Once upon a time people engaged in social progress assumed that the forty-hour workweek was only a waystation on the path to an economy of full employment, rising wages, and ever increasing leisure time. In this former utopia of broadly shared prosperity, participating in work would earn increasing freedom to play. In today’s reality, after decades of regression, an opposite endpoint is approaching where free play is only available within the workspace, physical and virtual. No where is this more advanced than in the tech office boom of Silicon Valley and its northern extension, San Francisco.
Two recent articles on office design for tech companies present contrasting views on the value of these “playful” workspaces. In Architects Newspaper, Sam Lubell writes:
Studio O+A’s 395 Page Mill incubator offices in Palo Alto are inset with a huge half-pipe-shaped seating area and bocce ball courts; Nichols Booth’s San Francisco offices for Zynga (makers of, among other apps, Words with Friends and Farmville) include game rooms, athletic courts, smoothie bars, and eating spaces themed on the word “Play.” Huntsman Architectural Group’s new offices for YouTube are equipped with a giant central slide. All these amenities don’t just draw talent, they keep the talent at work…
Once-derelict neighborhoods in San Francisco are turning into cool high-tech hubs, and bland office parks in Silicon Valley are becoming bastions of urbanity. And offices here, from finance companies to medical firms, are beginning to look more like tech offices, with open layouts and more communal spaces. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before your own office starts knocking down walls and installing a ping-pong table. Yes, the rules of the iPhone are ruling your life, including how and where you work.
Contrast this with William Hanley’s essay in Architectural Record, “Welcome to Corporate Kindergarten”:
A variety of flexible workspaces and the opportunity to mix nonwork activities into office life has been shown in many studies to boost creativity, productivity, and employee satisfaction, but it also lends itself to longer hours with less of a separation between work and life outside of the office. ... But the amenities come with an expectation of an entrepreneurial fervor. The ideal employee at most tech firms possesses a geek's capacity for all-nighters fueled by free food and supported by comforts built into the office plan that take on the role of nanny. This works well if you're a borderline-antisocial single male in your 20s, but the infantilizing aesthetic of corporate day care patronizes workers who don't fit the boy-genius archetype and reinforces hours that can be downright hostile to those with children of their own. It also belittles creativity as childish…
So many companies have introduced beanbags, bleachers, or other tokens of the fun office that these gestures, which once seemed surprising, have been repeated to the point of becoming banal, sometimes laughably awkward clichés. But even in their watered-down versions, these design elements signify a culture in which work and fun—along with their social and identity-forming dimensions—occur around the single valence of the office. The danger is that even if the corporate kindergarten falls out of fashion, the colonization of workers' time that it reflects will remain.
I have to admit I side with Hanley. The supposedly free exchange of longer working hours for a more playful work environment just doesn’t seem right, for all the reasons he provides: infantilizing, not family friendly, belittling. I trace it back to Nike’s “Work Hard/Play Hard” meme of the early 1990’s, which started the erosion of free time by redefining its primary function as refreshing the employee for further work – “Work” comes first in the Nike formula. In Silicon Valley and now beyond, architecture has collapsed these two supposed opposites into one space where the flow between them can be continual. It’s less a merger of work and play than a subtle but hostile takeover.
Usually I’m a fan of AN but I have to say Lubell’s boosterism on this theme leaves me cold. Yes, architects need work, the tech sector in the Bay Area is one of the few bright spots these days, it's big enough to be a real estate phenomenon, and the projects refreshingly invite design creativity. But at what cost? If, as Haley suggests, these “play-full” designs are the back door to the further loss of free time (especially once the fun elements are removed), what is the responsibility of designers for enabling it?
- Raphael Sperry
Raphael is director of ADPSR's Alternatives to Incarceration / Prison Design Boycott campaign and a 2012 Soros Justice Fellow.