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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

October 2006 – Inspiring boxes that help you think outside them

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 categories.

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 unpredictable ideas.

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 budget.

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 King, £35

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