Whatever you make of the ongoing and frankly unnuanced debate about open plan offices (one of the latest pieces of research suggests they may be better for us than private offices) we have all been here before. As we described in a recent blog, the organic and people centric principles of Bürolandschaft originally developed in the 1950s as a way of creating a more democratised and collaborative open workplace, quickly mutated when spliced with corporate DNA into the North American bullpens and European clusters of workstations we now see as stereotypically open plan.

When people complain about the problems of open plan, it is these models of design to which they are referring.

This is nothing new. By the 1960s questions were already being raised about the wisdom of these sorts of layouts, especially in Europe. Partly this was cultural, but new co-determination laws in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden also meant that workers’ voices were widely represented at board level for the first time, leading to a greater focus on their needs and preferences. Technological developments also meant that offices were becoming generally noisier places to work.

These forces coalesced to forge the nascent principles of workplace wellbeing we know today. Fifty years ago, there was widespread interest in finding ways to address the most common issues created by the new generation of open plan offices, especially with regards to noise, personal space, meetings, natural light and ergonomics.  

Dutch courage

One of the first and most striking manifestations of this new approach came about in the Netherlands city of Apeldoorn during 1968. This was the year that financial services firm Centraal Beheer commissioned Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger to create a new headquarters for its staff but with the sort of brief that will sound very familiar to modern ears.

‘It should be a place where 1,000 people can feel at home. The employees must have the feeling of being part of a community without being lost in the crowd.’

[Quoted in]

The solution developed by Hertzberger and his colleagues was unique. They fragmented the building into modular blocks consisting of 9 metre cubes. The 56 cubes of the building were linked by public atria, communal space and walkways and perhaps the first iteration of an office ‘street’ to create a whole. Illumination came in the form of natural light and lampposts, emphasising the feeling of a tight-knit medieval town. 

Each cube was designed to accommodate up to ten people who were invited to customise their surroundings with personal accessories, plants and elements from their homes. The fractal spaces created by this configuration became more intimate for teams of people – most research suggests that teams should be under ten people to optimise decision making. The spaces also addressed the acoustic problems commonly associated with traditional open plan space.

The result is something conceptually similar to what we now refer to as activity based working, in that people are free to move around the building, albeit that the nature of 1970s work and technology meant they spent more time at a dedicated workstation than would now be the case. The most important outcomes were the same though; a greater emphasis on individual wellbeing and empowerment along with the sense that people were part of both a small group and a larger community.   

Forward to the combi office

The major drawback with the Centraal Beheer building was that it was very space hungry. Its principles were ahead of their time, but it wasn’t a practical solution for everybody.

Another solution and ultimately more popular to the challenges posed by open plan offices appeared for the first time at the offices of Canon in the Stockholm suburb of Sätra in 1978. Faced with a similar brief to that of Centraal Beheer, the Swedish architectural practice Tengbom Architects developed the idea of the combi-office.

This was a much more straightforward solution than Hertzberger’s cubes. It consisted of a floor layout in which people were returned to their private cellular offices around the periphery of a floor and the central space was given over to communal and meeting spaces. This not only gave people the opportunity to work in private but also enjoy more natural light from the windows in their dedicated rooms.

In the US, the idea was picked up and popularised as caves-and-commons. It is described in Stewart Brand's book How Buildings Learn in the following way:

‘Each office worker has a private office, often small, which opens into a generous open area surrounded by many other private offices. The open area has a kitchen, some couches, sometimes tables for sitting around informally, and sometimes a working library, or at least a rack of current periodicals. You can shut the door of your cave and concentrate, or you can leave your door open and keep an eye and ear on who's coming and going in the commons, and whether the meeting or presentation going on there might be worth leaning in on.’

The parallels with activity based and agile working are again clear, although in a modern context it would be far more usual to see people working in communal space and retiring to private rooms only when necessary rather than the other way around. It’s an enduring model of office design that exists in updated variants to this day.

What such examples show is that our core workplace challenges are very similar to those faced by previous generations of occupiers and designers. And while the solutions are not precisely the same, their key principles can be very familiar indeed.

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