First a little extraneous background to the history of the office building as a type. We could go back to the Greek stoa or Roman basilica, but that would be stupid. The earliest key interval of significance to the evolution of the office building as we know it today, was the rebuilding of Chicago in the wake of the great fire of 1871. The steel frame sheaved in brick to protect the structure from fire, Elisha Otis’s plummet-proof elevator from twenty years before the great fire, and Louis Sullivan’s revelation that levels of the same function should receive the same façade treatment (expressed as “form follows function”), coalesced in this era.
By the 1930s, the office building had become synonymous with a competition to build the world’s tallest building. A second race for the sky occurred in the 1970s. Height is about power, not function, and brings some functional nightmares, that impact most on lift core design; logistically, it is almost impossible to fill the upper levels of a tower with office workers just before 9am, and empty it again at 5pm, without causing delays. An even greater design challenge for lift core designers is evacuating people in the event of a fire. The thousands of people who died in 9/11 would say this is one area where architects have failed dismally.
On the positive side, the central core office building (with fire stairs, lifts and services clustered in a structural tube), naturally resists wind loads. Visitors arrive on each floor at one central point, making it easy to position reception desks. Putting services and most of the loadbearing at the center of the building leaves the perimeter free for offices with views in every direction. These advantages have made the central core office a favoured type among corporate tenants seeking a high-profile address.
In recent decades though, we have seen the contest to build the world’s tallest office building shift from New York and Chicago, to emerging cities like Shanghai and Dubai. Countries that once led the race to the sky, have turned their back on this game, seeing it as synonymous with greed and consumption. Today, it is the 6 Green Star, or Platinum LEED certified building, that lends a corporation a new kind of prestige. Corporations are less concerned with symbols of corporate might, than symbols of social and environmental stewardship. Air-conditioned boardrooms looking down on a city have fallen from favour. What is in vogue is the naturally ventilated hot-desking space, with foosball and lounges, close to street life and cafes.
The perfume bottle tower required a building maintenance unit (BMU) for regular cleaning of an air-tight cocoon made of glass. Now that buildings aren’t reaching the sky (and all those fast air streams), more windows can be opened and cleaned from the inside, or accessed via exterior shade structures that double as catwalks. The new office building is not an energy hungry glass bubble, but a manually adjustable shelter, filled with more of the sounds and air of the street. It is less like a car, and more like a bike. Like a bike it is frugal, to the point of demanding users’ attention and strength.
That is not to say everything about the office building is changing. Premium rent is still paid for views and a landmark address. High paying tenants still prefer an open plan with no columns. Real estate agents still refer to a sweet spot in the rental market for 1000sqm floor plates. And although tenants are prepared to accept a slight fluctuation in lighting levels and temperature, they cannot expect productivity from uncomfortable workers sitting in darkness.
The office building is a type that doesn’t change wildly, but that adapts to the times. Changing attitudes toward power have stalled the quest for height for height’s sake. We’ve stopped controlling the climate using enormous condensers, and moved to tempering the climate with shutters and louvres. The open plan is not for the surveillance of workers, but collaboration between managers and staff who are supposedly on the same level. Cubical sizes have shrunken, while common spaces have grown, reflecting the impact of computers on office work. Basement parking is giving way to bike storage and locker rooms, reflecting changes in the way people move through the city.
The cultural ascension of bicycle transport represents the next big period of adaptation in office design. London’s mayor Boris Johnson has announced an overhaul of that city’s streets to give bicycles dominance. New York and Sydney are phasing in extensive networks of cycle-tracks. As always, these cities are like compasses for the smaller cities to look to for examples.
Cities change. In the past century cities have added metros, removed horses, then added cars. This century they are removing cars to make way for bikes. With each change in transport, buildings change too—just look at the size of basement car parks beneath office towers, or the reuse of stables. How will the forthcoming reduction in driving, and increase in cycling, cause the sustainable mid-rise office building to change? A 15000sqm office building could have as many as 3000 workers arriving by bike, when cycling becomes the dominant mode. Engineers could be called on for ways to deal with bike storage as though it were a problem. It is the duty of architects to intervene, and show that bike storage can be treated in positive ways, that bring delight.
Two months from now, I hope to be posting some of my students’ responses to this major new challenge. That gives imaginative readers plenty of time to share their suggestions. If you have followed this blog for a while, or read my book, you will know I’ve speculated on various developments I can foresee. Right now though, I’m more interested in what you and my students come up with.