Post 701 –by Gautam Shah
This is the 5 th article of series: ‘CORNERS’.
Earlier articles were > 672 The CORNER -metaphor / 673 The CORNER in City / 678 CORNERS and Neighbourhoods / 696 CORNERS and Public Spaces.
A work-nook was the historical culture of work space. The private work area was mainly used for reading and writing, and only occasionally for interaction with others. Work desks were wall abutting storage cabinets with a foldout work surface. The work zone was located in the corner of a large room. In Northern Europe, the desks were placed on a slightly raised platform. The platform and the corner position both helped to keep it protected from cold draughts, in unheated rooms. The corner was the least participating space and so secluded one. In ancient walls load-bearing structures, the corner did not allow any opening. In later periods, when window glasses were clear to provide decent view, the work nooks were placed beside the openings.
For personal, reading and writing, a work place in the form of a bureau desk was fairly a functional entity. A visitor, though had to stand or sit on the side. And for a professional like a lawyer or public servant, the interactions with a group of visitors were awkward. And yet the bureau desks remained the only form of work-tables for more than 600 years, till about mid of 20th C.
The bureau desk, by itself, was fairly compact and a functional entity. It could be placed almost anywhere in a room or shifted around. It did not require any other adjunct pieces of furniture except a seat. Its most important character was its single person’s utility. It was not a participatory entity. The sitting person faced the wall and so lacked the authority.
There were other work-tables or platforms in the built spaces. Kitchens had food preparation work-tables or platforms close to cooking fires. These platforms served as dining tables and sleeping beds for servants. But people seating around a table, equally participating in discussions, was more democratic. Such a participatory set-up was inconceivable for the boss who wished to be different from others.
Historically, the democratic nature of the kitchen table and the non-participatory bureau desk, both coexisted. The kitchen table mainly used for food preparation and dining had marked positions for house members. At the head side of the table -a chair with handles, was the master’s or president’s chair. The bureau desk, primarily a work-unit, later found a place in the dining pantry areas for storing china and cutlery. This was later placed in bedrooms as a multi-utility storage system.
The bureau desks moved from homes to commercial establishments, as the boss’s place. The bureau desk was a wall abutting unit, and so it was easy to source the services like electricity, telephones etc. It was placed on the inner side of the office room, perhaps, the boss did not like anyone to be on his backside. Such bureau desks were boss’s privilege. The commercial establishments had ill-defined positions for others like assistants, secretaries or visitors.
Forty years ago, a corner office, with two side corner windows was most sought after position by any executive. In the interior side it had furthest location. This was easy to provide in buildings with small foot print, advantageous multi face sites and fewer executives per floor. But in dense urban localities, due to high costs, the executive offices were smaller and large in numbers. Architects were forced to find ways to add more corners to the buildings.
In early businesses there was a strong hierarchy of work positions based on social connections and seniority of age. One could enter an organization and continue to be promoted till one died. There was no retirement edge. In the meanwhile, an employee is consistently on the move, from a larger desk, position near a window, exclusive telephone connection, a partitioned cubicle to a personal cabin. The moves were not always well marked or visible.
A corner is like a cone of a megaphone, one can express loudly and compel others to listen, like happened in an amphi theatre. The wider end can bring in noise, like the wine glass for eavesdropping. A corner work place, simultaneously works both ways, so it is not a desirable place to occupy.
One would not want to be cornered, at least willingly, but in the commercial setup, top executives seek it. A corner office was a sought after place. It had prestige and had windows on two exterior walls. Most office work spaces have one window or none at all. Corner offices were called C-suites. Corner offices were furthest on the floor and one had to cross several planned and unintentional hurdles to reach it. To avoid such a situation, the C-suites were stretched right up to the reception area, taking up quarter or more space of the floor. This spread matched the prestige associated with the space, but the ‘toilers of the office avoided visiting it, unless promoted to it’.
Cubicles or cabins were interim destinations for the executives on way to the corner-offices. The cubicles or cabins always occupied the peripheral edge, for the window view. When buildings had small footprints or narrow widths, the peripheral preference did not disturb the daytime illumination. But with large space commercial buildings, the low level staff was denied daytime illumination and outside views. The cubicles or cabins were opaque barricaded, for the perceived threat of sound leakage. The corner office had least interior edge exposure and so offered more privacy. The physical isolation had however, no relevance when with telephone one could connect to anyone. The glass partitions dissolved the edge.
‘Buildings once substantially depended on natural light and thermal management (heating, cooling, ventilation). The offices had two distinct spatial divisions. The best sections were on the outer periphery occupied by people engaged in core business, whereas the inner areas were of compromised environment and housed the staff engaged in data management and communication.’
The conditions began to change in the corporate world, post WW-II. The Senior positions were filled, not through promotion within, but negotiated migrations of talent. Earlier promotion was accompanied by designated spatial status like cabin or cubicle, but now the demand was freedom to work anywhere and any time, even beyond the spatial boundaries of the ‘work-place’.
The capacity to work at home, has intensified the urge for social contact with the colleagues. Physical encounters are required, and for this a variety of spaces are required. The need for variety is fulfilled by hired spaces, often away from the town. Little business is talked here, but social assurance is available.
The changed work-culture attitudes have forced new configurations for interior space planning and forms of architecture. Millennials want no Hierarchy but Holocracy. Holocracy is a decentralized management system with a flatter power structure, where everyone is a leader. It distributes authority and decision-making throughout the organization.
New offices have corner spaces but used for meeting or relaxation (coffee rooms). The work environment is where people work from any table in the office. At home or coffee shop. Designing open office work-spaces is very different. New offices (not to be confused with open plan office layout) are much smaller, and efficient in space-use than the old offices.
Offices or Work places have seen revolutionary changes in Form and Functions, because Technological and consequent Social changes demand it. During the last century, the changes have substantially related to the data management modalities. Once upon time, public offices had to allot 40-50% space for storage systems, and substantial proportion of staff was used for fetching, filing, classifying, copying, printing, storing, arranging, retrieving, distributing the data within the office, and dispatching it beyond the office. The data management now relies on remote access and virtual storage systems. The communication was once physical, and required lots of passage spaces, staff, messengers and personal contact.