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Forty years of office design

Offices are at the cutting edge of social changes that are shaping the future of the city and our everyday lives

Twenty years ago I made my first attempt to trace the history of the development of the office as a building type. To establish some order in a relatively uncharted area, I contrasted the circumstances of the commissioning of three significant pairs of buildings.

I wanted to emphasise the point of view of the people and the businesses for whom the offices had been built.

The first pair, Peter Ellis' Oriel Chambers in Liverpool (1864) and CR Cockerill's Sun Insurance Building in the City of London (1849), allowed me to compare an office building deliberately constructed as an undifferentiated frame with an office building conceived primarily as a commercial palace. The second pair was Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York (1904) and Adler and Sullivan's high-rise Guaranty Building, built in the same year in the same city. The former was an office purpose-built as a machine for getting business done, the second a high-rise example of the office as a device for multiplying the value of land. The third pair was Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York (1954) and the Ninoflax building in Nordhorn, Germany (1963) - the office as an urban statement (as well as being a supremely elegant rent slab) compared with an office deliberately shaped, inside out, by a cybernetic study of internal communications.Ninoflax, architecturally the finest of all the early burolandschaft offices, seemed to me to be none the worse for its functionalist origins.

At that time structural and environmental engineering were frequently cited as influences on the form of office buildings - second only to the genius of their architect creators. Real estate financing and what we now call information technology were rarely mentioned, although these too were clearly powerful determinants of form.

What has happened since then? In the past four decades - the whole period of my own career in what is still wrongly thought to be a relatively stable field - office architecture has become more important and more volatile. The office is no longer an adjunct to the places where the real work is done. Knowledge work is making the office the dominant workplace. The big differences are statistical.Well over half the working population in advanced economies such as the UK now works in offices. Information technology, having already made the office grow enormously, is now offering ubiquitous and reliable electronic access in ways that are certain to transform not just the physical landscape of cities but also the entire landscape of our temporal lives.

Perhaps as much as 10 per cent of the huge population of office workers is already experiencing virtuality, in forms such as home working and hotelling. Twentieth-century conventions of the use of time, such as the five-day week and the eight-hour day, may soon become anachronisms.

Understanding what is happening to office architecture is a shortcut to understanding the trends that are shaping the future of the city and every other building type.

Into the '70s SOM's supremely confident, Grade II*-listed D90 office building for Boots the Chemist in Nottingham (1968) is an emblem of the influence that post-Second World War, American economic imperialism had upon the British economy. The huge open plan as well as the bold structure were designed to broadcast corporate order. Everything and everybody was in its place: bosses in high-ceilinged offices, everyone else in workplace carrels of the highest quality.Everything was static and preordained.Management knew best. This was the office as the ultimate corporate Versailles.

Herman Hertzberger's masterpiece in Apeldoorn for the Dutch insurance company Centraal Beheer (1974) is also low-rise and is equally open plan. However, Centraal Beheer is very far from being a North American building. It represents an entirely different concept of what organisational culture ought to be: egalitarian, young, louche, anti-corporate, semi-anarchic.'Blue jeans'was the metaphor the company used to describe its attitude. Management is implicit rather than overt.

There is no obvious hierarchy. Everyone has freedom to arrange their own workplaces in their own way - with posters and plants, goldfish and garden chairs - but within a far stronger architectural framework than Boots. Centraal Beheer's deliberately urban interior is designed to stimulate self-help, intimacy, interaction. It is not designed to control.

Centraal Beheer, while much admired, was never replicated. Shortly after occupation, legislation in several Northern European countries, including the Netherlands, began to make it compulsory for managers to consult workers' councils on all matters concerning the quality of working life.When people were asked what kind of office environment they really wanted, the social democratic choice was not the open plan but individual office rooms, all day-lit, all naturally ventilated, every one the same size. The open plan in Northern Europe was no longer an option.

In the UK industrial democracy developed on a different timetable. Boots the Chemist initiated a major cultural change in the late '90s, using the extension and renovation of the Nottingham headquarters as the catalyst for change.As well as the highly open design process, one of the major architectural features of the new project (designed by DEGW) is an internal street running the length of the project, strongly reminiscent of Centraal Beheer.

Into the '80s The City of London itself went through a series of violent cultural changes in the '80s, not entirely of its own volition.The globalisation of the financial services industry and the consequent deregulation of trading in securities and foreign exchange were made inevitable by developments in information technology. The architectural fallout was that a third of the City's office stock had to be rebuilt in the '80s to accommodate the new computers, with their cabling and their cooling loads, and to meet the not-inconsiderable expectations of transatlantic traders and operators.

Richard Rogers'building for Lloyd's of London (1986), that great Gothic masterpiece, is an elaborate celebration of the architectural impact of information technology.What is still astonishing after looking at the complexity of the external ducts and lifts is the rigour and simplicity of the building's floor plate, so neatly lit by its big central atrium.What Rogers did was to turn the standard American high-rise office building, always characterised by the meanness of circulation in big central cores, completely inside out. At the moment that information technology exploded, immediately after the ORBIT studies, a new architecture emphasising access for networks of people as well as for networks of equipment had been created.

The more pragmatic, not to say formulaic, Americans didn't quite see the point. Contrast Lloyd's with the conservativism of the centralcore plan form of Cesar Pelli's skyscraper in Canary Wharf (1988). The floor plate replicates almost to a millimetre a thousand other North American high-rise office buildings, including the same architect's slightly earlier Battery Park offices in New York. The big scale of the classic skyscraper seemed able to absorb the information technology revolution without skipping a beat.To this day most American offices ignore the existence of the access floor. The vast majority, within their shiny hermetic skins and with their deeply introverted floor layouts, make no attempt to acknowledge either the respect for energy conservation or ordinary office workers' love of direct aspect that have changed the shape of so many Northern European office buildings since the '80s.

Into the '90s The huge Broadgate project in the City of London (Arup Associates and SOM, 1985 to 1991) represents the domestication of Richard Rogers' great leap forward in the form of the 'groundscraper'.

The buildings themselves, with their big floor plates, top-lit atria and generous servicing, are a comfortable compromise between North American precedents and European insistence on aspect and urban coherence. It is noticeable that the quality of the architecture has declined since the wonderful moment in Eldon Street, at the very beginning of the Broadgate project, when Stuart Lipton, the developer, and the late Peter Foggo of Arup Associates combined four insights: Chicago constructional techniques, the needs of the globalising financial services industry, the use of the atrium, and the importance of the square and the street.

Niels Torp's Waterside building for British Airways near Heathrow (1998) is an urban contribution of a different kind. Following the model of the same architect's offices for SAS in Stockholm (1988), Waterside consists of six subbuildings that together create a beautifully landscaped, extremely lively internal street, lined with coffee bars, meeting and training rooms, shops and restaurants. What really makes the building work is cordless telephony, which allows people to become much more mobile inside - as well as outside - the office, and to disengage themselves from fixed workplaces. The contrast between Waterside's transparency, freedom of access and openness and British Airway's earlier collection of long-corridored, many-doored, gloomy headquarters offices is huge. The new building has been used quite deliberately and selfconsciously as a catalyst to create a new business culture.

Into the new century Mobility will continue to increase and the demands of powerful and discriminating end users cannot be contained much longer in conventional office buildings. How unconventional the office is becoming is demonstrated by Clive Wilkinson's conversion of an industrial shed in Los Angeles (1999) for the advertising agency Chiat Day.

This cheerful, cheap, top-lit, completely delightful, highly temporary working village is one indication of the way things will go. All the design emphasis is on the short-term interior elements, such as containers used as meeting rooms, piled on top of one another within the three-storey high volume of the huge interior. The building itself is of little importance - very different to the somewhat strained and certainly very long-term good taste of Torp's much more conventional architecture at Waterside.

Contrast Clive Wilkinson's shed with the work of another Californian, Frank Gehry, in Prague - the so-called Fred and Ginger building (1998), an architectural joke if there ever was one, but an extremely successful contribution to the urban fabric of Prague nonetheless. In terms of office design - the elegant interior for Andersen Consulting is by Eva Jiricna - there is little to say except that this is an urban building suitable for small operations. It is in fact a reversion to the form of the older apartment buildings that surround it.

At the start of the century, just as information technology is changing everything, when houses are becoming offices and offices are being turned into apartments, when short-life sheds can be as architecturally significant as Michael Hopkins' very long-term Portcullis House in London, we should consider whether the office building really is a stable building type.Whatever office buildings become, they will certainly have to transcend the time-bound formulae that have created the cities of the twentieth century.

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