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Architecture of the Office and the Open-Plan of the Female Body

Architectural theorist, Beatriz Colomina, maintains that modernity is driven by illness and that architecture is part of the cultural project which seeks to project human illness as the suspension of life outside the body. Colomina discusses how modern architecture, initiated by a group of avant-garde architects in the 1920s from around the world, has been cast historically in terms of its “functional efficiency,” new technologies of construction, and the aesthetic of the machine. Colomina counters this framing and makes the argument that the body is the focus of modern architecture, especially the construction of the metropolis. Leaning upon largely German architecture theory from the early twentieth century, Colomina links this era of architecture to the dominant medical theme of the era, tuberculosis.

Having studied the architecture of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, Colomina’s work examines the relationship between modern architecture and the emerging media of the time which was photography, illustrated magazines, and cinema. And from her work into this interdisciplinary examination of architecture, Colomina’s focus was quickly brought to the intersection of architecture and the body—where tuberculosis and modern architecture revealed the socially repressed. Colomina elaborates here her theory on the parallels of x-ray architecture and the somatic:

Health has always been a key responsibility for architects. What has changed is the concept of health. I am arguing that modern architecture is organized around a new theory of health, and this theory can be seen in every polemic promoting modern architecture. I prefer using the term ‘publicity’ to ‘marketing’. Modern publicity relates to the way modern architecture was presented, and the rhetoric it deployed, which had a lot to do with fear of disease. For example, in his book The Radiant City (1933) Le Corbusier dismisses the ‘natural ground’ as a ‘dispenser of rheumatism and tuberculosis’ and declares it to be ‘the enemy of man’. He insists on using pilotis to detach the house from the ‘wet, humid, ground, where disease breeds’, and on using the roof as a garden for sunbathing and exercise. Avant-garde architects of the early decades of the 20th century, from Le Corbusier to Jan Duiker or Richard Neutra, presented their new architecture as a kind of medical equipment for protecting and enhancing the body. Buildings even started to look like X-rays, revealing the secrets within. Think about Mies van der Rohe’s project for the Glass Skyscraper in Berlin of 1922, with its exposed skeleton. It’s not by chance that Mies even collected and published X-rays. Presenting modern architecture as a machine for health was a response to real fears of the time. The fear of illness was more important for people than the alleged beauty of a modern white wall.

And Colomina has long studied and written on this link between the somatic and the built environment maintaining that for many architects, especially Le Corbusier, there was believed to be a direct link between architecture and the body. In “The Medical Body in Modern Architecture,” Beatriz Colomina writes of Le Corbusier’s concern with the “intimate relationship between mind and body, portraying mental stability as the product of a healthy physical environment.” Colomina goes on to show throughout Le Corbusier’s writing such as in his Urbanisme how “the degeneration of the city leads to ‘physical and nervous sickness’” and in The Radiant City he proposes that the new living cell be a machine for the ‘recuperation of physical and nervous energy…the upkeep of the human machine: cleaning, draining the toxic substances, recuperating nervous energy, maintenance or increase of physical energy’” (Le Corbusier. The Radiant City, p. 36. found within Colomina, pp. 235–236). In short, Colomina’s body of work has given un an invaluable insight into how architecture mirrors social reality and concerns inasmuch as it grows from these preoccupations.

Like Colomina, I have long observed that social ideas and movements are often mirrored through architecture and it is no coincidence that in the early 1990s, the culture of office cubicles was destroyed in favor of the open-plan office model along with office buildings trending towards a transparent amorphous form. It is also during this period that neoliberal policies of the state in the US and UK resulting in the hyper-individualized models of “success” and wealth brought about by Reaganomics and Thatcherism, were materialized in the physical space of the office from it’s layout to office political structures.

While some of the revamping happened linguistically in the late 1980s with “secretaries” being renamed as “administrative assistants”, the physical space of the office mostly composed of large office spaces moderately separated by what was termed “dividers” to form what were “cubicle.” These moveable mini-walled structures were physically ugly, carpeted dividers of approximately four and half feet in height which allowed the working subject enough privacy to eat lunch at her desk, but not enough privacy to avoid the boss peeping into the divider to say, “Did you ring Martin back to reschedule tomorrow?”

This model of office division was a cheap way for the employer to offer the median worker an “office,” but this was anything but private. It also allowed for a certain type of surveillance which was generally the sort of punctuated arrivals throughout the day of someone coming in to check up on the status of something. The simulation, however, was meant to be that of the individual, at work, autonomous and free. The reality of this setup was anything but.

In the 1990s, the model of office design moved beyond the movable, superficial wall. The notion prevalent in the 1990s was that workers were no longer autonomous, but part of a well-oiled machinery, part of a team. So to bring this team together, the walls were removed and the positions of desks did not change so much as a loss of privacy was focal. Towards the late 1990s, the mobile phone began to enter the office sphere more constantly adding a level of deeply needed privacy, especially with the silence of the SMS. But the open-plan office model increased the employer’s visual scope of the workers who might be using social media or pornography on company time. The panopticon was cast as the model of social liberation within the office.

Yet, this form of office layout was not new and was merely a throwback to 90 years earlier when Taylorism had previously hit the design of office space, where desks were laid out in an assembly line manner very similar to how they are today. Taylorism was very much linked to how physical space would be best utilized to produce the most and where work could be focussed upon by each employee dedicated to a specific task, then handed over to the next. The open layout of the office in this era allowed for higher worker production, or so everyone believed.

The focus on workflow in the 1990s was merely a recasting of this older Taylorist model with a twist: the worker was suddenly made into a team member who could show up to work in gym clothes and trainers. The idea was that if the office worker was comfortable and happy, so too would his production outflow. The rise of gym memberships in the 1990s to include those offered by many Wall St firms, was unprecedented historically. The idea was healthy body plus happy spirit makes for a high-yielding worker. And the layout of the office space is a theoretical extension of Colomina’s notion of x-ray architecture where the office is the social space for all behavior, good and bad, all productivity or lack thereof.

We see today how similar concerns with architecture have been reflected in software development with society’s current obsession with fitness apps, scheduling software, business management solutions, and even ways to be social through services that are replacing the real life contact such that now Airbnb offers “experiences.” Goodness forbid we accidentally talk with each other in the public sphere!

And all this has made me ponder how we frame social behaviors in the office where, given the current era of women’s voices finally breaking the damn of silence over sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond, we might begin to understand how office architecture might also play a role in how women’s voices are heard, or not. For instance, in an earlier article I wrote on the subject of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, I was shocked to learn during my research for that article not only that companies can be sued for such acts to include criminal acts of employees, but that there is actually insurance against sexual harassment that companies can take out to protect itself against the eventuality of a lawsuit. Logically, if an insurance company can understand that there is a liability of sexual harassment within the office, certainly this must because there is an acknowledgement of this sort of sexual predation is a culture within, especially, closed spaces. Might the open-plan office reveal how bodies socialize differently from the cubicle or divided spaces of years prior?

Over the past several years there has been a concerted effort on the part of employees to close down these open spaces which have been revealed to be not so “freeing” or “hippy dippy” as we previously were told. With calls to “bring back the office cubicle,” we have been shown the trap of visibility that the open-plan office reveals. Despite over 70 percent of all offices having an open floor plan design, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this plan did not foster the sense of community that many previously believed. In her 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova details the illusion of this plan through the study of Matthew Davis, a psychologist who reviewed more than a hundred studies of office environments, finding that, “although open-plan offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” This study concluded that the higher levels of interruptions and noises led to less concentration and worker motivation.

Konnikova also touches upon the work of David Craig who examined approximately thirty-eight thousand workers concluding that “interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.” What is most interesting to note in these studies, aside from the pragmatic lessons for businesses, is the linking between privacy and job production, or rather, how the invasion of personal space is detrimental to the individual, hence bad for the business.

For instance, a 2013 study, “Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices,” found that many workers in these types of offices are actually frustrated by the visual and aural distractions that not only lead to poorer performance on the job, but the alleged “ease of interaction” professed to be bettered by the open-plan layout was actually exacerbated. And those who maintained private work spaces were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as a problem. This indicates that some degrees of separation or exclusion can lead to more harmonious work environments and better communication on the whole. At that women and older workers have noted how the open-office plan does not work to their benefit.

Psychologically, the repercussions of open-plan offices have been noted through myriad social science studies in recent years. And physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, for which a sense of privacy is not only connected to increased job performance but it gives women, especially, the necessary psychological space they need. And there have been a fair number of revolts against the open-plan office, such as the recent pushback by Apple employees.

It is high time that we consider how the open-plan offices might remove an element of control for the female worker who struggles to extricate herself from a predatory colleague or boss, to include the inability to shut the door on a harasser. Certainly the open space has proven for many women not to be the visibility-protected place many had intuitively assumed it might be. As Jillian Richardson notes, “…while replacing traditional offices may offer greater flexibility and opportunities to collaborate outside your specific field, they also offer few of the same protections associated with the traditional model.”

It is not only the vulnerability of the workspace layout for some, but in a professional era where more and more people are self-employed, there is no obligation for the individual worker to go through sexual harassment training. Richardson writes, “Being freelance means that you don’t have an HR department, and sometimes even if you do, your reputation can pay the price for speaking out against a predatory person in the industry.” And more and more women have discussed over the past month how minor incidents of sexual harassment that take place within plain view of colleagues, to include the recent admission of Ellen Page via Facebook, have become internalized, negated. It is as if part of our survival is to say, “That didn’t just happen.” If anyone knows that the assumption that visibility keeps sexual harassment at bay is largely social myth, women do. Often times, it is public visibility which keeps the social order or sexism and silencing in gear.

Where the X-ray technology of the early twentieth century body laid bare the need for the physical openness of space to heal the somatic and circulate fresh airs against the tubercular hovels of old, the contemporary office space design poses a challenge for those who wish to include female bodies safely within their spaces. One immediate to this problem is that we must start including a larger corpus of female architects and designers who can offer solutions to the menace of predation that so many women in the office space face today.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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