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Going Post-Corporate
Patrik Schumacher 2001
Paper delivered at 5th Graz Biennial on Media and Architecture
Session: Structural Changes and Urban Realities

Postmodernity is marked by the simultaneity of multiplicitous diverging tendencies. This also applies to patterns of urbanisation: The tendency of extensive sprawl exemplified in exopolis L.A. (Edward W. Soja) continues in parallel with processes of metropolitan concentration (Saskia Sassen). No overriding paradigm dominates the scene. As architect one might choose one's research focus where one presumes a viable potential for innovative architectural engagement. The tendency of choice explored here is the business-led reclamation of the historic urban centres after many years of suburbanisation and urban decline.

The reclamation of the historic city has many facets. I am neither concerned with tourism nor with the way corporations seem to brand and privatise the urban domain or use iconic architecture to advertise their presence on the urban skyline. What I am focussing on is the city as an authentic and effective place of work. The density, diversity and service intensity of urban centres has been rediscovered as a conducive milieu for the new patterns of corporate organisation and the culture of business relations that mark the emerging era of the post-fordist knowledge economy. Tourism, retail and entertainment are only relevant in as much as they help to financially maintain the various infrastructures (transport, hotels, restaurants) and cultural establishments that support sophisticated business communities. Indeed the rich cultural life (the arts, universities) of the big cities feed directly into the productive capacities of high value "industries" that specialise in areas like the media, IT, design, finance etc.

The appropriate slogans and catch-phrases that could be cited here to circumscribe the relevant cluster of phenomena might be taken from the discourse of management theory: Business eco-systems, loosely coupled networks, de-hierachization, participatory structures, out-sourcing, interdisciplinary team-works, hybridity, self-organisation etc.

The backdrop against which these emerging phenomena stand out is given by the orthodox corporation characterised by clearly set purpose, definite boundaries, strict hierarchy and well-defined internal division of competencies. The orthodox corporation is based on the incorporation of all types of work required for the production of the final service or commodity into its hermetic domain. These nearly autarchic systems withdrew from the constraining and chaotic conditions of the inner cities in order to create their own orderly and centrally planned productive universe on new tabula rasa green field sites. This was indeed the dominant spatial pattern of corporate organisation with respect to both industrial plants and administrative headquarters during the whole post war era until the early 1980s. As paradigmatic examples one might quote the Headquarters of John Deere & Co near Moline, Illinois, designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates in 1956 or Saarinens work for IBM. These developments are at the heart of the degeneration of the historic inner cities in this period.

This spatial pattern has become utterly dysfunctional with respect to the current flow of working relations that moves across multiple corporate boundaries and indeed leads to the blurring of corporate territories through the inflation of alliances and the loose attachment of an endless stream of temporary, independent consultants. While the orthodox system is premised on a rather stable economic environment that allows for long term planning and the build-up of elaborate structures, the self-organising network system is in a permanent state of flux, regroupment and reorientation. Underlying this is a general shift of balance from physical production towards design, the culture industry, research&developement, marketing, management&finance etc. in the most advanced economies. These are all creative and knowledge intensive productive activities that defeat the classical forms of corporate organisation. Inevitably a new organisational paradigm emerges.

The urban expression of this new paradigm can be found in urban quarters like London's Clerkenwell district where dynamic business clusters (design, media, IT) flourish and feed of each other in loft conversions build into the predominantly late 19th and early 20th century fabric that formerly sustained light industry like printing and various types of light manufacturing. Or one might take a look at London's more central Fitzrovia district where a dense web of corporations benefit from each other's expertise and are able to utilise shared resources. Here the AADRL (1) investigated the work/space patterns of two prominent service sector businesses that are world players in their respective fields: The engineering firm Ove Arup Partnership and the advertising agency M&C Saatschi. Both firms occupy multiple buildings (while hardly ever occupying a whole building) within close proximity. Arup has 9 different locations here. This reflects their organisation as a cluster of semi-autonomous groups (companies within the company) that each developed a certain identity and engages in multiple alliances with architects and other professionals around specific projects. The street space between the buildings becomes an informal communication space for the company while the rich choice of various lunch places and restaurants replaces the canteen buried in corporate orthodoxy. The so called "knowledge centre" emerged from the corporate basement library to become a publicly accessible research facility with street-level shop-window. Its video conferencing facility is offered for hire while Arup in turn hires large meeting and conference facilities for its specialist seminar series on demand from a nearby university. Subcontracting, outsourcing and freelancing blur the corporate boundary as internal support services like the IT department start to offer their services to outside customers to fully utilise (develop) its resources. Arup IT even starts to market certain specialised software products and is soon to emerge from the corporate hinterland into the urban surface of interchange. The challenge of ever-changing tasks and permanent competitive innovation requires an ongoing internal as well as external re-routing of the spatial lines of communication while the distinction between in-house vs. out-of-house is sliding.

The patchwork pattern of occupation allows for great flexibility in terms of contraction and expansion into and out of the urban web. Additional pieces of space can be easily acquired or released back into the market. There is always some space readily available. The gain in flexibility afforded here counts for more than the convenience of a unified territory that can not be maintained in this way. Such flexibility is obviously unattainable on the green field site - not to mention the required communication and interface density with external collaborators called for by the new ways of production.

On the basis of these observations and insights one might analyse the upheaval of modern urbanism and the rapid ascendance of postmodern (and then deconstructivist) architecture/urbanism as the superficial/profound expression of that radical transformation of patterns of production that has been theorised as the move from Fordism to Post-fordism.(2) Post-modern architecture found its market in the rediscovery and "detournement" of the historical city as business hot house, catering for the needs of the new forms of business organisation based on clusters and networks of semi-independent units rather than strictly integrated corporations. The new enterprise and yuppie culture could not flourish in suburbia or on secluded green field sites.

Rather than regarding cultural phenomena like individualisation, life-style diversification and branding as primary factors that might explain post-modern architecture, the explanation focuses on the development of the system of production and the attendant re-organisation of the labour process as the generative force of socio-economic and cultural development. Tendencies in architecture and urbanism are to be assessed on the basis of their participation in the overall progress of social productivity. Here in heart of the western metropolis it is a question of facilitating the latest trends and the apparent best practises in the organisation of an advanced knowledge economy. The question of contemporary urbanism can not be what appeals to this or that moneyed audience. Rather the following question must be posed: What does it take in terms of people, infrastructure and spaces of communication to produce a world class newspaper, a cutting edge engineering solution or the hottest trend in web-site design?

Each product produced in the knowledge economy is a new product elaborated in temporary interdisciplinary project teams. This implies a veritable explosion in communication requirements which can only partially be absorbed by the expansion of telecommunication means. A large part of everybodyıs working day is engaged with face to face meetings and the movement between meetings. The office transforms into a conference venue on multiple scales and bleeds out into the urban field (business meetings in restaurants, hotel lobbies etc.). Here the difference between work and entertainment dissolves. Another large part of the working day/week is taken up by research and permanent education. This aspect also escapes the dichotomy of work versus free time. The social principle underlying the modernist zoning - the distinction of working versus leisure time - is subverted as both are transformed into an equally relevant "gathering of experience" as aspects of the "continuous self-development" that elaborates personal skill-sets as the building blocks of the productive networks of self-organisation. The urban environment starts to reflect this rhizomatic seamlessness. The dense and porous spatial texture of these urban quarters offers a fertile matrix of interface surfaces and the rich articulation of degrees of semi-enclosure and intimacy for the various subunits woven into the otherwise continuous web of production.

Post-modern aesthetics - the (unheard of) rejection of the aesthetic values of homogeneity, coherence and completeness - and the celebration of diversity, collage and fragmentation signals the departure from the fordist regime of bureaucratically organised mass-production and heralds the beginnings of the new urban complexity. Deconstructivism and Folding are extensions of this fundamental break with modernism rather than signifying a further break. Here we find the further radicalisation of pertinent conceptual and formal repertoires that might be able to organise and articulate the new spaces for the knowledge economy with respect to their complex network patterns, their organisational hybridity, their smooth transitions and multifaced identities.


1. The Design Research Lab at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AADRL) in London has been studying the spatial implications of recent developments in management theory and corporate restructuring by means of case studies and speculative design projects. A first summary of the results has been documented in: Patrik Schumacher, Business - Research ­ Architecture,
In: Daidalos 69/70, The Need of Research, December 1998/January 1999

2. For a detailed discussion and applcation of the notion of post-fordism to architecture see: Patrik Schumacher, Produktive Ordnungen (engl.: Productive Patterns)
in: ARCH+ 136, April 1997, Berlin, pp.28-33, pp.87-90
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