ARE OPEN PLAN OFFICES INHUMANE? At the PJ Lifestyle blog, Kate O’Hare writes:

Modern zoos go to great lengths to make their animals’ enclosures resemble natural habitats. After decades of keeping wildlife in cramped, sterile cages with no privacy, they discovered that the stress and the deprivation made the creatures more susceptible to disease and shortened their lives.

But some of the most progressive companies in America haven’t yet figured out that, however clean, beautiful and stylish a work environment may look, if it doesn’t take human nature into account, the results may be the same.

Ironically, many of these companies — like such tech giants as Google — expect employees to work extremely long hours and dedicate huge chunks of their lives to the mission. The Googles of the world also provide snacks, games, gyms and beanbag chairs, but for a lot of corporate workers, they get the “open plan” office without all the tech-firm perks.

As with any “progressive” notion, the idea of the “open plan” office had lofty goals. Lowering cubicle walls or eliminating personal workspaces entirely, it was meant to foster communication, collaboration and teamwork. As a bonus, it saved floor space, money and allowed bosses — often sequestered in glass-walled offices around the perimeter — to keep a constant eye on employees.

The early modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe (the last director of Weimar-era Germany’s Bauhaus) were obsessed with open-planning, both in commercial and residential applications. In the 1950s after emigrating to America, Mies even designed a project at the Illinois Institute of Technology (where he was founder and director of the architectural program) which he called, based on its dimensions in feet, the 50X50 house. It was an attempt to merge his steel and glass architecture, paired to down to the absolute minimal of elements, with Levittown-style mass production; its only enclosed rooms were two bathrooms and a utility room.

As architectural historians Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst noted in their exhaustively researched (and quite readable) 2012 biography of Mies:

American families with children would never have accepted the lack of privacy that Mies’s generalized interior implied. Goldsmith [Myron Goldsmith, who did the actual engineering drawings and mockups under Mies’s supervision — Ed] “thought it was a huge step to suggest [it for a family], so I said, incredulously, one day to Mies, ‘Do you mean you can raise this family with children, parents in this open plan and adjust some walls?’ ‘Ja,’ said Mies, ‘There’s distance, and it reminds me of some ski lodges or on a yacht or or sailboat.’ He thought it could be done if you had a venturesome client.”

“The Fifty by Fifty House was an abstract[ ion],” Goldsmith stated in a 1986 interview:

At that time Mies was very interested in architecture just as background for people, to try to reduce the architecture as much as possible to nothing. . . . He said he had visited the United States Plywood Company to pick some plywood for something and loved this big empty warehouse. What a wonderful house it would make, this space where you could just live. How all the problems are solved, one sees the glimmer of this in some of the lofts that are being done now, unified, very high spaces, solving the elements like sleeping and everything at an absolute minimum. Mies had the same idea. This was the idea of the Fifty by Fifty House, of how far you could go in one unified space and how you could live within it.

And Mies and other European modernists and their acolytes were – and are – prepared to go quite far indeed. Nice to finally see this century old “Progressive” concept finally getting some pushback in the office place.