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Big taught us that work should be fun, but it might be time for our offices to grow up

Black Box: They should screen Big at the British Council for Offices annual conference

Have you seen Big, the ‘80s body swap comedy where a 12-year-old boy wishes he were grown up, only to wake up the next day with the adult body of Tom Hanks but the same adolescent brain?

Like much of Hollywood’s output, It is in fact, straight propaganda for what was then – in the US at least – the emerging paradigm in office design, based on the concept of play, which is now commonplace in new media workplaces around the world. They should show it at this year’s British Council for Offices annual conference in Manchester, later this year.

To cut a long story short, our hero Josh Baskin, upon waking up ‘big’, runs away from home and winds up working as a consultant in a toy company. His juvenile brain proves useful for brainstorming product ideas and he ends up vice president of the firm (Yes, I know. Daft). But it’s the sense of play that Baskin brings to the office, where he surrounds himself with gadgets, high-fives security guards and fools around with toy guns, that really sends the message out: play is the new work and there’s no need to grow up.

This is most clearly posted in a scene where Baskin gets his boss to play floor piano in New York’s FAO Schwarz, America’s oldest toy store, loosening up the stiff limbs – and mindset – of the ageing chief exec. Soon after, we see Baskin remote-controlling a model car through a lofty corridor, clipping the ankles of soon-to-be-unfashionable power-dressed managers, a vision of the Zuckerbergs yet to come.

In this respect, Baskin is the spiritual father of the hot young workers in the offices of Mind Candy, makers of online game Moshi Monsters and resident in AHMM’s Tea Building in Shoreditch, a retrofitted warehouse full of ideas about how to organise the workplace. Ad agency Mother is in the same building, and it’s fun-packed work environment seems directly descended from Big’s playful message. Derwent’s White Collar Factory concept, with its loose-fit, low-energy, 24-hour floorplates, could have been built on the back of Big as well.

Yet, playing at work means less time at home. Is this all a con to make us work harder – and longer? Jacques Herzog, for one, thinks the fun paradigm has gone too far. ‘I don’t like the Google world so much, where the office is transformed into a fun park where everything is possible. You get bored after a while,’ he says, adding, ‘Every company should develop its own approach.’ Having worked in the video games industry myself, in an office decked out with beanbags, a ‘romper room’ and tequila slush machine for Friday evening kicks, but that didn’t survive the dotcom boom, I’d say Herzog has a point. 

British Council for Offices conference runs 23 to 25 May.

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Despite its property developer tagline – ‘create space: create value’ – Space Syntax is one of the more interesting companies to emerge out of urban design in recent years.

And as two wins in a multi-part competition to redesign the National Mall in Washington DC this month show, it’s pretty successful too.

It provides ‘evidence-based consulting services in economics, planning, design, transport and property development’ and emerged out of Professor Bill Hillier’s research into spatial patterns begun in the 70s at the Bartlett.

In DC, the firm was part of two winning teams. One, with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond, provides improved access to Union Square, and another with OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi reworks the space around the Washington Monument.

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