carpet marks out an area with a long table and ten chairs. Behind this, again in warm colours, there is another kitchen island. Two figures are seated at the table, gesticulating as they converse. A third figure with a weekend bag is just joining them. On the open area with the balustrade, probably glass-roofed, are four deckchairs. In one of them, a somewhat older, female figure with a hat is sitting up, gazing into the light-filled space of the atrium. Next to her, at the balustrade, are a man with a walking stick and a woman whose head is turned to look toward the glass-roofed inner courtyard.
The picture is of a working model. We know that the model was built by Stefan Behnisch’s architectural practice. And we also know that the model was organised and designed with the help of the Quickborner Team (QT), one of the most distinguished German post-war workplace specialists who, in the years immediately after the founding of the firm, worked together with the Stuttgart philosophy professor Max Bense and the young Niklas Luhmann. If we were not to know, however, that the picture is of a contemporary office building (2009) in the Hamburg Harbour City, we would wonder just what programme this huge interior space housed. A self-organised canteen of a university? Meeting places in a hostel or some other new form of living space? The figures do not help us to decipher the architectural programme. A man with a walking stick? An older woman sitting up in a deckchair? A man with a weekend bag slung over his shoulder, joining two others at a table? What kind of scenes are these? What building has spacious, open kitchens arranged around a glass-roofed atrium? It is not, nota bene, a building with just one kitchen, but with a number of kitchens. Are all these kitchens fully functional? And, if they are, who cooks there? Or are they oversize kitchenettes? And what do the deckchairs face? Is it a worthwhile view.
While I’m curious to find out how the building continues behind the woodland wallpaper and—in comparison—how the surprisingly traditional workspaces and cells are organised, my imagination however is restrained by the knowledge that the model photo, which appears in Harun Farocki’s film A New Product, is significant as a depiction of an office building. The situation presented in this working model manifests contemporary symptoms of a kind of working life that is increasingly expanding into and enmeshing in leisure time. It displays problems with the rooms of international concerns in a situation where the sphere of work is becoming progressively more diffuse and permeating all areas of human activity.
The open-plan rooms that we see in the model photo are designed to suggest leisure and spatial freedom from work. Their designers intend them to be constantly used and lived in. If they cannot create community, teams, and genuine communication, such rooms should at least support them. The rooms bear the insignia of the leisure society: deckchairs one might find on a luxury liner, long tables around which people can gather, and oversize cooking areas that can be used for friends and family. These kitchen counters, among other things, indicate the status of the leisured individuals who are to people these rooms. Kitchen designs have long since turned its back on Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen with its conveyor belt aesthetic and Fordist logic and has become a leisure-time luxury with Bulthaupt b1–3 and other high-end providers. These kitchens promise fun. Self-organisation becomes possible in them. They open up a leisure space where we can organise ourselves informally around cooking a meal and negotiating who will slice the onions and who will peel the potatoes. The spaces opening up here are playful ones.
These open, superimposed kitchen levels that repeat eternally in imagination around the atrium are part of a contemporary transformation in workplace design. The rooms and spaces in the new office building in the Hamburg Harbour City are the vision of higher management and their architects in an era where work, definitively freed of its boundaries, is becoming a “social factory” (Mario Tronti).2 Even if anachronistic in a double sense, they are nonetheless real and mark out the logic of global corporations. In fact, these perpetuated interior design projects in so-called innovative workplace design testify to a management clinging to the milieus of enclosure of the disciplinary society so impressively analysed by Foucault, and to its own vested power. They disguise the fact that the office building as such is no longer needed and that there are other forms of collaboration and co-operative spaces. Office real estate, however, which mostly has little to do with interior design, obeys the logic of perpetual growth—an old paradigm that facilitated the European welfare state and formed the basis of modern architecture and urban development in the first half of the twentieth century. With the debate on the shortage and redistribution of resources, however, the growth model became obsolete.
Hence, these transformed workplace designs are artificial design solutions for a typology—the office building—that is actually superfluous. At the same time, the overdrawn break and recreation areas pose the problem of establishing the necessary leisure in contemporary working life and the logic of globally concerted undertakings. Distinct forces disconnected from the workers themselves are acting on the production of workplaces here. A networked administration whose workers are also increasingly being replaced by digital processes no longer needs a building. This, however, actually leads to the implementation of a flat hierarchy, developed from the bottom out by self-organising workers that is not under anyone’s direction, or its production skimmed by some abstract, market-listed organisation. More than ever before in financial capitalism, the building itself is a pure investment. It obeys dynamics of its own and has no causal connection to the company it houses. Indeed, most of today’s glass palaces are financed and erected by specialist firms and are again leased and run by specialist firms. Thus, a contemporary office building obeys to a potential maximum a globalised standard of structural bays, window axes, and circulation and leisure areas, rather than a self-relating narrative of uniqueness. Only in this way can real estate in the form of office buildings be made as universally configurable as possible with its office types that are reinvented every few years, different yet eternally the same: the DEN, CLUB, HIVE, and CELL.3
Interestingly enough, the first generation Quickborner Team in the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed radically to the discourse on workplaces. In the early 1960s, not only had the team already anticipated the future redundancy of office buildings, and been the first in the world to identify the restroom as both the ideal locus of communication for work processes and an integral productivity space, but it had also invented an office typology that was radically new for the times: the office landscape.
The brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle had originally sold office furniture and filing cabinets for their father’s company Velox, although they increasingly operated as consultants for innovative office organisation concepts and office space design. With the founding of Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle GmbH. & Co. KG., later renamed Quickborner Team Gesellschaft für Planung und Organisation MBH., they focused exclusively on this sphere of work. From 1956 onwards, the Schnelles and their interdisciplinary team developed scientific design and planning methods based on cybernetic principles, a direct outcome of which was the office landscape.
Cybernetics, to which the Schnelle brothers’ planning method explicitly refers, was a new model of thought in the late 1950s that promised to overcome despotic and disciplinary forms of governance and propagated a new form of living together. The basic principle is that both man and machines operate on a digital basis, hence they are programmable.The human being, here, is not so much grasped as machine, rather man and machine are viewed as autonomous, self-regulating entities whose modes of behaviour within the cybernetic system are considered as programmed and reprogrammable.4
Cybernetics was extraordinarily successful in the 1950s and 1960s. Its principles of circular feedback loops, web-like organisation, and not least its popular claim to be able to implement the fully automated leisure society was diffused into a host of scientific disciplines as well as becoming the subject of articles in popular magazines. There were countless publications on cybernetics and homoeopathic medicine, cybernetics and theology, or cybernetics and art.5 But the cybernetic model of thought also fascinated architects. Shortly after the seemingly chaotic office landscape of Buch und Ton conceived for Bertelsmann AG, the British architect Cedric Price, the theatre director Joan Littlewood, and the psychologist and cyberneticist Gordon Pask conceived the cybernetically organised Fun Palace (1961–1966).6 Constant Nieuwenhuys’s anti-capitalist, utopian city of New Babylon produced in 1964 mirrors this popular cybernetics discourse no less than Yona Friedman’s Realisable Utopias.7
The professed goals of the organisational consultants Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle and their team were entirely in the spirit of this cybernetic promise. On the one hand, they wanted to design the office as a flexible and adaptive corporate instrument that was also a human and pleasant milieu for workers. On the other, a target of their work was to fully automate office work and to liberate workers into “perpetual leisure”.
For Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle in the 1960s, and for countless others, cybernetics was an emancipatory movement capable of transforming the alienated aspect of work in wealthy industrial states into the autonomy of individuals. A new society was to be produced by overcoming normative moral positions such as honour, duty, loyalty, and industry that were “in a position to exact achievement of the lower classes without any material return”.8 As a project of enlightenment, cybernetics presented new aspects of social structuring that freed itself from outdated hierarchical structures to make a target-driven society capable of quicker transformation and also better able to learn”.9
This pragmatic approach toward the full automation of administrative activity consisted of recording, systematising, and regulating every single working step as thoroughly as possible. Simple, repetitive working processes involving known items of information were quickly taken over by machines and calculators. Non-repeating work processes with a high and as yet unknown information content still had to be performed by workers. Workers, as the prevailing rhetoric put it, were to be liberated from tedious labour and henceforth to be active as experts. This creative, specialised work was to be carried out in teams to objectify the work processes as far as possible, and thus to protect the corporation against possible wrong decisions taken by single individuals.10
The first application of organisational cybernetics as a planning method took place between 1958 and 1960 for the Boehringer pharmaceutical company in Mannheim. But the first entirely newly organised workspace produced by means of the scientific planning method was Buch und Ton.It was the size of half a soccer pitch. The room was 2.90 metres high, and the background noise was comparable to that of a 1956 VW Beetle traveling at 50 km/h. Work was organised according to a visually loose-knit, even chaotic-looking pattern of furniture, machines, calculators, and workers.
Buch und Ton displayed no formal similarity to the geometrically rigorous arrangement of workplaces in widely known American open-plan offices as seen, for instance, in Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment (1960). The Bertelsmann mail order company was not organised like a factory with a clearly legible hierarchy, with workers and machines lined up with military precision so they could be monitored and disciplined from a central point. Instead, the design logic was of a working community, organised as flatly as possible and consisting of small groups and teams, visible at a glance, with neither bosses nor group leaders, or if so, they were positioned among their team members as part of the group. It was the precisely calculated ordering of workplaces, potted plants, and partitions, and the psychologically calculated colour scheme of the ceiling that made it impossible to take in this endless interior at a single glance and made it seem chaotic. The design alone was intended to make each individual feel SHE was in a democratically organised space free of hierarchies, aware of his responsibility toward society, and active as a motivated specialist team member.
A prominent feature of this new working environment was its two restrooms. While on the organisational diagram they appear outside the work process, they were nevertheless understood to be a part of production and also specially mentioned in the project brochure. Alongside the air conditioning, and the generally “transparent and lavish” ambiance with the “irregular rhythm of its set-up and multicolouring of the space,” which “[viewed] from all workplaces creates a subjective space that assures an intimate atmosphere”,11 the two restrooms are picked out for special mention, with their health loungers, chairs, versatile tables, and a 3.8-metre-long counter with sinks and fridges for drinks, food, and ice cube production.12
This cybernetic-organisational planning model and its revolutionary organisation of space was soon exceptionally successful. From the early 1960s onwards, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle planned, designed, and built a wide range of office landscapes including the Ford works in Cologne (1966), the Grosseinkaufs-Gesellschaft Deutscher Consumvereine (GEG) offices and mail-order storage in Kamen (1966), the NINO textile company in Nordhorn (1961), the open-plan office building for Orenstein & Koppel in Dortmund (1965), and the OSRAM GmbH in Munich. The firm of organisational consultants soon expanded into other European countries, then in 1967 to the USA where “Quickborner Team Incorporated” was founded, and finally to Caracas. The organisational design of the German Federal Chancellery in Bonn beginning in 1971 marked the end of Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle’s ambitious involvement with office buildings.13 They left the Quickborner Team and founded Metaplan, a firm that engaged with corporate organisation on a more abstract level, focusing on so-called decider training. Simultaneously, the firm’s own publishing company, which had been issuing books on office building planning and cybernetics since the late 1950s, was wound up.
Starting in the 1970s, a range of imitators took up the visual principle of the office landscape and adapted it without even remotely continuing the Quickborner Team’s cybernetic underpinning and original design process. The influential British architect and workplace specialist Francis Duffy, to name but one, popularised so-called office landscaping in the 1970s, particularly in England and the USA.14
Since then, office building and the organisation and design of interiors have changed at various levels. Smaller and more manageable workspaces have been reintroduced, and over the years workplaces have become more flexible and standardised to a maximum. “Hotelling” is doubtless the most radical model used by consultancy companies to optimise the usage of office space. Here, when workers want to work in a firm, they must first book a table at reception. These new forms of working are explained not only by radical technological advances, such as the advent of the personal computer and cellphone in everyday office life in the 1980s. Far more than this, corporate organisation and administration have developed parallel to the management discourses prevailing at any particular time. The idea of extending leisure time into workspaces has been pursued in a variety of ways to keep the “corporate flagship” staff motivated and conceal the fact that what is actually involved are new organisational forms and workspaces. Art, restrooms of ever more unusual design, playground apparatus such as slides and swings, as well as the obligatory exercise room, are used to this end. Artist-in-residency programmes and an increasing number of services for staff, such as laundry or massage facilities, also play a role. Simultaneously, the private lives of colleagues become subject to control and targets for evaluation by management.
Hence, with the expansion of informal work situations and the production of leisure ambiances, the horizontal, minutely calculated office-landscape interior experiences an unexpected and yet deformed revival. The office landscape in the Dutch group of architects MVRDV’s Villa VPRO of 1997 is folded vertically, and the Rolex Learning Centre designed for the University of Lausanne by the Japanese architectural team SANAA, led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is some four times the size of Buch und Ton. Completed in 2009, the space is a rolling interior landscape where students come together casually in teams with a view to producing new knowledge. Currently, the concept of office landscaping is being implemented by the star architect Frank Gehry for Facebook.
Möntmann, Nina (Eds): End of Play, A reader about Haroun Farockis Film A New Product, Verlag Walther König, Köln: 2014
 The research and material of this essay are part of “Architektur der Organisationskybernetik” P 22447-G21, a research project financed by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).
2 In my book Architektur immaterieller Arbeit (Vienna, 2013) I discuss the spatial analogy of the social factory. See also Mario Tronti, Arbeiter und Kapital (Frankfurt am Main, 1974), p. 31 (Italian original: 1966). The essay “Fabrik und Gesellschaft”, in which the social factory is introduced, was first published in Quaderni Rossi 2 (1962).
3 DEN, CLUB, HIVE, and CELL are technical terms for the four prevailing office typologies to which all office furniture developers recur. The typologies are defined in terms of the work processes that are to take place in them, team size (individual workplace, group), and duration of a worker’s stay. See e.g. John Worthington, ed., Reinventing the Workplace (London, 2006), or Francis Duffy, The New Office (London, 1997).
4 The American literary and cultural scholar Katherine Hayles distinguishes three stages of development in cybernetics, each of which has its central paradigm: 1) 1945–60: self-regulation; 2) 1960–80: reflexivity; 3) since 1980: virtuality. In particular, the first phase is clearly discernible in the Schnelle brothers’ concept. See Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics(Chicago/London, 1999), p. 7.
5 See Claus Pias, “Zeit der Kybernetik: Eine Einstimmung”, in Claus Pias, ed., Cybernetics—Kybernetik: The Macy Conferences 1946–1953(Berlin/Zurich, 2004), pp. 9-41.
6 Most publications date the design of Fun Palace between 1961 and 1966.
7 Yona Friedman, Utopies Réalisables (Paris, 1976).
8 Eberhard Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik”, Kommunikation 1 (September 1965).
10 For a detailed analysis and discussion of the restructuring of work processes see Rumpfhuber 2013 (note 2), esp. pp. 65-79.
11 Beschreibung der Bürolandschaft des Hauses Bertelsmann in der Firma Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton (brochure), no further details available, Quickborner Team Archive, Hamburg.
13 On the work of the Quickborner Team on the Federal Chancellery in Bonn see Merle Ziegler, Blackbox Architektur: Das Bonner Bundeskanzleramt 1969–1976 (dissertation, submitted 2 April, 2013).
14 An interesting exposition of Francis Duffy’s reading of the situation is to be found in his influential article “Bürolandschaft Revisited” in Architects Journal (1975) in which he constructs a genealogy of the office landscape relating exclusively to an Anglo-American open-plan office tradition and presents himself as a theorist of the office landscape. See Francis Duffy, “Burolandschaft Revisited”, Architects Journal (26 March 1975).
In contrast to the practice of the organisational cyberneticists of the 1960s, however, who allowed knowledge to be incomplete and provisional, and thus, in the face of the threat posed by the radical restructuring of the economy in post-war Germany, provided a space that, at the time it was created, actually entailed a modicum of emancipation, the majority of contemporary design offices have opted for consolidation, satisfying management’s concern for security and repeatability of success and, in this spirit, creating nothing more than “feel-good ambiances”.