2006 – Inspiring boxes that help you think outside
On the desk in front of me the volume of
paper is rising like floodwater, spilling on to the floor
where it mingles with notebooks, magazines and large envelopes.
Scattered round the foot of my computer
terminal are paper clips, pens, calling cards and the odd
upturned drawing pin.
Rising behind my back is a wall of books
on which are perched yet more oddments - car keys, fishing
reels, an empty mug. Then there's the notice board, drawers
and stacks of papers, all crowded in to a space slightly
less than six feet square.
It's with a mixture of envy and wide-eyed
wonder, therefore, that I am drawn to a new book, open before
me and balanced on top of everything else. Space to Work*
is filled with lots of colour pictures featuring some of
the world's most adventurous working spaces.
In a way that I have not previously encountered,
the book sub- divides working spaces into new and exotic
The various headings are a nod to what
the authors call "realms" of work. The corporate
realm is called "the academy", while professional
work is "the guild", the marketplace "the
agora" and home working "the lodge". Pretentious?
Just a bit.
Most of the sections, however, feature
offices in everything but name. Only these offices have
been developed by architects briefed to design spaces for
the brave new world of "knowledge work" where
people, increasingly, are expected to work creatively.
One of my favourites is the Maison de
l'Architecture in Paris; a converted chapel used originally
by Capuchin monks of the order of St Francis.
As you might expect from a scheme to create
the Office of the Order of Architects, the designers were
asked to produce something special.
The result is a flexible combination of
meeting spaces and offices, exploiting modern flooring,
lighting and electronics within the shell of a chapel that
has been preserved in the semi-decayed state in which it
was found, even to the extent of retaining the stained plaster
walls and the white streaks from pigeon droppings on the
cross beams. Only the French could be so bold.
Original details and art from the monastic
period have been set into the walls. "The building
had, before our project, the appearance of successive layers
of time and space. Our intention was to take part in this
process," say Karine Chartier and Thomas Corbasson,
the architects who undertook the project.
Some of the architects have used symbolism in their work.
Pallotta Team Works, a Los Angeles-based company that fund-raises
for charities, has built offices from converted shipping
containers and air-conditioned tent structures within a
warehouse shed to create the atmosphere of a relief effort.
The architects of the advertising agency,
Sedgwick Road, in Seattle, have salvaged tatty bits of industrial
architecture, using them as mobile workspace partitions.
The idea is to think of creative advertising as a "constantly
recycled work in progress."
One of the most ambitious buildings featured
in the book is Zaha Hadid's BMW car plant in Leipzig. Once
upon a time the shop floor belonged to the workers while
the white collar staff was a class removed. Not here. The
production line, complete with its conveyor- belt carrying
shiny steel bodyworks bathed in blue light, snakes straight
through the desks and work stations of the central administration.
Hadid's idea was to create a more integrated
approach to making cars where converging lines produce what
she calls a "communication knot" in which all
parts of the workplace overlap and intertwine. It sounds
fantastic and it is.
Perhaps the wackiest workspace in the
book is Momentum, an "innovation centre" at a
science park in Horsholm, Denmark. The conversion of a former
warehouse has been conceived as an unusual retreat for businesspeople.
The idea is that instead of going to a hotel in the country
for your "out of the box" thinking, you go to
a different kind of box.
This one has an intimate meeting room
with a door-handle so close to the floor that you must bend
to get in. The low ceiling forces the occupants to gather
closely in a pit at the centre of the room. The "reflection
room" at the end of a black corridor turns out to be
a toilet where your peace is disturbed by recordings of
church bells, crackling fires and beach parties. Little
wonder then that there is also a "screaming room"
covered in mirrored panels.
The building, designed by conceptual artists,
is based on the premise that "innovation happens when
art and the working processes meet." It is easy to
dismiss such features as faddish - a point acknowledged
by the authors - but they reject such criticism, arguing
that an unpredictable environment is ideal for generating
Inclusion of the Scottish Parliament Building
demonstrates that architectural quirkiness and individuality
can still find _expression in a modern workplace. There
are shades of Gaudi in the designs of its Catalonian architect,
Enric Miralles. But does it help Scottish parliamentarians
to perform better in their work?
That must remain the Dollars 64,000 question,
or, in the case of the Scottish Parliament, Pounds 461m
for a building that opened three years late and well over
Ultimately, does a great environment in
which to work make much difference to the finished product?
A great environment is helpful, I have
no doubt, but great colleagues matter more. If forced to
choose between working within an architectural masterpiece
alongside dull, uninspiring colleagues or working in a featureless
shed with interesting, sparky people possessing a sense
of fun, I would always choose the latter.
Looking at my own pitiful realm I seem
to have evolved the worst of all worlds, so it is encouraging
to find that the book includes ideas for integrating work
and home life. The least conventional is a tepee-style garden
workplace created by Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway for their
London-based business, Hemingway Design.
Ten recycled telegraph poles have been
knitted together to support a tented second-tier platform
above a shaded area of decking with tables for laptop computers.
It lacks a screaming room but I already have plenty of those.
Somewhere to work and to store all your
management scalps: yes I like that idea.
*Space to Work, New Office Design,
by Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross is published by Laurence