Short books are often better books - The Eyes of the Skin; Undesigning the Bath; In Praise of Shadows; Peter Zumthor’s books; the Writer and the City and Pamphlet Architecture series, and so on. While this entrant into a new series called Edge Futures isn’t quite in that class, it is a good, useful and engaging read, detailing the symbiotic relationship between the modern city and the contemporary office environment. In particular, Work and the City convincingly details how this has led to a grossly inefficient under-utilisation of resources with damaging effects on individuals, corporations, and almost all aspects of urban ecosystem.
Duffy is a co-founder of the firm DEGW, and thus well-placed to discuss the ‘health’ of the modern office environment. DEGW are one of the few to make that their business, and have been influential in bringing to bear a more sophisticated understanding of the importance of calibrating the working environment. They do this through focusing on space-planning, organisational consultancy, post-occupancy and myriad other techniques.
As an architect, he is also well-placed to hit home with one of his first critiques - that architects are seduced by building new buildings, rather than addressing the existing built fabric. When much of what is to be built is already built, and much of it is inefficient, surely we should focus more on that existing fabric, rather than constructing new edifices?
Yet before working through solutions, the book offers a whistle-stop tour of a story well-told elsewhere but always worth considering - how we got into this fix, via the Taylorism-inspired production of the modern office, culminating in the hegemonic 1960s American environments (so lovingly conjured up in the US TV show Mad Men, incidentally). Duffy draws on sociologist Richard Sennett's phrase of “brittle cities” to illustate the infrastructure this leaves cities with: over-centralised and over-engineered to mono-functionality, and thus under-used and inflexible.
Particularly as much of this existing space is so little used. DEGW’s data indicates that total occupancy of all office workplaces - desks, combined with meeting rooms and other social and semi-social places - peaks at 60%, and that’s for the Monday-Friday 8-hour working day. So the total occupancy 24/7 would be less by a considerable amount. In a world waking up to the significance of waste, this is rather pertinent.
We hear frequent claims from major cities that they’re running out of office space. Yet when existing office space is actually being used half the time during a third of the day, something is not quite right. (Note: I was reading an early review copy, and a few errors remained in the text, including the data on these occupancy levels being expressed differently at different points, with little detail on its exact provenance. It’s such a key finding that it warrants emblazoning in large letters, and so requires a little precision and backup through references and data.)
Duffy also draws on Stewart Brand’s equally well-known layers model, in order to indicate how these buildings - and cities - often aren’t designed to ‘learn’ from the shearing effects of skin, structure and space plan moving at different paces. In this respect, he finds London’s Soho to be a more resilient urban form than its Docklands, and London, New York and Paris to offer numerous examples of dense, physical complexity that almost organically offers a sophisticated flexible urbanism.
This is all well-understood - or at least well-discussed in enlightened professional circles - yet Duffy does go on to offer a new take on how these brittle developments still get built. Duffy suggests that the ‘Anglo-American supply chain’ for new buildings in most developed economies, centred on property developers, is not likely to produce less brittle results any time soon. Given the dislocation between developer, owner and occupier, the eventual buildings barely stand a chance. By way of an interesting counterpoint Duffy offers up an alternative - what he calls the “Social Democratic office”, emerging in the post-war environment of Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
Finance and development for the Social Democratic Office emerges from the business owners (and occupiers) themselves, as with Niels Torp’s SAS headquarters in Stockholm, for example. This simple reorganisation of the supply chain would surely produce better working environments, and Duffy is right to point out that it is essentially “cultural choice” that has ignored that opportunity elsewhere, in favour of other, arguably purely financial, opportunities. That it is cultural choice doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix, of course. Just that it is fixable.
Either way, the industrial revolution has careered into the knowledge revolution unchecked, at least on the surface, and Duffy is optimistic about the benefits of distributed, more social, more informal working styles - as long as people don’t overly adhere to the tyranny of permanently-connected BlackBerrys when trying to flatten the tyranny of distance and time, for instance. He describes the curious verisimilitude of teleconferencing on the high-end Cisco and Hewlett-Packard systems, and finds them immensely beguiling.
However, he is also right to indicate that these, and other advanced ICT not covered in much detail here, won’t replace the essential functions of urban life, and makes a strong argument for the rich physical serendipity of the city remaining essentially sovereign and highly valuable. These systems augment urban life, and could usefully reduce unnecessary travel and its associated emissions whilst retaining global connectivity. But the desire for the city certainly shows no sign of dissipating - quite the opposite.
While I agree with Duffy’s primary assertion, we may yet have to work harder to devise new working environments which truly respond to the promise of pervasive global interconnectivity. Indeed, we should embark on new place-making strategies which creatively resist this tendency of ICT - and economic globalisation for that matter - to smooth out the essential differences between places. And while Work and The City doesn’t really explore the potential in this new overlay on the city, Duffy does enough to suggest its importance. To truly articulate this new area would be a much larger book.
Equally, another larger book would provide more detail on how to solve 'new building syndrome' by retrofitting existing urban fabric, or offer up a few specific strategies for dealing with office occupancy levels, over and above paying for space by the hour, as per a hotel or co-working space. (Recent work by James Calder at Woods Bagot - including their publication WorkLife - is worth reviewing in this respect.) Yet this short book does more than enough to outline the issues, explain how we got here, and suggest the key trends that might move us forward.
Where the book does seriously fall down is in implicitly conflating 'work' with 'office work', something that’s all too easily done. Last month I spoke at an (Inside) magazine public lecture on the ‘Changing contemporary workplace’ - part of their Idea Week, leading up to their interior design excellence awards. I was speaking alongside Woods Bagot's Calder, Suzanne Perillo of Schiavello, Rosemary Kirkby, Peter Geyer of Geyer Architects and Tone Wheeler of Environa Studio. I’d talked through some of these issues of advanced ICT, architecture and the office work environment, while others had discussed other aspects of the changing office environment.
In closing the session, however, architect Tone Wheeler was right to pick us all up for making the same mistake as Duffy. He suggested that even in a knowledge-based city like Melbourne, for example, the office environment must cover around 15-20% of the locations for employment at best. In focusing on offices, we ignore necessary innovation in retail and service environments - which would cover the majority of employment, and a vast diversity of spaces - as well as all scales of manufacturing and craft.
However, the areas that Duffy’s book does focus on are still hugely important. Given the pioneering work of his firm, he is uniquely placed to address the changing nature of much urban work, and this simple, inexpensive book provides an excellent overview of both the evolution of cities and their possible futures.
Work and the city, Frank Duffy, Edge Futures/Black Dog Publishing (2008) [Amazon UK and US]