Book Review: Work and the City, Frank Duffy, 2008

Hello again, and yes, I am at it again…

With the holidays and all this free time, I’ve been able to get through a couple of books that have been on my list for what seems like a million years. I started with ‘Work and the City’ by Frank Duffy, probably because it had been on my list since Day One of my job at Arup with Dan Hill, but also because it seemed like an achievable endeavour (the book is very short and well-designed, lots of white space and images…)

Dan’s reviewed this book extensively on his blog, so I am not here to repeat what has already been said. His blog entry is well worth a read, he’s particularly concerned with the disturbing implications of single use office buildings on how sustainably we are planning and using our cities. Office uses are particularly wasteful in this day and age, where most ‘work stations’ (what an awful term) are only used part of the time when the office is open and unoccupied during nights and week ends. Yet, ‘the market’ keeps telling us that we’re lacking office space and that high quality office space is what a city like Sydney needs to remain competitive.

Intrinsic in that comment are two facts: first of all, we tire very quickly of office settings. It has to do with how much we actually invest in making them work and designing them from a user’s perspective. No offence to office planners, but I find office interiors particularly unimaginative. People often refer to Google and Yahoo as example of ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ office spaces, but I find them deeply patronising: at what point did Google think that their staff were actually a bunch of children who need to be entertained with ping pong tables, air hockey and bean bags? And what’s the deal with the miniature, colourful furniture?

The second fact is that the definition of workplace is changing and diversifying much faster than the current office interior cycle can accommodate. And this is largely due to the rise of third places, the 100-year career and pervasive digital connectivity. I am always very dubious of people who see teleworking as the main societal achievement of digital connectivity of the workplace, personally, I can see no more daunting prospect than being stuck at home and having to work. Social interaction, serendipity and the exchange of ideas and hunches are crucial to a fulfilling work style. And also, let’s face it, if you’re ambitious as I am, getting your face out there is also super important for recognition, promotion, etc…

There are only two small points I would like to add to Frank’s and Dan’s argument. The first is about the supply-side nature of the built environment industry. The design and construction of our built environment is a well-oiled machine. It increasingly involves larger amounts of capital to be secured for longer periods of time as development business models move away from individual buildings to precinct-based development. Therefore, it is, by definition, a risk-averse industry that will look at what has worked in the past rather than testing something new. It is also an extremely clunky industry for innovation as life cycles are long and post-occupancy studies rare. In short, on the whole, as an industry, we’re pretty bad at learning from our mistakes.

Frank is pretty makes some pretty scathing remarks on the current architecture of decision-making in the production of the built environment. He identifies three layers on which the supply-side of the machine functions: Finance and Development, Design and Construction and Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management. These are the legacy from an Anglo-American office supply chain within which architects are complicit.

In actuality, I read Frank’s book as being very critical of the architectural profession as a whole, which I tend to agree with in some aspects. Architects are often part of the problem. The whole of architectural education is geared towards the fulfilment of this distant dream of leaving your personal mark on the city in the shape of building. Perhaps in a time of rapid horizontal urban growth, that ambition was not so outlandish, but in this day and age, when the debate has been promoting the densification and containment of cities, the bias towards new construction seems a tad indulgent. Any engagement with existing fabric is dealt with as an issue of ‘heritage’ instead, leaving, I argue, a whole spatial conversation about the software of the city out of the equation. Marcus Westbury has written quite a bit about this, looking at buildings merely as the hardware for human activity and the software as the set of codes and regulations that allow people to activate those spaces. It’s a very Jane Jacobs view of the city, but it’s valid nonetheless as a meaningful way to engage with existing buildings.

The software of a city is inextricably linked to the way people interact with the city and therefore a user-based understanding of the design of cities. In the last month’s Dan spent at Arup, he started talking about ‘demand-led’ urbanism, as a refreshing concept that turns the current supply chain model on its head and favours users of environments rather than the suppliers of those environments. It’s surprising this is not talked about more given the alleged user-centred approach the design process is supposed to take. I suppose after years of ‘experience’, many assumption get made about how people interact and use with buildings and don’t change. As the dear French would say, with assumptions, ‘you could put Paris in a bottle’

The second point I would like to make is that, I believe, cloud computing, not telepresence, will be the single driving force behind the re-conception of the workplace. Cloud storage services are growing astronomically. At the recent launch of the IBM research lab in Melbourne, their director of research confided in me that cloud-based services was their fastest-growing sector at the moment, especially in the US. It’s no surprise that Australia is lagging, but it will get there, eventually.

I say this because moving to a cloud-based server, where information and software licenses are accessed remotely takes away the need for a secure and spatially-bound information network located within the office. The service can be distributed and ubiquitous, leaving open a whole range of spatial and social possibilities for workplaces. Some organisations are toying with the idea and have promoted concepts such as ‘activity-based working’. The best purported examples of this are Commonwealth Bank in Sydney and Macquarie Bank’s Shelley Street office. But we will again fail to learn from this innovation if we don’t develop the tools and data that help us paint an accurate picture of how successful these schemes are being. Instrumenting the wireless infrastructure that allows us to access the cloud and the internet is a no-brainer: the routers are collecting data about connections anyway, it is the power to gain insight and analysis from this data that is the challenge the construction industry is struggling with.

So perhaps I am not adding that much to the conversation, but I thought those points needed a bit more fleshing out. There are many themes here that cut across other posts and book reviews I am brewing up, so expect to hear more on the topic!

Until later.

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