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'It's in start-up spaces we see our contemporary selves manufactured'

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[OFFICES] Essay 3: Sam Jacob, FAT

And, what do you do?’ we ask each other at awkward moments when it seems we have nothing else in common. It might be a Two Ronnies sketch but that’s only because it points to a social truth. Just ask Friedrich Engels who, in his unfinished essay ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’ argues that labour ‘…is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.’

That thought is echoed in the thoroughly un-communist image of the Company Man, the corporate worker of the 1950s within behemothic institutions such as IBM. Work, then, is a way of manufacturing ourselves. And a way of naturalising us within that strange, alien system we call society.

If work defines us, it also designs us. As Churchill’s maxim goes: ‘We design our buildings, thereafter they design us.’ This might be a subtext of most architectural projects, but in workplace design, it is often at the fore. Offices are often explicitly mechanisms to design us, to organise us in a particular way, to socialise us, to construct us in the image of our employer. We can see it in the towers of finance, those trophy buildings where the city meets the global economy. These are, in effect, spaces not of the city but of global economic space, like embassies of other sovereignties.

But it’s in the so-called start-up spaces of tech/media that we really see our contemporary selves being manufactured. These are the spaces of Richard Florida’s Creative Class, the start-ups of Silicon Roundabout, the places that are the supposed non-financial sector engine rooms of the post-industrial economy, places where the digital gold of 21st century immaterial product is supposed to be alchemised out of code and PR.
In London, certainly, this began in repurposed ex-industrial space, places built for faded historic industries of one description or another. Take the Tea Building in Shoreditch: what we might dub the Ur-start-up space. Its giant hulk of a form is derived from its original use as a bacon factory, a use long departed. But, reimagined by developers Derwent and architects AHMM, it became a huge frame housing a whole ecosystem of start‑upness. Offering unit sizes super‑small to big, it could support a tiny outfit alongside larger creative beasts like ad agency Mother. It provides places to eat, drink, shop and socialise, as well as work.

The Tea Building formalised the re-use of industrial space for the 21st century digerati. It might not have been the first, but size and location grant it watershed significance. It has also become a model for a new kind of workspace development. A Derwent/AHMM follow-up, for example, proposed on the rim of Old Street roundabout itself, is titled, with a hint of ironic self-awareness, ‘White Collar Factory’, a phrase writ large in white neon illuminating the heart of the Cameron-proclaimed future of the British economy. Within the project is proposed a kind of re-make of the spaces that old industry left behind. It’s a new-build hybrid of high-rise office and loft space. The ad hoc culture of 1990s creative pioneers has been folded into serious development typologies.

The Tea Building recognised and formalised a phenomenon transforming both the nature, meaning and experience of work in the 90s: the effects of digital technology, the rise of creative industries and the shifting sands of the urban landscape as the post-industrial city fringe became, if you believe the hype, the centre of the knowledge economy.

It recognised that this new kind of work worked differently from the industries that preceded it - factories, corporations, state institutions and so on. It was work as personal enterprise, rather than a job. Work as freedom of self-expression, work that harnesses the energy and commitment usually reserved for your real, non-work, life. This is post-internet, flat hierarchy, flexible, risky, not-for-life, networked world of work. It is work as MacBook-toting lifestyle, work as immaterial labour set free from the mundanity of traditional structure.

The interior spaces of creative industries are already a cliché. Astroturf, beanbags, pods, fake rustic, ironic domestic, slides from one floor to another. They refer to anything that doesn’t look like work, anything that suggests non-work. They are cartoons of leisure, work cloaked in the trappings of fun. But, while we can laugh at our own Nathan Barleyness, we should also recognise the seriousness behind these infantile impersonations of fun. What they are attempting to articulate is the very nature of contemporary work. We are post-Fordist entities, they say, not part of a production line, nor even a corporate system.

We are individuals, they try to tell us, real humans engaged in vibrant activity. They are the physical manifestation of entrepreneurial culture, the spatial product of the Apprentice-cum-Silicon-Valley myths that we tell ourselves about work in the 21st century. But, like clowns, forced fun can be the most terrifying of visions. Their ironic quality gives them an air of unreality, a totally hollow simulation that echoes, perhaps, the vaporous reality of our post-industrial economic fortunes.

We can read the entire landscape of the British Isles as a record of work. In it we can read how land has been divided, organised, groomed, raked, sown and reaped. What seems so natural is the product of thousands of years of non-stop toil. Toil, over time, becomes romanticised. That’s also happened to more contemporary forms of work: what fields and farmhouses were to Ruskin, factories were to Warhol and Tony Wilson. What, then, will future generations make of our workspaces? Could creative culture workspaces possibly gain that romanticised aura? Will a Turner of the future render our beanbag breakout pods with such a sympathetic eye?

If you are anything like me, thoroughly 21st century and juggling multiple jobs and roles, it’s always hard answering ‘and what do you do?’ Work now just isn’t like that - we’re far less defined by a single activity than Engels or the Two Ronnies could ever have imagined. Work isn’t a career but a host of things we do, having fractured and smeared into a complex, fluid dynamic. Perhaps the next time you have an awkward silence at a cocktail party, it would be far more accurate to ask ‘And where do you do?”

Sam Jacob is a founding director of FAT

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