Can Architecture Make Us More Creative? Part II: Work Environments

  • 10 May 2013
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’s New Campus designed by NBBJ (courtesy of nbbj)

Jane Jacobs revered the West Village. It was a bustling neighborhood enlivened by its social, spatial, and functional diversity. It had different building types and functions, which meant that people were always in places for different purposes; it had short blocks, which have the greatest variety of foot traffic. It had plenty of old buildings with low rent which “permit individualized and creative uses;” and, most importantly, it had all different kinds of people. As a result, West Villagers could establish casual and informal relationships with people that they might not have had the opportunity to otherwise.

Without these necessary characteristics, Jacobs felt “there is no public acquaintanceship, no foundation of public trust, no cross-connections with the necessary people – and no practice or ease in applying the most ordinary techniques of city public life at lowly levels.”

By simply changing a few words, it’s not hard to imagine Jacobs’ writing describing offices instead of cities. Buildings are different internal spaces, like individual offices or gathering spaces; desks are homes; sidewalks are hallways or circulation space; etc.

If the office is a small microcosmic city, then suburbia is the cubicle-strewn office, and Google might be the West Village. And ‘people analytics,’ the statistical and spatial analysis of interpersonal interaction, is the office’s urban planning.

To find out what creative work environments can learn from the composition of cities, keep reading after the break…

Hudson Street, West Village (via cyburbia.org)

Google isn’t just a search engine. While it began as one good idea, it grew into a platform for new ideas, a dynamic system of web-based innovation driven by the creativity of its employees.

According to Susan Wojcicki, the Senior Vice President of Advertising at Google, “nurturing a culture that allows for innovation [has been] the key” to Google’s continued success. It is not good enough to have one good idea; a constant flow of new ideas is critical to development.

That’s why Google pays so much attention to the places in which its employees work. By facilitating the interactions between them, the office space is the medium through which ideas come about. If the company itself is a functional platform for innovation, its offices, then, are the physical platform. For it is there, in the office, that the accidental collision of ideas can lead to the significant creation of products (this is what led to Google Translate, the Google Art Project, etc.).

Google’s New Campus designed by NBBJ (courtesy of nbbj)

Although the Google office is famous for ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs, its quirkiness and informality are not a gimmick.

If we remember Building 20, researchers cherished the ability to have ownership of their space. If they wanted to change the layout, knock down a wall, or even change the artwork, they just did it. They didn’t have to ask anyone.

In a similar spirit, Google allows its employees to design their own desks or work stations. “Some have standing desks, a few even have attached treadmills so they can walk while working. Employees express themselves by scribbling on walls. The result looks a little chaotic, like some kind of high-tech refugee camp, but Google says that’s how the engineers like it,” explains James Stewart of the New York Times.

Christopher Alexander, in an unpublished, collaborative work with his students titled “Office Patterns,” promotes this concept wholeheartedly:

“At each level of scale, it is those actually using the space who understand best how it can be made/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/her 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 invite change and allow changes to accumulate, gradually fine-tuning some areas very closely to the real human needs that exist there.”

Tinkering is so successful because the user usually knows best. The individual knows what desk will be best for him/her, what writing they want on the wall, what chair is most comfortable; the project manager knows what arrangement will be most productive; etc. Allowing for this type of local autonomy promotes interaction with the space and ownership of the office.

This informality, which is ultimately what shocks people about Google’s work environments, is a cornerstone of its design philosophy. Employees should feel free to work independently however they want, but also to interact with one another, about a passing question or a business related problem, without the concern of appearing not to work. For Google, distraction is great, especially when it crosses thresholds.

Google Office in Zurich (via home-designing.com)

Google knows that knowledge can only really spill over if there is a surface – like a chalkboard – on which it can land. If two people run into each other in a hallway and spark a conversation that requires technical discussion, or idea generation, or any topic that might benefit from being written down, it is best if they can write it down then and there. Since hallways are not conducive to stopping to write,  Google offices are strewn with “every conceivable gathering space, from large open spaces to tiny nooks with whimsical furniture.” Conversations never take place too far from a space to gather.

Their new east coast headquarters in Chelsea poses a potent example of a space intentionally designed to fit this philosophy of creativity. Craig Nevill-Manning, the engineering director in Manhattan and impetus for the new building, explains that the design of the office is consistent with a culture of creative interaction. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.”

Google’s New Chelsea Office via getty images

As with constructing a new neighborhood, Google didn’t go about this blindly. They referred to the office equivalent of urban planning: “people analytics.” The field, which is essentially the statistical assessment of interactions between people within the office, informs the organization of an office. Often, the studies look at who is interacting with whom, where those interactions are taking place, and how the organization of space influences them. With this information, businesses can make informed changes to the arrangement of their offices.

How effective is this? Ben Waber, who literally wrote the book on “People Analytics,” strongly believes that “physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction.” That is, generative interactions that happen by accident, but lead to tangible creation. To achieve this, people analytics firms employ strategies such as promoting redundant pathways, where employees interact in both directions.

Ben Waber’s “People Analytics”

This tendency of people analytics points to the most important aspect of the office-city comparison: the sidewalk. In Jacob’s model, the sidewalk is the facilitator. It is where people interact, where relationships begin and develop. Basically, it is the locus for all things both communal and informal. To apply this to offices would imply that hallways, or more broadly, the spaces in-between, are the most significant space of the office.

Interstitial space, then, is not simply a placeholder that allows people to move from one functional space to another. It isn’t just there because it needs to be. In fact it is quite the opposite. As the space in which people move without immediate purpose, other than to get where they’re going, it is the heart of informal interaction. It is where people run into one another, where conversations begin, where ideas collide. It is this space that offers the most potential for generating creativity within an office.

It is for this reason that Steve Jobs, when he was CEO of Pixar, put all of the bathrooms in the common space at the center of the office. This forced the employees to walk from their office to the commons and back more often, thereby maximizing their time spent in the hallways, and consequently, their time spent interacting with their colleagues. Other offices attempt to enliven hallways with comfortable nooks and chalkboards to give the expected informal interactions a landing pad.

It is interesting to note that those companies dedicated to creativity and collaboration are not designing skyscrapers. They design horizontal, neighborhood-like, campuses that promote movement and interaction, as opposed to isolation and hierarchy. Take Gehry’s design for the new Facebook campus, for example. Even at a glance, the philosophy of informal interaction is apparent. In a vertical office, by contrast, people, departments, levels are literally divided by floor plates. If you work on the 23rd floor, odds are you probably won’t run into someone on the 26th. Even if you’re going to the 27th floor, thanks the elevator, you won’t have to pass the floors before it to get there. Although this allows efficient movement, it dramatically decreases the potential amount of informal interaction between employees.

New Facebook Campus designed by Frank Gehry via bloomberg

When those groups are divided instead on a horizontal plane, however, in something like Jacobs’ West Village, they share interstitial space. Their circulation paths intersect, their meanderings collide. Ultimately, this will slow people down. It will take them longer to get from one place to another. But time spent in the in betweens, be it going to the bathroom in Pixar’s common space, or walking across Facebook’s campus for a meeting, means more potential for serendipitous interaction – inefficiency, sure, but functional inefficiency.

If you missed Part I, find it here, and stay tuned for Part III on education environments.

Cite: C. Molloy, Jonathan. "Can Architecture Make Us More Creative? Part II: Work Environments" 10 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=367700>