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Spatializing the complexities of contemporary business organization
Patrik Schumacher, London 2005
Corporate Fields- New Office Environments by the AA_DRL; AA_DRL Documents 1Edited by Brett Steele, AAPublications


Corporate Fields summarises the results of a 3 year design research effort focussed on the architectural response to emergent forms of corporate organisation. This general agenda was specified in 7 project briefs which became manifest in 24 experimental design projects elaborated by 56 architects working in teams of 2-5. Each project team was collaborating with one of the following corporate quasi-clients: BDP, DEGW, M&C Saatschi, Ove Arup, Microsoft U.K., Razorfish. These companies and their organisational strategies served as a concrete point of departure for the development of experimental spatial scenarios. On a more general level these scenarios respond to the innovative work patterns of the ‘post-industrial’ economy and attempt to translate key concepts and stratagems proposed within recent management theory.

The 'architecture' of business-organisation is liquefying. The classical modern strategies of rationalisation based on the rigid segmentation and routinised specialisation of work within clear-cut functional hierarchies is failing today in respect to the complexity and dynamism of the overall socio-economic process. New ways of organising the labour-process are emerging in organisation- and management theory.

To set the task of elaborating adequate architectural responses to the new organisational patterns emerging in the contemporary corporate world hardly requires a longwinded justification. The topicality of corporate restructuring is manifest in the exponential growth of management literature. A superficial glance at the expanding sections of business and management literature in any high street bookshop will suffice to capture the ongoing frenzy of restructuring: Titles as the following abound: "Welcome to the Revolution", "The new Paradigm for Business", "Liberation Management - Disorganisation for Nanosecond Nineties", "The Postmodern Organisation", "Deconstructing Organisations", "Catching the wave", "The One Minute Manager", "Thriving on Chaos", “The Complexity Advantage”, “Competing on the Edge – Strategy as Structured Chaos”, etc.(1) The implied paradigm change in organization- and management theory is gathering pace since the late 70s and is now transforming corporate practise on an ever increasing scale. Beneath the hype a real, momentous socio-economic transformation is unfolding and next to the guru slogans one finds sustained theoretical efforts trying to offer orientation. The business of management consultancy is thriving while the discipline of architecture – with few exceptions (2) – has yet to recognise that it could play a part in this process.

I. Motivations

The topicality of the task combined with the lack of systematic study within architecture certainly justifies our choice of agenda. However, there are other reasons why the AA DRL chose the field of corporate restructuring as its first research agenda. It is indeed necessary to understand these further motivations in order to make sense of the particular way the agenda has been pursued within the DRL.

1. Resourcing the discipline: the centrality of organisation
On the most general level the DRL’s mission statement might be posed as the re-skilling of the discipline of architecture with respect to its participation in the overall progress of society. The question of social progress and the relevance of the emerging labour processes in this respect will be elaborated below. The re-skilling of the discipline via a systematic design research programme demanded first of all a sufficiently complex task as vehicle to challenge all the resources of analysis and synthesis architecture has at its disposal. The engagement with the arena of corporate restructuring does indeed stretch the discipline’s conceptual and compositional repertoires.

Moreover the centrality of questions of organisation/composition for the discipline of architecture promised that the organisational problems, concepts and systems formulated by organisational theory and management science would contribute to a general enhancement of the discipline’s repertoire of spatial organisation. Indeed we did experience a kind of ‘technology transfer’ with respect to concepts of organisation.
The possibility to compare and exchange the conceptual tools of architecture and organisation theory resides in the mediating language of configurational analysis and is facilitated by the shared practise of diagramming. In organisation theory - as much as in architecture - the diagramme plays an important role in enabling (as well as limiting) conceptualisation. The "organigramme" is a standard tool of management consultancy. Both - architecture and management theory - encounter the limits of the line (as boundary or connection) and started to experiment with graphic tools beyond traditional hard edge delineations. We went further and moved from static organigrammes to animated time-figures to capture the dynamic of shifting organisational relations.
The diversity of complex organisational relations to be conceived, operationalised and articulated offered a fertile field for the exploration of the general question concerning the possibility and limits of the spatialization of ‘abstract’ relations. In turn it transpired that at the root of such abstract relations – centre/periphery, realms of competency, position, opposition, subordination, interpenetration etc. – there lies an inescapable series of spatial metaphors which in turn could be advanced or challenged effectively through architectural intervention (3). This fact points to the close historical co-evolution of patterns of social and spatial organisation. Historically architecture has indeed been the most fundamental source realm for concepts of order and organisation. This semi-conscious process of concept formation on the basis of spatial analogy continues as long as society exists in and through built space. But once this dialectic of spatial, social and conceptual order is raised to the level of conscious reflection it allows architecture both to ‘translate’ organisational concepts into new effective spatial tropes while in turn launching new organisational concepts by manipulating space. The disciplinary transfer goes both ways. In this respect the specific arena of corporate restructuring and the task to reorganise the social relations at work - through the design of corporate headquarters - promised (and proved) to be a fertile field.

2. New formal tropes for new social tropes: The pre-adaptive advances of the avant-garde
The spatial repertoires elaborated by 'deconstructivism' in the late eighties/nineties and the latest trends towards a "new architecture of folding"(4) turn out to be congenial to the new ideas in organisation- and management-theory. Indeed the noticeable but hitherto unexplored coincidence of tropes between new management theory and recent avant-garde architecture (deconstructivism/folding) was one of the key motivations to take on the problem of corporate organisation. Architectural notions like 'superposition', 'multiple affiliation' and 'smoothness' correspond to organisational tropes like 'matrix', 'network' and 'blur'.

Beyond these specific, striking parallels there is a more general shared field of references:

In recent years organisation- and management theory has ventured beyond its disciplinary boundaries, starting to recuperate the philosophical and cultural discourses of postmodernism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, chaos theory etc. Management theory has thus developed from a dry specialism to an intellectually engaging discourse, which is discovering now precisely those discourses that the recent avant-garde architecture has already assimilated and laboured upon for more than ten years. Thus we approach our agenda with a well-elaborated conceptual and formal apparatus.
This convergence of recent architectural and managerial vocabularies offered the opportunity to prove that the fascinating new graphic spaces we were exploring could be more than fashion fads and indeed have a degree of profundity. Our ability to further forge this convergence would be the criterion for the vitality and relevance of the new architecture, i.e. its ability to contribute to the ongoing socio-economic restructuring. The task posed was to identify those progressive realities in the world of business (de-hierarchization, matrix- and network-organisation, flexible specialisation, loose and multiple coupling etc.) in which the proposed new formal patterns and spatial concepts could fulfil their architectural effects and performative promises.

3. Questions of meaning: Reckoning with the social charge of architecture
The modern corporation constitutes a highly formalised and complex social structure. To facilitate the intricate social life of a corporation, architecture has to express and differentiate a web of nuanced social relations. With respect to the articulation of team identities, status groups, hierarchical relations, subtle demarcations of competency etc. the sensitivity of architecture is vital.

The general tendency of current restructuring implies a dynamisation of the corporate structure, concerning its external boundaries as well as its internal definitions. This further increases the social charge of space and the sensitivity required of architecture.
Beyond the mere physical organisation of relations emerges the task of coherent articulation - spatially as well as morphologically. Here resides the differentia specifica that distinguishes architecture from engineering, i.e. the fact that architecture is not merely concerned with the provision of physical functions (stability, climatic control, adjacencies, efficient circulation etc.) but institutes social functions which operate via subjective orientation and which involve architecture as a medium of communication.
This in effect prevents the reduction of architecture to a positivist science. Every architecture involves a phenomenological and semantic dimension. Architecture as language is recursively self-creating and self-constraining and thus indeterminable. The recent emphasis on ‘operativity’ and ‘data-scapes’ does not take account of this crucial distinction between architecture and engineering. Consequently the initially legitimate concern for performance versus aesthetics and the ambition to determine rather than intuitively ‘invent’ form gravitates towards those problems that tend to be determinable. Hence the prevailing emphasis on infrastructure and circulation projects which can be treated technically. Such objective operations are always involved in solving architectural problems, but the specific task of architecture goes beyond this to include the articulation of space with respect to codes, attached meanings and expectations. This does not necessarily imply the utilisation of well-established references. “Articulation” might involve negation, decoding or subversion of known references and within sufficiently large structures new semantic systems can be forged from the universe of abstract configurations.

The human use of buildings functions through the intersubjective orientation of socialised subjects. ‘Users’ indeed define and orient themselves socially in and through architecture. The ‘construction’ of social identities always already involves architecture. The more complex the social system the more resourceful must be the articulatory and ‘conceptual’ repertoire of any architectural language (5). Articulation overdetermines and even institutes organisation where demarcation no longer equals physical separation and instead relies on the ‘reading’ of space. Orientation within a sufficiently complex social space indeed requires active conceptualisation rather than mere passive perception.

All this becomes most crucially relevant in case of the definition of workplaces and their relationships within corporations. Thus our agenda serves to rebalance the one-sidedness of ‘operativity’ and challenges architecture with respect to its phenomenological (i.e. perceptual/conceptual) dimension.

4. Material constructs: the making of social space
The design of corporate headquarters offered a rich opportunity to make the new spatial concepts tangible and elaborate them - with respect to their specific organisational and articulatory function - in terms of structure, envelope and interior furnishings. In particular with respect to the latter corporate headquarters are a very fruitful and demanding domain of exploration. There is hardly another realm of life that depends so heavily on interior furnishings. Both in terms of the diversity and in terms of the inter-relatedness of the various typologies and uses the corporate realm is a unique challenge. Furniture here exists as a series of layered systems that co-produce a complex space. The world of corporate furniture is subject to a complex matrix of differentiations: formal – informal, fixed – flexible, individual – collective, demarcating – connecting etc. The elaboration of this universe became one of our most sustained preoccupations. One of our ambitions was to transcend the dichotomy of shell versus fit-out. Furniture systems become a crucial organising and space-making substance rather than mere objects placed within space. The ambition was an overall integration of material constructs from load-bearing tructure and external skin to internal partitioning and furnishing.

There is an immediate configurational as well as material engagement with the human body and its close range activities, both individually and with respect to the formation of patterns of collaboration. These concerns were further augmented by kinetic capabilities and embedded electronic intelligence leading to experiments in architectural self-organisation.

5. Identifying an emancipatory project: participatory and self-organising work patterns
We live in a period of political inertia and reaction. The eighties suffered the ‘neo-liberal’ erosion of earlier social reform programmes which continued in the nineties combined with a resurgence of nationalism/militarism, the co-optation of the environmentalist movement and the near-disintegration of left activism. In this situation a continued commitment to social progress and emancipation can no longer identify an unambiguously progressive cause to hook onto. (The recent anti-globalisation movement is a protest movement, i.e. defensive in orientation and without a coherent constructive outlook that could fill the ideological vacuum left behind since the disappearance of the project of international socialism.)

But while politics proper stagnates and even regresses (6), one can identify profoundly emancipatory tendencies within the developmental logic of productive relations. Although the word ‘democratisation’ is not among the slogans circulating around the management 'revolution', democratisation seems the repressed logic of recent (and future) productivity gains, a necessity for the corporation to be able to cope with permanent re-orientation and innovation. Discursive co-operation, rather than command and control, is forced upon the capitalist enterprise by the new degree of complexity and flexibility of the total production process within which it has to function. The more information-based, the more dependent upon research & development production becomes, the less can it proceed autocratically. These hard facts of production - more than ever – seem to confirm left intuitions about the effectiveness of democratic relations.

The left wing organisational paradigms (e.g. the rhizome), which Deleuze & Guattari elaborated in the late seventies, in dialogue with the new left forms of revolutionary struggle and organisation (7), seem to become the very paradigms of corporate restructuring (8): Deleuzian deterritorialisation is dissolving the rigid departmentalisation (=territorialisation) of competencies and the aborescent pyramid of classical corporatism is mutating towards the rhysomatic plateau upon which the leadership is distributed in a permanently shifting multiplicity where every point bears the latency of becoming a temporary centre.

However the corporate realm remains locked within the contradiction of participatory production and divisive distribution. Thus, while management gurus proclaim the “revolution” and talk about “liberation management” etc., in reality these tendencies remain compromised and limited by the strictures of class-society, maintaining hierarchy and hinging authority upon property.

Nevertheless, today there is no better site for a progressive and forward-looking project than the most competitive contemporary business.

II. Theoretical Premises:

1. Philosophical premise: Historical Materialism

A certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a productive force.
Marx/Engels (9)

The approach defended here is based on a materialist conception of history and the respective framing of the architectural/spatial problematic. Materialism - in opposition to idealism - identifies in the development of productivity the primary dynamic of social change. The social life-process is first of all a competitively measured production process. Space is historically efficient space. This spells the central task of architectural theory: to analyse and anticipate how architectural space engages and organises productive social relations.

The realm of work, i.e. the evolving labour process with its dialectic of technological progress, organisational structure and patterns of collaboration, is the root process with respect to the overall development of society. (10) All sustained cultural development co-evolves with the advancing labour process. Work relations are thus the most fundamental of social relations in the sense that all other social relations and patterns of social life - due to the competitive race for productivity - are bound to the facilitation of productive work. Those social relations, cultural institutions and architectures that facilitate efficient and effective work will draw resources and proliferate. The secret behind the pervasive world wide proliferation of the ‘American way of life’ in the post war era lies in the enormous advances in productivity achieved by the Fordist scheme of socio-economic development.

Our current ‘condition of postmodernity’ is shaped by the dynamic of post-fordist restructuring.

Productivity remains the key selection criterion placed upon any social experiment. Any emancipatory ambition has to reckon with this inescapable fact.
Rather than a priori shunning commercial pressures as alien to the culture of architecture our attitude is that business success is a potential indicator of progress, reflecting historical needs that at least deserve critical examination(11). This leads us to the investigation of the social and spatial patterns of the most proliferous business activities in the advanced economies.

2. Historical premise: From Fordism to Postfordism
‘Post-fordism’ as a category of socio-economic periodisation is of Marxist provenance and has been the central term of a wide and fruitful debate. (12) Consistent with the premises of Historical Materialism, Post-fordism identifies the root-cause of the ‘culture of postmodernity’ in a series of related transformations within the techno-economic structure of the advanced industrial world. (13)

The premise here is that after the end of the long post-war economic boom and the crisis ridden 1970s, the period since the early eighties represents a transition to a new, distinct phase of socio-economic development.

The underlying notion of "Fordism", originally put forward by Gramsci (14), characterises the epoch of Corporate- and State capitalism since World War I (and decisively after World War II) in reference to its production system: the new paradigm of the assembly line as pioneered by Henry Ford. Fordism implies the mass production of complex commodities marked by long term fixed investments into rigid single purpose technology.

These investments were administered through the organisational regime of the Fordist corporation: An extensive system of labour-division allocates to everybody a specialised and repetitive task within the overall machinery. The intelligence of this bureaucratic system lies in its overall top down design. The precondition of its efficiency is the stability of its environment, i.e. the opportunity to be based upon routine operations.

Since the late seventies the foundation of the Fordist mode of operation, the stability and predictability of its environment, was fractured. After a decade of crisis and stagnation features of a new dynamic started to emerge:

Flexible Specialisation: The chain of events that brought the Fordist system into crisis at the same time stirred the search for manufacturing strategies that could respond to the new volatility of markets. A solution was emerging in the possibility to apply the evolving information technology within the manufacturing process and thus establishing the technological underpinning of Post-fordism. The new computer-based production technologies developed the ability to offer product diversity (small runs) without the enormous relative cost of handicraft production that had previously limited deviations from the mass-product to the realm of luxury. This is the crucial material factor in the whole process: the micro-electronic revolution offering a productivity leap in the production of the desired economies of scope (rather than economies of scale). Instead of mass production using specialised machinery and narrowly trained labour, flexible specialisation allows the manufacture of a whole range specialised goods for particular and changing markets using flexible general-purpose machinery, requiring more broadly educated workforce with initiative to contribute to permanent innovation.
These transformations and new possibilities in the realm of the immediate material production impact the whole administrative superstructure which is called upon to manage the new dynamic flow of production (and consumption). Functions like marketing, research & development, and all sorts of further consultancy services (IT, financial, legal, managerial) proliferate. In this ‘third’ or ‘service sector’ - or rather ‘knowledge economy’ - we find the most decisively Post-fordist experiments with non-linear and fluid forms of organisation. (Within this sector we sought out our quasi-clients). Generally more and more work takes the form of intellectual rather than physical production. Thus the structure and pattern of economic activity in general is assimilated to the processes of research and artistic creation. This is the hallmark of the new knowledge economy. Increasingly the most decisive corporate value resides in the ‘human’ or rather ‘social capital’, i.e. in the corporate organisational architectures, collaborative processes and patterns of communication, rather than in its physical capital assets. Those patterns constitute the collective intelligence that transforms information into vital operative knowledge.

As an organisation shifts from being straightforward manufacturer or provider of a standard service to become a creative innovator, it no longer just utilizes a given knowledge, but needs to operate as original producer of knowledge. The new discipline of knowledge management takes account of this situation. Management theory offers concepts like “the learning organisation”(15) or “the intelligent enterprise”(16). Here learning, knowledge and intelligence are attributed to organisations rather than individuals. For us this is just the first step towards the further expansion of the notion of organisational intelligence to include the various spatial systems that structure and facilitate the vital communication processes within the business.

Knowledge becomes the most precious resource within the organisation. But this resource can not be bought in from outside like energy or labour. It can not be acquired readymade. Knowledge involves much more than information, it is the right information employed at the right time and place, evaluated and adapted within a complex praxis. Organisational knowledge, again goes beyond individual knowledge. Organisational knowledge resides within the organisational pattern itself, in the corporate system of communication and collaboration, i.e. in the distribution and dynamic integration of competencies, in the mechanisms, forms and modes of interaction between the various knowledge workers. The spatial distribution and the nuanced articulation of territories, boundaries and spatial interfaces has an important role to play here. Those architectural patterns contribute to the constitution of the collective intelligence that transforms information into vital operative knowledge.

Current socio-economic restructuring proceeds through the contradictory interaction of technological, organisational and political processes. It is crucial to distinguish those aspects that pertain to productive progress from those that pertain to the simultaneously evolving political conditions that frame and overdetermine or 'distort' productive restructuring. Post-fordism as a new paradigm of production attaining new levels of productivity needs to be distinguished from the simultaneous neo-liberal offensive that utilises the unsettled relations of production for a decisive shift to the right in the underlying political relations.
In my analysis the three main progressive and productive factors of Postfordist restructuring are:

- Globalisation, i.e. a new level of international integration of production

- Flexible specialisation - fast cycles of innovation and new economies of scope made possible by the micro-electronic revolution.

- The organisational revolution - i.e. the relative de-hierarchisation and de-beaurocratisation of work relations towards participatory structures and collaborative self-organisation.

Currently these features are tied to neo-liberalism and are thus largely experienced as problems rather than advantages. Globalisation takes the form of a neo-liberal deregulation of trade and investment flows extenuating wealth differentials and leading to a world-wide intensification of conflict. The attendant break up of national welfare systems result in a fierce downward competition of ‘labour-costs’ (=incomes) even in the most advanced economies. The new flexibility and potential richness of work is experienced as existential insecurity. On the product side the new economies of scope are instrumentalised for stratification and status consumption rather than non-exclusive diversity. They become barriers to communication rather than a means of social communication.

Organisational progress within the capitalist business remains compromised by the problems of a system that mediates all its transactions via the category of private property: security-measures, the protection of intellectual property, divisive income disparities, ‘territorial’ attitudes, monopolisation of information, secret decision making,careerism etc.(17)

In the face of these contradictions it was our methodological premise to make the genuinely progressive features (participatory decision making, lateral communication, ongoing self-determination of all productive contributors etc.) decisive for our design speculation. This implied the hypothetical “bracketing” of those aspects that currently compromise the thrust of development.

Notes & references:

1. Cannon, T.: Welcome to the Revolution - Managing Paradox in the 21st Century, London 1996
Ray, M. & Rinzler,A.:The new Paradigm for Business, L.A. 1993
Peters,T. : Liberation Management - Necessary Disorganisation for Nanosecond Nineties, N.Y. 1993
Peters, T.: Thriving on Chaos, N.Y. 1987
Bergquist,W.: The Postmodern Organisation - mastering the art of irreversable change, New York 1993
Kilduff,m.: Deconstructing Organisations, Academy of Management review 18
Blanchard,K.& Johnson,S.: The One Minute Manager, New York 1982
Bower,J.L.: Disruptive Technologies - Catching the Wave, Harvard Business Review, Jan./Feb.1995
Kelly, S. & Allison M.A.: The Complexity Advantage, New York 1998
Brown, S.L.& Eisenhardt, K.M.: Competing on the Edge – Strategy as Structured Chaos, Boston 1998

2. Two London based examples for a new type of hybrid practise that offers a research based service in the field of corporate space planning: DEGW (Duffy, Eley, Giffone, Worthington); Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax Laboratory.

3.This is in effect the programme of deconstructivism in architecture.

4.Greg Lynn’s ‘Curvelinearity’ and Jeff Kipnis ‘Towards a New Architecture’ have been seminal.

5.One the most striking innovations of architecture’s repertoire of spatial articulation is given with Colin Rowe’s concept of Phenomenal Transparency.

6. The political arena has been eroded by the increasing futility of national policies in a globalised world.

7.Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy relates to the radical Italian "autonomia" movement.
See: Italy: Autonomia - Post-political Politics, Semio-text(e), N.Y.C.1980
This discourse entered architecture in the form of the philosophical abstractions propagated by Deleuze and Guattari’s 'Thousand Plateaus', the main source of inspiration for the formal strategies of "Folding". Departmentalisation and sub-departmentalisation - the perfect examples of Deleuzian "territorialization" - are the structural principles of the bureaucratic mode of organisation.

8. see: Patrik Schumacher, Arbeit, Spiel und Anarchie
in: Work & Culture - Büro.Inszenierung von Arbeit
Herausgeber: Herbert Lachmayer und Eleonora Luis, Ritterverlag, Klagenfurt

9. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Page 69, ElecBook, London 1998

10. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social,
political and intellectual life.” Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,
Page 7, ElecBook, London 1998
Also: “What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Page 69, ElecBook, London 1998

11. This can be maintained even if one has to concede that money flows in the direction of effective (rather than absolute) demand.

12. See:
Ash Amin, p.1, Introduction to "Post-Fordism - A Reader", Oxford / Cambridge MA.
Robin Murray, Fordism and Postfordism, in S. Hall & M.Jacques, New Times, London 1989
W. Ruigrok & R. van Tulder, The Logic of International Restructuring, London, New York 1995
Hirst,P. & Zeitlin,J., Flexible Specialization versus post-Fordism, London 1991
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford / Cambridge MA. 1989

13.One of the catalysts of the debate (in Britain) was the search for a socio-economic explanation of Thatcherism and the effort to situate the necessary reformulation of left political strategies. The result was an overly optimistic assessments of the progressive and emancipatory potential of the “New Times” of post-fordist transformation.
See: Stuart Hall, The meaning of New Times, in: S. Hall & M.Jacques, New Times, London 1989

14. Antonio Gramsci, Americanism and Fordism, in A Gramsci Reader, Ed. David Forgacs, London 1988, p.279

15. Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline, New York 1990

16. Quinn, James, Intelligent enterprise. A knowledge and service based paradigm for industry. New York 1992

17. Under Capitalism all contributions to the socially integrated production are overshadowed by the requirement to serve as a means to individual appropriation. This structural coupling of production and distribution has turned from an engine of progress and innovation into a liability.

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