Medibank’s Melbourne headquarters features a sci-fi swirl of stairs and various collaborate areas
Medibank’s Melbourne headquarters features a sci-fi swirl of stairs and various collaborate areas © Earl Carter/ Hassell

Office work is deeply unnatural. And the contemporary commercial interior is the physical expression of humanity’s deracination. This codified, alien and yet almost universal environment has become the default interior for most of our lives: an artificially lit, artificially heated and ventilated volume in which we peer at a screen funnelling endless information and communication to a brain in a body sandwiched between desk and ergonomic chair.

The protagonist in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult satire Office Space spells it out: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!”

We might think that because we have become inured to it, the contemporary office interior is a fait accompli, an inescapable horror of everyday life. But it is not. It is an accumulation of outmoded ideas, governed by old technologies and the lazy, conservative thinking of commercial landlords and corporate executives. And what is more, it is making us ill.

From obesity and backache to migraines and insomnia, the office really is ruining our lives. We sometimes conflate work with the environment in which we do it, but that is a mistake. Sure, the work might be dull, but the place in which we do it need not be.

The seductively cool offices of the big tech giants (so brilliantly parodied in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle) have introduced us to the notion of office as playground. This is the space of loungers and pool tables, bean bags, free snack bars, yoga rooms and chill-out spaces. This is an office world for kids straight out of college unburdened the realities of corporate life.

The other version is the innovation lab. This is a science building for the overqualified who are taken to be antisocial nerds and therefore need to be forced to socialise on stairways and in corridors and canteens. The idea with both these types of space is that employees are encouraged to get up from their workstations and wander around, bumping into each other — which creates the conditions for the serendipitous exchange of ideas. Both environments are, without doubt, healthier than the traditional landscape of cubicles and terminals, but are they good enough?

The White Collar Factory in London’s Silicon Roundabout has planned for a rooftop running track and interiors like high-ceilinged lofts
The White Collar Factory in London’s Silicon Roundabout has planned for a rooftop running track and interiors like high-ceilinged lofts

Ultimately, what all these work environments are doing is to attempt to keep employees there for longer. A free healthy food bar? Sounds good — but it means employees do not need to leave the office. Same for yoga classes or gyms. Google’s Tel Aviv offices have an artificial beach and their London offices have beach huts. There are offices which turn into cocktail bars at six in the evening and others where slides replace stairs.

The real problem though is not that offices are fun — it is control. Corporations have commissioned endless reports, all in an attempt to understand how working environments can help productivity and the one thing they inevitably find is that employees feel more comfortable, more valued and happier if they have some control over their immediate environment.

This control can often be satisfied by something relatively menial-sounding — it might be the ability to choose types of furniture or the position of their desks. It might be control over lighting or temperature — and most often it is the seemingly simplest of things — the capacity to be able to open a window.

But it is that simple desire which highlights the problems of the contemporary office. The modern office is, almost invariably, a sealed box. Whether it is a sleek city-centre glass slab or a suburban campus, the big office building tends towards the monolithic. And it is the fine tuning of its servicing that is often the problem. One employee’s fresh air is another’s draught. One employee’s relaxing lighting is another’s dinginess. The problem with offices, as we’re all too aware, is other people.

So what can be done to make a healthier workplace? In terms of architecture it can be those simplest of things. Stairs are clearly healthier, for instance, than lifts. But they tend to be hidden in fireproof, compartmentalised concrete cores. The trick, apparently, is to make them visible, to encourage people to use them. The most visually striking recent example is Medibank’s Melbourne headquarters. Its interior is a sci-fi swirl of stairs, a spiralling geometry of wonderful complexity. The client, a health insurer, demanded that architects Hassell provide an exemplar healthy building. Employees are free to move around the building and work in a series of different environments through the course of a single day. They can work outside on a lawn or standing on balconies, in collaborative spaces or at a conventional desk. Stairs are everywhere but there is also a huge sports hall and a barrage of indoor plants to help the building breathe.

A new tower in London under construction on London’s Silicon Roundabout takes healthy architecture in another direction. Responding to a huge rise in bike usage, developer Derwent’s White Collar Factory designed by architects AHMM, begins with massive provision of bike storage and changing rooms with showers to accommodate cyclists. There is also a running track planned for the roof and, most remarkable of all in a contemporary commercial building — openable windows. With interiors designed to resemble the high-ceilinged lofts more characteristic of this area than generic office space, the idea is to create more characterful, less corporate spaces.

There are myriad little things that matter. A view of the sky which gives a direct connection to the weather and the time of day as well as natural light. Trees, plants, a little green — all have been proven to reduce stress. And natural materials. The artificiality of the office and the absorption in the world of a screen can be, at least partly, countered by tactile, familiar materials.

Most companies pay very little attention to architecture. Others make a real effort. Pharma group Novartis builds its campuses using the very best contemporary architects — its astonishing Basel site has buildings by Frank Gehry, SANA'A, Herzog & De Meuron, Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas is a virtual architecture museum. In the UK, the Maggie’s Centres for cancer care are conceived not only as places about wellbeing for patients but for staff too. Gardens, terraces and architecture by big names are part of an effort to connect healthcare, work and wellbeing.

There is only a certain amount that architects can achieve with the structure of buildings, but so much of the comfort is dictated by the immediate landscape of stuff in our workplaces. The German innovations of the 1960s, the Bürolandschaft (the “office landscape”) changed everything. From the hierarchical office represented in Billy Wilder’s magical 1960 movie The Apartment in which rows upon rows of clerks sit in an almost infinite perspective of boredom while executives occupy luxuriously private corner offices guarded by secretaries, the Bürolandschaft was an escape into an organic world of equality. The regimentation was broken down into a looser, open plan in which employees were grouped in teams and freer to move around. That layout itself became bastardised into the endless landscape of cubicles of modern open plan offices.

The End of Sitting; RAAAF
Dutch design studio RAAAF came up with a diverse landscape of surfaces against which to lean, on which to sit, stand, recline or even lie © Jan Kempenaers

The open plan is, despite these well-intentioned origins, not a happy or heathy environment. Everyone hears everyone else’s phone calls, the noise is intense, the layout and climate fixed. Dutch design studio RAAAF recently proposed a radical, conceptual alternative. Angular, almost geological, it is composed of irregular volumes which create a diverse landscape of surfaces against which to lean, on which to sit, stand, recline or even lie.

The standing/table has become a fixture recently, particularly in Scandinavian offices where meetings are now regularly held standing — apparently people keep presentations and discussions shorter and more efficient if everyone is vertical. Which brings us, ultimately to the corporate crux. A healthy worker is a happy worker. A happy worker is more productive. The architecture of the office emerged from Frederick Taylor’s influential ideas about the scientific management and about productivity and from Henry Ford’s ideas about efficiency and the factory production line. Distances moved were reduced, workers were encouraged to be efficient by staying in their place.

The evolution of the office has historically been one of compromise between privacy and communality, between being monitored and being free, between management and independence. The most beautiful or playful offices are not only about making the work environment better, they are about ensuring workers don’t need to leave — and spend even their free time at the office.

Sometimes the healthiest workplace is one you can easily leave. In the 1980s, US corporation ConAgra identified Jobbers Canyon, a historic district in Omaha, Nebraska, as the ideal site for their new campus headquarters. They destroyed the old warehouses and historic buildings and built a bland, ugly office. Last year they announced they were moving to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart because it transpired that people like to be in lively, historic urban districts. Sometimes, the healthiest thing for a workplace is to be able to walk out and socialise with people you do not have to work with all day. Sometimes the city outside is the most important element of healthy corporate architecture. Which is why it is so curious that the hugely innovative tech firms are all still building corporate suburban California campuses. They have not caught up yet.

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