The first Herman Miller Action Office II installation, at JFN Associates, Chicago, 1969 (photo: Herman Miller)

The rise of the knowledge economy was one of the key developments of the 20th century. Buildings for white-collar work have transformed the heart of every major city—and their role continues to evolve. Joseph L. Clarke is an award-winning architectural historian and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians recently published his article “Too Much Information: Noise and Communication in an Open Office.” The essay is part of Clarke’s larger study of the evolution of the workplace around the goal of better communication in the 1960s.

1. As employees return to the workplace post-pandemic, older debates about the purpose and design of offices are resurfacing. Can you give us a rundown of the origins of open offices?

Large corporate offices emerged in the late 19th century as growing industrial businesses needed more administrative coordination. Companies wanted to have offices downtown, but real estate was scarce, so architects went vertical with tall steel-framed buildings.

At first, private offices were signs of prestige; open workspaces were for low-level clerical employees. But designers were starting to celebrate the spatial openness possible with modern building technology. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built innovative open-plan homes for rich clients. Why not offices too? It was not only cheaper to put workers in a big open space. Tearing out the walls promised other advantages, too, like flexibility to rearrange the office based on workflow.

Today, everyone’s debating new ways of working, and whether dedicated physical offices are needed at all. Design history can show us how the ideals of so-called “knowledge work” we now take for granted—like the values of creativity and teamwork—were shaped by the built environment of the office.

2. You see the Bürolandschaft or “landscape office” movement in 1960s as a turning point in the history of the office. How did it change our understanding of workplace dynamics?

This was when the predominant metaphor for office design shifted: the workplace started to be seen less as a factory for paperwork than a machine for inducing the effective circulation of information—essentially a giant computer. The change was epitomized in Bürolandschaft workplaces, the brainchild of management consultants during West Germany’s postwar boom. These offices had immense floor plates and virtually no interior walls. That might not sound appealing, but actually they were designed to be comfortable, stimulating places. The desks weren’t arranged in grids or any kind of hierarchy, but in organic layouts meant to support collaboration, according to an intricate process of analysis informed by cybernetics. Soft materials like carpeting and window drapes, along with potted plants and coffee stations, made the office more welcoming. The result was a surprisingly casual, almost domestic ambiance—a total contrast to the buttoned-up look of earlier offices. The idea took off as more and more international companies wanted these “landscape offices.” The Bürolandschaft transformed people’s idea of what an office could be. It expressed a vision of office work as fundamentally about interacting and communicating. And it started to erode the boundary between work and leisure time. Of course, these ideas are very familiar today.

3. You write about acoustic challenges in early open offices. How did these problems shape the way people think about communication and spaces for intellectual work?

It’s a paradox: the Bürolandschaft was the first office concept explicitly designed to improve communication, but, as you can imagine, these wide-open workspaces could be quite loud. My article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians looks at how designers worked through this—very relatable—problem. Before the 1960s, acousticians had tried to eliminate noise from offices as much as possible. Landscape offices triggered a new way of thinking: now it seemed certain kinds of noise could actually be quite useful, in masking other more distracting sounds. I don’t know about you, but I find a little random background noise helpful for concentration—call it the “coffee shop effect.” One of the great discoveries in ’60s open office design was the value of ensuring a certain minimum level of unintelligible background babble, to keep everyone from hearing everyone else all the time. It seems like a simple idea, but it led to pretty fundamental changes in how noise, information, and teamwork were understood and managed. My article also explores how this paradigm shift related to the interdisciplinary discourse of “soundscape” emerging around this time.

4. You’re an architectural historian. How can the study of architecture help us better understand the past and future of work?

The evolution of work has been profoundly linked with the changing configuration of the workplace. In general, the design of the physical environment is so entangled with money, technology, and all kinds of political and cultural forces that its form ends up expressing the priorities of the people (or corporations, or governments) that pay for it. But the design disciplines possess autonomous forms of knowledge, too. Skilful designers can reflect critically on a project’s social determinants even if they can’t resist them outright. So architectural history looks at office design not merely as an epiphenomenon of trends in business or technology, but also as a form of art with the agency to channel and give shape to those forces.

We’re at a critical moment to engage in this kind of research, as the traditional methods of design history come into dialogue with newer conversations, for example in sound studies. It’s exciting that a respected publication like the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians is receptive to these emerging areas of scholarship.

5. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about the future of office design. How might workplaces evolve in the years ahead?

Maybe office buildings will disappear entirely. One prominent designer of the 1960s, the British architect Cedric Price, thought the day was fast approaching when telecommunication would make physical offices obsolete. I’m not so sure, though. There are solid arguments for remote work, but humans are physical and social beings. We need in-person gathering places of all kinds—schools, restaurants, places of worship—and yes, I’d argue, offices too. Moreover, knowledge work as it’s practiced today co-evolved with bricks-and-mortar workplaces. The idea of replacing them outright by digital collaboration platforms may be a Silicon Valley fantasy. What I can say for sure is that if office buildings are to have a future, companies—and designers—need to make a convincing argument that being together in the same environment helps people work better. And that starts with creating offices that have a tangible sense of place.

We invite you to read Joseph L. Clarke’s “Too Much Information: Noise and Communication in an Open Office” for free online for a limited time.

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