Op-ed: The office was once a vital technology, but its time may be over

Out Of Work

Op-ed: The office was once a vital technology, but its time may be over

(Adam W/Flickr, accessed under CC BY 2.0)

Medieval and early-modern workers did not have to go to work. Nor did they work from home; they just worked where they lived, or lived where they worked. Double-entry bookkeeping was invented at the end of the Middle Ages, but for centuries before the industrial age all offices were, literally, home offices; special buildings entirely and exclusively devoted to bookkeeping, paperwork, and administration—buildings where no wares were kept, and nobody slept at night—only became common over the course of the 19th century. The golden age of the office building came in the second half of the 20th century—but it coincided with the rise of new information and communication technologies that would soon make the corporate office tower, as well as the physical trading floors at the core of the modern financial districts, equally unnecessary.

The mid-20th century rotary phone was made for the office, and designed as an ideal desktop appliance. It redefined office life, but people who did not have desks at home often ended up hanging their home phone from the walls of their hallway—an unfriendly, if necessary, intruder. Personal computers of the late 20th century, by contrast, were seen from the start as destined to ubiquity, and—particularly in their portable versions—they soon became part of domestic life. In the mid 1990s the late William J. Mitchell, then dean of architecture at MIT, was the first to argue that the rise of the internet would put an end to city life as we knew it. His 1995 best-selling pamphlet, City of Bits, listed a number of building types destined to be replaced by websites, and a number of tasks and jobs that could soon be conducted from home, via the internet. The backlash from the architectural establishment was quick and without appeal. The consensus was, that would never happen: humans will never watch a movie from a computer screen, or download music from a website; no one will ever go online to read a newspaper, or buy groceries. Crucially, humans will never use the internet study or work from home.

Almost 30 year later, that appears to be still the working hypothesis of the architectural establishment—as well as the assumption widely held by many of today’s decision makers, economists, pundits, and opinion makers, regardless of party and ideology. I happen to live next to the City of London, one of the hubs of global banking, finance, and insurance. When the first British lockdown came, in the spring of 2020, I remained stuck there till some travel was allowed again in the summer; so I lived, for a while, in an entirely deserted part of the city. A few janitors still came and went, together with security guards and maintenance crews. Construction work didn’t stop, either, so one could see teams of builders between shifts and sometimes trucks delivering building material. Then there were the homeless, living in cardboard boxes, and gangs of teenagers descending on the City from the impoverished residential districts of East London. As far as I could tell, these were divided into two main groups: the cyclists and the skateboarders. There were tensions, and occasional skirmishes between the two groups; once I witnessed an all-out bagarre in front of the Bank of England.  But bikers and skateboarders never had to compete for space, as they had the entire City for themselves: for months on end, no office worker reported to work in any building within the so-called Square Mile of the City of London. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no financial or insurance market ever shut down; even retail banking (which had almost entirely migrated online long before the pandemic struck) kept functioning without a glitch throughout the first lockdown, and all the subsequent ones. Apparently, at least for a while, the global banking, financial services, and insurance industries could keep doing business as usual with only a fraction of the physical infrastructure until recently deemed indispensable to the conduct of their trade.

Most financial offices in the City reopened with a skeleton staff in the summer of 2020, then shut down that fall, then reopened again, following the ebb and flow of the pandemic. At every reopening the local media and British politicians praised the resilience and resurgence of City life, and touted facts and figures invariably suggesting that footfall in the Square Mile—or the number of commuters through the Bank tube station, or the cups of flat whites sold by local coffee shops—would soon be back to prepandemic levels. I do not need to check the numbers to know that never happened. In February the British government announced—once again—the end of all pandemic-related restrictions in England.  But most corporate office towers in the City of London are still empty. Evidently, many financial firms must have concluded that they do not need to recall all their employees to the workplace—at least, not yet. And many office workers must have concluded that most of the time they can work from home just fine. And while the design professions, and large swaths of the cultural establishment, are in denial, the political establishment is actively fighting a rear-guard battle, coaxing and occasionally threatening to coerce office workers back to their offices—against workers’ will, and often against the will of their employers.

Why is so much effort being put into trying to revive a way of working—and with it, an entire set of social practices—that has now been proven to be technically obsolete, economically wasteful, socially unbalanced, and environmentally unsustainable? The pandemic has shown that many alternatives to full-time office work now exist, and they make plenty of economic sense. The arguments more often invoked in favor of office life boil down to two commonplaces: first, that all office workers just love office work, and they cannot imagine life without it; second, that business requires the human touch, and communication in the flesh. But both arguments are unproven, so their pervasiveness must derive to some extent from prejudice, or from some ideological bias.

To be sure, the belief in the supernatural power of the human touch is deeply rooted in the Western psyche, and it can be tied to various philosophical and religious sources. In a number of recent articles, and in a book, media theorist Benjamin Bratton traces at least some of the contemporary fixation on corporeal presence (during the pandemic, at the risk of life) to the degeneracy of post-modern biopolitics. I have argued elsewhere that the faith in the thaumaturgical powers of bodily contact, of heathen origin, was inherited, purified, and sublimated by Christianism, and it has permeated contemporary post-structuralist philosophy through the intermediary of Catholic phenomenology. The design professions, in particular, appear to have converted their own, bizarre brand of second-hand Heideggerianism into various, more or less truculent, metaphysics of the physical presence. But the reasons why so many today want all work, and all workers, to go back to the office might well be more pedestrian. Apparently, office owners (and their political cronies) like, and value, the offices they own so much that they just can’t stop from building more.

Since the start of the pandemic, the City of London Corporation (“the governing body of the Square Mile dedicated to a vibrant and thriving City, supporting a diverse and sustainable London within a globally-successful UK”) has granted permission to build seven new skyscrapers between 500 and 1000 feet high, totaling seven million square feet of new office space. If they all go ahead, more office space will be built in the City of London in the next decade than in the past 25 years. For comparison’s sake, vacant office space in the City of London during the pandemic has been variously estimated at 6.5 to 12 million square feet, but that is only part of the story. Many office buildings in the City of London may well be having a tenant—they are still empty. And I would say that around one-third of the office buildings I can see from my living room (many of them built in late 1990s or early 2000s) are currently under renovation—mostly by refurbishing the existing floors and adding a couple of new floors on top. They are not being converted into something else: they are being converted into more office space.

Some of the City’s most prestigious businesses appear to be more alert to the possibility of some impeding techno-social change. The Lloyd’s insurance market, still proudly operating by autographic signatures and trading in the flesh, has nonetheless noticed that most of its underwriters have been working on Zoom just fine for the past two years, and is considering vacating its prestigious but expensive headquarters on Lime Street. Nobody knows, however, how Richard Rogers’s Lloyd’s Building (1978‑86) could be repurposed.  In its present layout (which cannot be easily altered due to its listed status), the building does not seem fit for any business. It could, however, be easily returned to the functions Richard Rogers likely had in mind when he designed it, inspired by Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (circa 1964): a gaming arcade, cultural center, and entertainment venue, of which Renzo Piano and Rogers’s own Centre Pompidou in Paris was the first built avatar. Oddly, Price’s original program would be perfectly in keeping with the way the footfall in the heart of the City of London has evolved in recent times.

For—without waiting for any nod and prod from above—the City of London has already started to reinvent itself. Its streets, still desolate most of the day, and dotted by elegantly boarded-up stores and shops, now come to life in the evening and at night, when the pubs, cafes, restaurants, and clubs, which used to cater to City workers during the day, entertain a new clientele of students and young East London residents, quite different from the traditional crowd that would have needed coffee and snacks during the day, and perhaps a glass of beer after business hours. This new set of flashy clubbers and partygoers descends on the City by cab or car in the evening, presumably after working elsewhere, or from home, all day. By the same token, I can imagine that actual City workers, after working from home all day, will go out in the evening for a drink next to where they live—wherever that is. This unprecedented reshuffling and rebalancing of people and places is certainly intriguing, and it points to momentous post-pandemic urban trends. However, it will be of only limited immediate succor to the battered real estate valuations of the City of London. There are only so many night clubs we can retrofit into a high-rise office tower­­—most of them at street level, or on roof-top terraces. Not every skyscraper can be turned into a Fun Palace, and the entire City cannot be turned into a theme park.

Manhattan appears to have been faster and nimbler in adapting to, and adopting, the post-pandemic way of working; many high-profile skyscraper conversions “from boardroom to bedroom” (from office to residential) are underway, including some designed by renowned architects. For one thing is certain—we knew that already, but the pandemic has now proven it: office work is not a timeless human condition; it is the time specific consequence of some contingent techno-social constraints. These constraints did not exist before the industrial age, and they will likely cease to exist in the post-industrial age. Banks themselves will stay—after all, they have almost always existed. But for most of today’s retail banking, some combination of PayPal and will do just fine. Private bankers tending to high added-value transactions will keep doing business face to face—like the Medici did at the end of the Middle Ages, from their mansions.

Mario Carpo teaches architectural theory and history at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and at the School of Applied Arts (die Angewandte) in Vienna.