The Indicator: On Disappearance, Part 2

Factory Worker Dormitory, Dongguan, Guangdong Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

As Mr. Betsky asserts, “Robots, connected computers, miniaturization, and etherization are taking the work out of both the social and the physical sphere.” But isn’t this just a fantasy because this has not yet happened on a large enough scale to produce a true paradigm shift? Or, if the shift has happened, then where is everybody rushing off to on the Monday morning commute? And what are all those buildings jammed in-between the roads for? Most of them seem to be for work as opposed to play.  

We may all float in and out of working networks as we move around, untethered to carpeted cubicles, telecommuting, flex-timing, logging in at all hours, but we are still and will primarily be working in places designed by architects—often without access to sunlight, fresh air, or nature of any sort.

Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

If Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer has anything to say about it, we should be flying a desk within a designated architectural location in order to be more creative and synergistic. So much for drifting languidly in “non-space” or in some blob somewhere. So much for Archigram or Constant’s New Babylon. It’s not good for the bottom line, that is, if you are still tethered to someone’s bottom line, like a major corporation. Lucky for architecture, operations like this still need buildings to put workers in. Take Apple with its new Foster-designed headquarters, for example. This is most definitely not “non-space”.

Fushun Aluminum Smelter, Fushun City, Liaoning Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

And as for architecture itself? Could it survive without offices? Could we just meet up as needed and then disperse to our respective coffee shops and still produce something like the Apple HQ? I would argue that the production of architecture has to be centrally-located. It needs a place from which it can emerge. Unless, of course, a team constantly moves around together for long periods of time, like a band on tour.

What seems to be going on is the production of a finer grain of work in terms of spatial and temporal arrangements. And by finer grain I mean more complicated. This also concerns the blurring of boundaries and the end of nine-to-five. Discrete workspace is a thing of the past.

Textile Mill, Xiaoxing, Zhejiang, 2004. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

The technology Mr. Betsky correctly invokes is to blame for the erosion of realms outside of work. There is no longer any outside out there. Work is not disappearing. It is everywhere and this should be deeply troubling because if work if everywhere then it is just as easily nowhere. And if it is everywhere and nowhere, what does this mean for architecture? For one thing, it may mean that everything you do has to constantly be “innovative” or “cutting-edge”. You don’t just do office buildings. You have to analyze and reimagine program. You have to create new hybrid spaces.

For architecture, however, it is an opportunity—and has been for some decades now—to infuse workspaces with playful home-like qualities. In the tech boom of the nineties offices were juiced up to accommodate play, synergy, creativity, chance encounters, nerf gunfights, ping-pong, indoor scootering about from latte machine to the nano lab. Architects also incorporated nap rooms, and daycare facilities so we could catch up on lost sleep and raise our children at work.

Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

All of these things constitute the appearance of not just work but over-work, an obsession with work that coincides with economic booms—but does not necessarily produce them. Now that we are more or less in austerity mode (everybody except China, maybe) some of this may be waning a little—especially if you don’t have a job anymore. Now you are working at the coffee bar, the library, in your car, in a Whole Food’s parking lot, on a public park bench, with friends on a sofa. Your work has indeed disappeared into realms where it once didn’t exist. The office is empty and converted to something fun—as Betsky suggests could happen on a massive scale. But the work goes on elsewhere, in some other building and that building probably looks and functions like an office of sorts.

Tiexi District, Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

What Mr. Betsky seems to suggest is that we have entered a post-prosperity, post-work era. So what he is describing is the floating labor market of self-employed, semi-employed, or unemployed workers, the fluid phalanxes set forth by technology and a spirit of adventure, adrift on the shoals of prosperity. For the vast majority, it is in fact prosperity that has disappeared…and with it so went the spaces. But out of this, what new prosperities, what new spaces may emerge? 

About this author
Cite: Sebastian Jordana. "The Indicator: On Disappearance, Part 2" 13 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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