Launch Slideshow

As the Nature of Work Changes, So Does Architecture

As the Nature of Work Changes, So Does Architecture

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    Cedric Price's Fun Palace

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    Courtesy ADG

    Constant Nieuwenhuys Constant New Babylon

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    Courtesy Nine Elms London

Architecture might not work anymore. That is to say, the idea that architecture is the act of producing functional machines that ideally have some evidence of how they were made might be outdated. Truth be told, this notion of functional expression is a modernist one, and maybe it should fade away, like so many outdated ideas about and within the discipline. That might be especially necessary because so much of our current idiom is based on old-fashioned modes of production. 

Factories these days are sheds housing fewer and fewer human workers and are usually far away. The loft, with its open structure meant to facilitate work, as well as the steel skeleton frame skyscraper with its cellular subdivisions meant for laboring clerks, have transformed into something more like the fluid spaces for new knowledge workers or upper-level income dwellers. 

At a larger level, the heroic structures that once marked our landscape have given way to slick corporate icons or places of amusement. 

In London, I noticed during a recent trip, the Battersea Power Plant is undergoing just such a transformation, and the new icons are geometric fragments such as the Shard or the Cucumber. In two of my most recent blogs, I marked the transformation of the inner city from a place of work into a place of play. 

Now Ross Drouhat, in The New York Times, notes the potential disappearance of work altogether from our landscape. Drouhat calls it a potential utopia, and I am reminded of the pleasure domes of the 1960s, such as either those the Archigram types produced, or Constant’s New Babylon. 

What will make this all come true is the exact technology that we once believed would liberate us, except not in the manner in which we once thought. Robots, connected computers, miniaturization, and etherization are taking the work out of both the social and the physical sphere. We can no longer see how things work, and our work consists of the barely perceptible tapping of our fingers—soon to be replaced, if Google has anything to do with it, by the flicking of our eyelids, no doubt. 

Work is also becoming more social, as we gather in offices not so much to produce something (that we can do anywhere, on our laptop or PDA), as to meet and discuss machines, strategies, brands, ideas, or just the kind of gossip that forms us into that new unit of labor, the team. As a result, workplaces are becoming more like clubs or extended restaurants. 

In my next few blogs (unless current events intervene), I want to discuss a few such spaces, including the one where I currently work. But I also want to raise the larger question of what architecture should mean or do in this context. If we look toward our buildings to not only physically, but also culturally frame our relation between the world around us and other human beings, what models are we developing for a world in which work literally and figuratively disappears? Does architecture just become a collage of signs telling us where we are or where to go? Is it a scaffolding or network within which we hang our hammocks and construct our collective space? Is it a climate-controlled neo-Eden through which we wander freely? Or is it the kind of bloblike spaceship in which we all, freed from work, become blobs, as Wall-E promised? Architecture will have to find answers to these questions if it is to remain relevant. 

Perhaps discipline and order, whether classical or modernist, are in order. Perhaps we should go with the (digital) flow. I prefer to think that we need to do something else, something that transforms leisure, comfort, consumption, and social relations into meaning. My work consists only of speculating and showing hopeful examples, so I leave the hard work of how up to the architects.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.