The Workplace of the Future Design Competition revealed a wealth of fresh ideas and a bit of uncertainty about exactly where we’re headed.
The work space of a Cold War–era Titan II missile-launch team was a circular room, 35 feet in diameter. The commander sat at a gray-and-turquoise steel desk, in front of a console embedded with illuminated buttons and switches. One “resembled the ignition switch of an old car,” as the journalist Eric Schlosser describes in his recent book Command and Control (Penguin, 2013). Turned with the proper key, it launched the 330,000-pound missile sitting ready in an adjacent silo—the delivery vehicle for a thermonuclear warhead. It required collaboration: a second launch commander had to simultaneously turn an additional key, as a fail-safe against a rogue ofﬁcer. To ensure compliance, each wore a sidearm. Nearby, a kitchen was stocked with a month’s supply of food—not in case of afternoon munchies, but Armageddon. As extreme as it sounds today, the silo loomed large in the popular imagination. “The room had the strong, conﬁdent vibe of Eisenhower-era science and technology,” Schlosser writes. This was the workplace of the future when the future wasn’t an altogether pleasant construction—or even a forgone conclusion.
The reminder of that Cold War mentality stopped me in my tracks while I was considering the more optimistic winners and ﬁnalists of the ﬁrst annual Workplace of the Future Design Competition, presented by Metropolis and Business Interiors by Staples. Two generations later, we’re far removed from the everyday possibility of nuclear annihilation. Yet the future appears to be a zero-sum game: The threat of global destruction no longer comes from Soviet missiles, but from the slower intrusion of rising seawater. We’re surrounded by machines that project an aura of helpful muniﬁcence, but whose true impact on our privacy, productivity, and creativity is an open question. We collaborate with coworkers without the coercion of handguns—even as workplace violence is a weekly occurrence.
Not surprisingly, this question of mobility was the elephant in the room for the majority of entrants in the Workplace of the Future Design Competition. “What the applicants were trying to solve was, ‘How do you create some kind of a container for this mobility that’s a paradigm for place—even when you’re wireless and in the cloud?’” says jury member Tom Krizmanic, a principal at STUDIOS Architecture in New York, and the architect of a workplace icon of the last decade: the Bloomberg LP headquarters in New York City. “Work can happen anywhere, so when it does, you’re still going to be in a place. What should that place look like?”
In addition to Krizmanic, the jury included Jonas Damon, creative director at Frog Design; Paul Darrah, head of corporate real estate at Bridgewater Associates; Nona Gross, a workplace strategy and design specialist at Siemens Corporation; and John Michael, vice president and general manager at Business Interiors by Staples. Their choice for the project that best embodied that future was Vertical Flux. Designed by Joseph Filippelli, a recent graduate of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, the environment sidesteps the challenge of extreme mobility by focusing on “extreme variability.” He takes the enduring necessity of the workplace at face value, but then eliminates nearly every other stricture.
“I was interested in the concept of gradient, pulled through with temperature, lighting, privacy, social interaction—offering a total wide spectrum of choice on all those different levels,” explains Filippelli on the phone from his new job at Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects. Rather than insisting, Howard Roark–like, on the architect’s single vision of an ideal environment, and rather than piling on, Google style, an endless list of amenities, Filippelli’s primary goal was to offer the ofﬁce’s imagined occupants the widest range of possibilities. To do that, he baked in a continuum of environments, from private to public, hot to cold, bright to dark—adjacent to each other, like the pavilions of a botanical garden.
He derived the design from his master’s thesis project, which took on (of all things) an ofﬁce building in Cleveland. Examining the last century of the American ofﬁce, Filippelli identiﬁed a key moment when the workplace had taken a wrong turn: the postwar arrival of inoperable windows and complete HVAC systems, which standardized the atmosphere. It’s not typically put quite this way, but Filippelli’s notion was that when we standardized temperature, all the other elements of our environment followed. Ofﬁce workers were no longer masters of their own domains, but beholden to a set of optimized—and therefore standardized—conditions. It wasn’t about good or bad design, but merely the same design across a single space. “Nobody was really satisﬁed, because it was hitting that middle ground,” Filippelli says. “It’s hard to generalize for two people, let alone a group of people.”
The comfort-based approach he imagined cracks open the section of an ofﬁce building, with leasable modules that stretch between ﬂoors and ﬁt together, Jenga-like, forming “a ﬂuctuating gradient of vertically distributed atmospheres.” Of all the variables typically considered in new ofﬁce designs—break-out spaces and workbenches, elaborate kitchens and a library-like cocooning room—somehow the basic idea of temperature control has rarely entered the discussion, ostensibly imagined to be too expensive or difﬁcult to control. But by rearranging the space vertically, Filippelli convincingly shows that natural temperature gradients created by light and height can drive different kinds of programs: a “communal garden stair,” an “active-work table,” or a “single-occupancy modular ofﬁce pod.” There are allusions to touch-screen surfaces and “thermally active” materials, but for the most part, this workplace of the year 2020 could be built today. “I’m not pushing the envelope of anything we don’t have available,” Filippelli acknowledges. “I’m not using crazy technology where people are zipping around in little hovercrafts.” Yet it seems oddly ﬁtting that in a climate-obsessed future, our most pressing wish (and a workplace’s greatest perk) will be simple temperature control.
The runner-up entry—by Eckhart, a 170-year-old Rotterdam-based design ﬁrm—indulged in more science-ﬁction bells and whistles, albeit informed by the leading deﬁciencies of today’s workplaces. “The common thread we see is that people are not generally in the ofﬁce anymore,” says Teun van den Dries, director of the ﬁrm. “They still have desks, but I doubt that more than twenty percent are in use. Most of the people are either on the move or in meetings.”
Eckhart’s project, called CoLAB, imagines a component system of partitions with embedded screens, built in a range of sizes, from large walls to single workstations to integrated chairs. (The Titan crew would feel at home.) At the top of Eckhart’s wish list of imagined features is “active noise reduction”—a system that would suck out the noise from space, like a room-sized pair of high-end headphones. It doesn’t exist yet in a workable form, despite van den Dries’s hopes. “The most important limiting factor in every project we do is acoustics,” he says. The large, unpartitioned spaces in vogue today (especially when inserted into the rectangular glass boxes of contemporary Dutch architecture) create a sense of activity—but also a din that can go beyond the healthy. “It’s a compromise between getting interaction going, and having sufﬁcient noise reduction.” CoLAB tried to strike that balance by putting a ﬁnger on an inevitable trend in workplace design: the convergence of technological devices and architecture, in the form of embedded computers. In that imagined future, the machine isn’t the computer on the desk or the tablet on the table, but the thing we step inside of when we arrive for work. It’s a reversal of our current situation: rather the computer being our workplace, our workplace becomes the computer.
Indeed, the entry titled NEXUS: The Locomotion of Business—which earned an honorable mention—took that notion literally: It’s an ofﬁce on a train. Acknowledging the correlation between mobile workers and supporters of high-speed rail, the project—by a group of students at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati—reimagines the typical Amtrak Cafe Car as something like the lobby of a boutique hotel. There is a range of individual and collaborative work spaces, tricked out with interactive screens and mood lighting. The appeal is undeniable, but I see a nagging gloominess to it. We have all these communication tools, and all these environments in which to collaborate—yet we’re always on the move. A workplace is our daytime home—and should ideally offer the same kinds of comforts, in the service of our own productivity. Putting it on a train seems like the ofﬁce design equivalent of a car cupholder, an unfortunate necessity. But the challenges of ceaseless motion are real. Where is everybody going?
We know the answer intuitively: to the face-to-face meetings we’ve learned are necessary to buttress all our keyboard-to-keyboard interactions. What that means in practice is a cohort perpetually in the air (and occasionally on a train): an expensive, unsustainable, exhausting reality. In Eckhart’s CoLAB proposal, the team notes that shift in the structure of organizations; we’re way past a top-down hierarchy, and are even moving away from the tendency toward collaboration among internal teams. The dominant future structure, Eckhart suggests, is the collaboration among companies. If that’s the case (and many of us work that way already), then—to borrow an analogy from technology—the work space becomes a platform, merely the structural basis for a variety of activities conducted by a variety of people. “That’s something we’re trying to do,” van den Dries says. “We often collaborate with a group of graphic designers and we say, ‘Feel free to come join us and visit.’ We see that as a model.” That would mark the biggest shift in work space design in a hundred years. What does it do for institutional identities? Who will pay for these places? Where will they be? (In cities, no doubt.) We’re moving toward an uncertain future, and in the Workplace of the Future Design Competition all that uncertainty was evident.
November 1, 2013