A NEW TYPE OF WORK ENVIRONMENT: CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER'S IDEAS ON OFFICE FURNITURE AND INTERIORS
by Nikos A. Salingaros

 

1. An article in ARCHITECTURAL RECORD.

Christopher Alexander is a world-renowned architect and architectural theorist. Starting in 1963, when he was awarded the first Gold Medal for Research ever by the American Institute of Architects, he has made profound contributions to several different topics. Elsewhere, I have summarized some of Alexander's many accomplishments towards buildings, computer science, and oriental carpet studies (see Some Notes on Christopher Alexander). Hidden in all this voluminous work is an article that promises to be just as revolutionary to our quality of life, if the ideas in it are eventually applied. It concerns Alexander's conception of the ideal work environment. In this article, he condemns the existing office environments and furniture, and offers a significant alternative.

"Toward a Personal Workplace", by Christopher Alexander, Artemis Anninou, Gary Black, and John Rheinfrank.
Architectural Record Mid-September 1987 (Record Interiors), volume 175 No. 11, pages 130-141.

In his capacity as Executive Editor of Architectural Record, Charles K. Gandee had this to say in introducing the article:

Alexander and his co-authors call more than one generation of architects, interior designers, and furniture manufacturers to task for what they see as gross insensitivity, if not malicious negligence, toward unwitting end-users. Their immodest proposal to discard the currently accepted truths of office design and replace them with a "new attitude in which human feeling dominates" is more than provocative - it is revolutionary.

Alexander reminds us that people spend most of their time at home or at work; nevertheless, office environments are almost universally empty of real vitality. "They are missing a depth of feeling and richness of function that lets people reach into those parts of their everyday life and work that are really important." He goes on to criticize stereotyped office furniture as one of the prime contributors to an inhuman work environment. The environment produced by office furniture has realized the nightmare of Orwell's 1984 at a level so subtle that many managers are not even aware of it. This is the deathly world that 58 million people in the U.S. are forced to inhabit eight hours a day". Not only is the situation oppressive, but instead of making it better, our culture has invested considerable resources to teach people to accept it without question. Architecture schools and the professional media deliberately mislead the public by insisting that emotional well-being is not a requirement of interior design. As a result, few people imagine that a pleasant work environment is even possible today.

Alexander's group proposes broad and immediate solutions to the current untenable situation. They offer a new type of office environment, where a person can feel at ease emotionally. The following philosophical and practical principles, summarized below, underlie their thinking:

  1. People have a right to expect an emotionally enriching workplace environment.
  2. It is possible, with materials and methods already available, to achieve this.
  3. The actual cost is not significantly greater than what it costs to create an oppressive work environment.

Alexander and his co-authors have developed solutions relevant for today's workplace, as discussed in the above article. This work is a natural continuation of solutions already given in his book, the "Pattern Language" (1977) (see, for example, pattern 82 OFFICE CONNECTIONS; 146 FLEXIBLE OFFICE SPACE; 148 SMALL WORK GROUPS; 152 HALF-PRIVATE OFFICE; 183 WORKSPACE ENCLOSURE; 192 WINDOWS OVERLOOKING LIFE; 250 WARM COLORS). Nevertheless, this more recent work goes far beyond what readers already know from his previous writings, and leads into the universal principles that are expounded at length in volume III of his forthcoming book The Nature of Order. Here, I extract some points that can be appreciated immediately by the reader.

 

2. Elements of the solutions.

  • Color must be utilized to its utmost - not garish, but deep, rich, and harmonious.
  • The right color can only be decided on-site, by using mock-ups. This is necessary because everything else affects the color, so it cannot be chosen exactly beforehand.
  • The new system discards the "open-office" landscape, and instead introduces a loose conception of rooms.
  • It uses tall furniture as thick walls to form boundaries and to create spaces. These free-standing units with shelves, counters, and built-in drawers replace the usual fixed modular panels.
  • There are "archetypal" forms for office furniture that look very different from what is now commonly used. It is much more satisfying to use and be surrounded by these "archetypal" pieces of furniture.
  • The "archetypal" types of furniture are more solid, sturdy, and comfortable than most of today's office furniture.

The above article illustrates several prototype pieces of office furniture that were built. They include a bookcase; sofa; thick wall panel with shelves and built-in drawers; upright desk; rolling side table; rolling cabinet; flat-topped desk; and conference table. Alexander in fact developed a complete office furniture system, with about 50 components. Half of these are free-standing pieces, and the rest a series of thick wall panels and other enclosure elements. An integral part of this scheme is a layout process developed to help individuals, or a group of workers, lay out their workspace for themselves. Alexander's group studied the details for an eventual large-scale production of this new scheme of office furniture. At the time when the article was written (1987), Alexander was working with one of the largest manufacturers of office furniture in the U.S. (Herman Miller) to bring this scheme to the marketplace. To the best of my knowledge, this project was never completed.

 

3. Concerns about office environments have led to fundamental insights on design.

Alexander's analysis of office design has generated insights of how modular design in general can never create living environments. In describing the user-layout design process in the ARCHITECTURAL RECORD article, Alexander says:

It is essential to stress that this process is entirely different from the layout process available in computerized systems using modular components. These systems allow the user to arrange and rearrange the modules. Our research shows that any process of arranging and rearranging modules is fundamentally limited, and cannot produce the kind of comfort -- the deep and simple feelings -- that we are seeking. ... Profound adaptation in which things are comfortably related to one another can only occur when the elements involved are all capable of very fine dimensional variation. ... The aspect of the layout process itself which is necessary to make this non-modularity work is that it is a process of differentiation (similar to the process of embryonic development) in which the parts are gradually differentiated from the whole -- instead of the whole being made up from modular parts.

This result is fundamental for all design (and is not just restricted to office layout and furniture), and Alexander has developed it in his new book, The Nature of Order. Thinking about the use of modular components stimulated me to write a paper entitled "Modularity and the Number of Design Choices" (with my colleague Debora Tejada). We were able to prove quantitatively that the number of design choices in a system that works by differentiation is vastly more than a comparable modular system.

 

4. Some new patterns that apply to office environments.

I came across some unpublished office patterns developed by Alexander and his students in 1988. Although incomplete, they are of interest to this page, and are unavailable elsewhere. I have extracted portions of them below.

A. HIERARCHY OF WORK REALMS

A community is made of a hierarchy of social groups increasing in scale. Any social group needs a space in which it can thrive. Therefore, to be a community, an office needs to have a hierarchy of well defined realms which are controlled by and support the needs of each group. A typical working community would contain the following hierarchy:

  • individual realm
  • workgroup realm
  • departmental realm
  • whole workforce realm
  • larger community

B. ADAPTABILITY

It is all right to say that individuals and groups have control over their realms and their work environments, but it simply won't work unless the actual physical materials the building is made of, and the structural systems by which it is put together, actually invite and facilitate this adaptation. Many office systems have been designed to be "flexible", yet they often involve merely the rearrangement of standard components. While the size of the space may change, the character really does not. Also, over the passage of time, there is no gradual improvement of the workplace, as each arrangement completely obliterates the previous one.

At each level of scale, it is those actually using the space who understand best how it can be made or altered to have the character of being conducive to the work, and this group should be given sole control over that space both in the physical definition of the territory, and by giving the group power over placement of furniture, purchase of needed items, decorations, etc. Thus an individual has control over his or her own workspace; the workgroup has control over the group working area but not over the individual workspaces; the department has control over its space but not over the workgroup spaces, and so on.

Therefore, we suggest using materials and structural systems which would invite change, and allow changes to accumulate, gradually fine-tuning some areas very closely to the real human needs that exist there. Other arrangements, for which the need became obsolete, would disappear over time. (But the space that housed them might retain faint traces, a pentimento, of their previous use.)

C. VISUAL PRESENCE

Few would disagree that some dampening of the spirit occurs when day after day the worker arrives to a glass high-rise, takes an elevator ride like all other elevator rides, and walks down a corridor to a cubicle. The physical environment too often adds monotony to a life that is already routine. Whether Boston or San Diego, the look of the buildings, the layout, the materials, the spare list of amenities all appear as if they were selected from the same catalogue.

The patterns developed in A Pattern Language, if correctly followed, will lead one to an environment of an authentic quality. Yet the state of the typical commercial office building is so abysmal in this respect that it is felt necessary to underscore the issues here. It requires attention to the physical quality at all scales of the realms developed in this office language, and across scales. It is not a prescription for style, but is a concern that should underlie all styles. It goes beyond a thoughtful attention to textures, surfaces, colors and materiality. Five mechanics in a funky, grimy garage may have created an environment much more alive than a place that has received the most considered attention to detail. Conversions of warehouses often exude a genuineness and character lacking in the commercial spec building. The latter may have something to do with the variety of spaces and unlikely mix of character inevitable when transforming a building to an unintended use. It also may have something to do with being purposeful. When something is purposeful it tends to be unique, rather than typical. It engages the existing conditions rather than imposing upon them. In a similar manner, innovation and invention can have a positive influence. "To imitate provides no proof of a creative spirit in ourselves", as told by Ananda Coomaraswamy, and "nothing but the accidental appearance of a living culture can be evoked". To Coomaraswamy, the most inspiring work is that which is a "unique expression of time and circumstance".

Our office buildings require considerable attention to the visual impression they impose upon us. Their presence is a reflection of ourselves. They should be imbued with positive qualities, such as beauty and purpose. They should be unique to their conditions, not typical. They should offer variety and multiple centers to their inhabitants, not monotonous and imposed. They should feel genuine, not superficial, and in so doing, reflect the authentic and creative spirit of their builders.

D. AVAILABLE PRIVACY

Office design presently stresses solutions at opposite poles of the privacy spectrum. Neither isolated offices (commonly used by executives) nor sprawling, open staff pools with little or no subgroup definition satisfy the need for a balance of autonomy and community within the workplace. Isolation from the primary work space tends to enhance the "Us versus Them" mentality, decreasing both functional efficiency and job satisfaction. The atmosphere within large homogeneous pools of workers with little or no privacy is characterized by high noise levels and constant visual distractions. This sort of situation leads to high stress levels and ultimately, worker burnout.

The intimacy gradient in any office building should allow a comfortable level of privacy for workers within their individual workspaces. If primary work spaces cannot embody the necessary privacy, designated spaces which do should be accessible. A delicate balance between autonomy and community is needed in order for individuals and groups to function effectively. Partially enclosed workspaces allow visual and verbal inter workspace communication while buffering workers from random, uncontrollable interruptions.(see pattern 152 in A Pattern Language: "Half-Private Office")

E. WINDOWS THAT OPEN

A basic fault of many offices today is their self enclosed, sterilized character caused by a complete dependence on artificial air systems. The workers lose a basic connection to the outside world when they are limited to watching it through a fixed piece of glass. The air quality in these spaces is stale and can be unhealthy.

Therefore, make all windows operable, and allow workers to control the flow of fresh air for their own space.


This site is maintained by Nikos A. Salingaros.

Salingaros's contributions to Architecture and Complexity

Some Notes on Christopher Alexander

The Nature of Order

* Christopher Alexander's website is at patternlanguage.com