Without doubt, the most consistently restrictive feature of workplace design in the decade of social enlightenment has been the straight line. It is a management panacea. The application of the shortest route between two points has enabled workplaces to be created simply and quickly, to be managed easily and at the lowest possible cost. and to complement and reinforce control structures. They can be planned, understood, changed, flexed and maintained on a spreadsheet.
And so we start our journey at the town designed on the ruler’s edge, Milton Keynes.
The dream was made flesh in 1967. Initially intended to be a new town of a quarter of a million people that would gift a wealth of lakes, parkland, planting, footpaths and cycleways, it would avoid the problems associated with previous attempts at “garden cities” and offer an antidote to Burgessesque polluted, congested, high-rise, fragmented urbania, a chance of a better life. Liz Leyh’s “Concrete Cows” – the installation that became the town’s de facto brand – was just one piece amongst the largest collection of contemporary sculpture in the UK.
Much of it came to pass. You can get from one side of town to the other in just fifteen minutes, travel 180 miles of footpaths and bridleways, live in an energy efficient house peacefully set away from the main road network, and spend time at any of its fifteen lakes in the 20% of the town’s land that is open space. All alongside one of the youngest average metropolitan populations in the country.
There are some dubiously soulless contributions too. The UK’s first… motorway service station, multiplex, drive-through fast-food outlet, and covered shopping mall.
Does this sound like the identikit brief for the new golden dream of the modern workplace? Clean and tidy, biscected by easy passage, generic, predictable, open and visible, grid-planned and prescriptive, socially contained, facilitating convenience and instant gratification, topped off with a misplaced focus on younger generations?
Yet what we want lies at the destination of our journey. Unfashionable in the 17th Century when its name first appeared, Soho became the chosen destination for immigrant Huguenot tailors and silversmiths. By the 19th Century they were joined by musical halls, small theatres and prostitutes. This cocktail of the creative and the unsavoury created a natural home for artists and intellectuals, By the 1950’s it had become the home of beatnik culture, and in 1958 the opening of the Marquee put it on the tour map. The relaxation of the censorship laws in 2000 significantly contracted the red light area, allowing Soho to consolidate its heady mix of independent and diverse theatre, fashion, art, cool-end retail, music, fringe religion, entertainment and creative industry.
Does this sound more like the workplace you would want to work in? All curves, surprises, colour, discovery, intricacy, intimacy, comfort, art, fascination, change? Where you can influence the outcome, where if you dont like what is around one corner you can simply find another? Where you can meet if you want to and where you want to – or just be alone, hidden, undisturbed, in a part of the weave that’s “yours”? Where not everything is within the rules?
But Soho isn’t planned, and is extremely difficult and expensive to manage and maintain. People will do their own thing, get lost, do stuff they’re not supposed to, maybe not be there at all. They may not even need you.
Having spoken of this several times before in passing and intending to write this piece, it was timely read Neil Morrison’s take on the theme in a recent post, in regard to HR: “We provide very little choice in organisations, very little flexibility and very little responsibility. Instead we standardise, homogenise, process and commoditise the employment relationship. Partly because it makes things easy for us, partly because it retains control”
While this post started out looking at the physical workplace, its point can be applied to the wider working environment. We have no straight lines in our body, nor our mind. We can’t even draw a straight line unaided. We are organic, chaotic, surprising. Our environment needs to reflect this, rather than trying to compensate for it.
While linear, predictable Milton Keynes is easier to design, procure, manage, view, control, flex, re-organise, close and dispose, and where the grass is greener, the air fresher and the path clearer, it is haywire, soulful, intense and unpredictable Soho that lies at our journey’s end.
We want Soho, but build and manage Milton Keynes – and ask ourselves why it isn’t working. It may be time to sit outside Bar Italia with a double espresso one morning, and resolve to do something different.