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Deyan Sudjic is a writer and director of the Design Museum in London.
The most powerful companies on the planet are all building themselves massive new headquarters buildings. But building an office complex in which 11,000 people will work is more like city-building than conventional workplace design.
There is some formal similarity here to the company towns industrialists such as Henry Ford built. Ford had a company orchestra and marching band and holiday settlements. Yet, those towns sustained family-based communities comprising different age groups. The fact that Silicon Valley’s average age for employees is less than 30 suggests a very different kind of approach to the workforce.
If one looks at almost every field, from the automotive industry to furniture manufacturing, it seems that the middle is falling out of the picture. In the automotive world, there will soon be, on the one end, autonomous vehicles with which nobody has any emotional relationship, and at the other end, you’ll have Ferrari. In a similar way, the office is becoming either extraordinarily tailored and made into a kind of resonant, special place, or very generic. There won’t be much in the middle.
It’s worth bearing in mind that human beings are not always rational and calculating. Rather, we are programmed to look for change for reasons that are not always utilitarian in nature. There’s no rational reason to build high-rise offices except as a means to signal corporate ego or presence, and yet they are now being built again, in places where they previously weren’t. So one can see the presence of reaction and counteraction. People look for formality in some generations and then react against it. I think one can see that process at work in even what is apparently a coldly calculating area as the workplace. We need to remember — there is room for emotion in there as well.