It could be considered that for a couple of hundred attendees of Workplace Trends (#wtrends14) on Wednesday in London, it was the day we killed“Cool”.
How did we ever fall in love with the zeitgeist that is “Cool”? It is smothered in the tyranny of white, the compulsory daub of the age. It is slick, smooth, inexpressive. It is attached to its very own facial expression – the slightly muted smile, the narrowing of the eyes, the slow and controlled nodding of the head…. and then the stretch of the vowels into a term of admiration. In this manner, of what we behold we are saying we are unworthy.
The dominance of Cool has drowned out warmth, inclusion, adaptability, sensitivity, and our sensory perception (all seven of them – including balance and position). Its parrot-squawk has become a snowblind self-parody. We are bombarded with sprezzatura – effortless nonchalance, a grand deception. Hipstermedia has pumped us full of envy of desolately Cool workspaces where people are nothing but shadows and outlines.
Because in this germ-free world that’s how people are seen – interruptions, spoilers of the aesthetic. In the world of Cool, the environment is everything and people are nothing. The workplace is the star, it has its own ego, it’s vanity has to be fed with coverage.
Steve Maslin took the first shot at the hegemony of Cool with humility and quiet calm. He made us see the folly of so many modern workplaces through the perspective of human conditions we rarely consider, and implored we design as much for the psychological as the physical. I had considered that “activity” alone may be too shallow and we might consider emotional-based working but here we also had sensory-based working. Steve asked what our buildings might say if they could talk to us: I suspect they might be silent, offering merely a gesture of the hand.
As if to emphasise the point, Richard Baldwin of Derwent London showed with pride their Tea building with a smorgasboard of a Reception, immediately flanked by a staircase to the lesser gods. He also offered the garbled myth of the “TMT Sector”, that fairytale clique of stripped-down workplace Cool that allows developers to offer less, or worse still create to create “white collar factories” that conjour all the victorian gloom of a hipster workhouse.
In the post-lunch debate, no-one showed their hand for the one size fits all approach – not even the official advocate – but many in the room had designed, delivered or justified just that. Through the fragile confidfence of the vote against, it’s possible we don’t believe in what we are doing or are asked to do. Strangely at no point in the debate that was so one-sided that it dwindled into introspective lethargy did anyone point ou that size has nothing to do with it. As Gareth Jones had shown earler in the renders of four modern offices, whataver their size, they look identical in over-reaching their desire for Cool – like teenagers at Monday night’s “two for one” at the Top Rank.
If not Cool then what? Certainly not Penson’s ephemeral, edible, pick ‘n’ mix offerings crerated for “names” dropped like buttered snakes. There was something far more endearing about Franciso Vazquez’s “before shot” Lima office that spoke of vulnerable Bolivarian charm than the garish restatements that followed. Anne Marie McEwan implored us to remember what we had forgotten about rich our working relationships used to be, and how our workplace was defind by them. Brian Condon’s “curatorial, not janitorial” Centre for Creative Collaboration and Lloyd Davis’s sporadically-conceived workplaces like the Mayfar squat beautifuly christened the Temporary School of Thought illustrated far more of what “start-up” means – “small pieces, loosely joined” – than the over-designed, de-energised, airbrushed halls of the post-industrial leviathan that ape the Gaultier-clad middle-class rebellion derided by Perry Timms.
The Workstock presentations showed that we need the perspectives and input from those outside the normal world of workplace. In our own silos we don’t seem capable of working it out for ourselves and probably can’t be trusted to do so alone. Richard Martin’s peloton metaphor and Andy Swann’s tales of John the unwilling production manager illustrated this with wonderful lyrics – as did Cara Long’s mesmerising stories that illuminated the power of subtle changes at the margins of the everyday. Doug Shaw’s incredible mashing of song, performance art and wisdom, and Janet Parkinson’s pin-drop poetry silencing the social cacophony showed there are other means of expression and connection.
Somehow though the “big conversation” proposed in the final session to draw us from our silos feels too much like a onesie. Mass movements, banners and membership have done little for workplace in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest this may change soon. As Lloyd Davis suggested, “just enough structure – but not too much” might be all we need to stimulate the myriad of conversations that Euan Semple advocated.
We may not have proposed a viable solution to Cool but we started to point the way. If there was one message from the day, it is that we need an honest, human relationship with our space and our technology, be it in a workplace or in the wider urban sprawl. As Jon Husband pointed out, we are “in” the system now, not “of” the system. What we know is, we no longer want to be shadows. Cool is dead.