Investigation into the Future of Offices, L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, Jan. 2023.
In an era when people are placing a renewed emphasis on enjoyment of life, community, meaning, and connection, the office has unexpectedly survived.
Two years ago, as offices shut down and lockdowns spread across the globe, we were left to wonder: what is the future of the office? Tasks could seemingly be completed perfectly well without the encumbrance of moving ourselves across cities in buses, trains, and automobiles. Meanwhile, reality set in: home became a place too packed with everything. The home office had become both too full of and too absent of other people. Parks became a refuge for wanderers, but the social world of the city was all but lost. Eventually, maybe rather quickly in some cases, a feeling coalesced: coming together in real life outside of the home had a purpose.
The transition to what has been called the “new normal,” in the ongoing vernacular of doubtfulness about what, in reality, constitutes the present moment, has extremely divergent characteristics. In Silicon Valley, it’s not unheard of for companies that had invested in innovative new headquarters just before the pandemic to continue to be 100 percent remote. That is the case, for instance, at the interactive graphics hardware manufacturer NVIDIA. The company opened a second 250,000-square-foot building this year as a part of its spaceship-like Santa Clara, California headquarters designed by Gensler, yet it has been functioning as an all-remote workplace since early 2020.
The NVIDIA office had sought to locate each employee within a two-minute walk of every other employee, enhancing face-to-face connectivity. It aimed for maximum versatility, allowing team members to choose their ideal spaces within the complex. Abundant outdoor areas, roof decks, terraces, and four acres of gardens designed by landscape architect Walter Hood were meant to enhance creatively and offer relaxation. Inside, a living wall by Habitat Horticulture and planters springing up with grasses, vines, and shrubs find themselves in isolation in people-less constructed environments. Perhaps fitting for a company that is at the forefront of technology for artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the in-real-life headquarters buildings of Nvidia are currently just for display. Nevertheless, the company has a market capitalization and stock value three times greater than before the pandemic.
Undoubtedly, offices continue to be important “third places” where people can meet, learn, share ideas, and create together. Massive new ones have not stopped construction in major cosmopolitan centers like Singapore, where KPF completed the 20-story 18 Robinson tower in 2019 on a triangular lot overlooking the marina. Its features were meant to be state-of-the-art at the time, and they continue to animate certain tendencies supposed to moderate the potential drudgery of office work. As at NVIDIA, the 18 Robinson office contains extensive green plantings within the volume. Above the retail podium, a three-story outdoor atrium is embedded with trees, and a rooftop above the tower holds a voluminous greenhouse open to the sky. Since 2009, Singapore planning regulations have mandated green landscape features within buildings replacing 100 percent of the square footage of greenery lost on the site due to development, even if the site previously had only been occupied by a building.
“The office building is not dead,” says Bruce Fisher, design principal at KPF and lead designer of 18 Robinson. “There do need to be these places where people meet. Then the office becomes more and more important in terms of what you are going to—in terms of well-being and real flexibility of how you can work—both in the office and amenities within the building and places to get away. The idea of integrating green space, balconies, spaces for fresh air and for getting outside is critical in everything we’re doing now.”
Surveys of small offices on how they’ve been adapting to life in the current epoch tend to produce much clearer answers regarding how a separate workplace enhances their everyday experience. These workers characterize the office as a personable place away from home that offers sociability and spatial variability compared to their personal life and private rooms. It’s a place where younger associates gain skills that enable growing expertise in their craft, without which they would likely stagnate. As for the bosses, they express serious doubts whether creative work can be sustained over the long term without the unifying “culture” of the office and its ability to bring people together for informal conversations.
It may be, in this sense, that the future of the office is already here, in these values of well-being, sociability, flexibility, enjoyment of life, and access to nature—not to speak of biodiversity and the need to protect of places for other species in our environments—which should be spread universally through regulatory requirements of the workplace, labor law, and city planning codes rather than depending on the kindness of uniquely altruistic bosses and an exceptionally permissive office culture.