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‘There is no reason why the office as a building type should not re-invest itself with a sense of belonging’

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Offices dominate the contemporary city and dwarf most other uses, but their origins were in part the lively markets and merchant houses of the early Renaissance

Originally published in May 1992

The ‘office block’: a term we all use, and one we use nowadays in a pejorative way, is an expression of the negative feelings about offices which we entertain, but it is difficult to trace the sources of these feelings because the history of the office as a building type is not at all well documented. Nowhere, for example, in the catalogue of the RIBA library is it possible to find a reference to the history of the office. Nikolaus Pevsner’s A History of Building Types includes a chapter on the subject of ‘Warehouses and Office Buildings’, but fails to recognise the office itself as a topic with which a great architectural historian might concern himself; and, again, in that massive compendium, Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (1956 edition), the word office is noticeably absent from the index, even though the office building had by that time been the predominant metropolitan building type for perhaps 70 years.

It is quite extraordinary that there should be such a misfit between what interests architectural historians, and what has actually happened. It says something about the values of our society, that it is unable to apportion significance to the office as architecture because perhaps it conjures no feelings of faith, community, pleasure or awe, and it is a revealing insight into our ideas about cities, about work and private interest writ large.

Yet the word ‘office’ itself is a powerful one. We speak of the ‘Papal Office’, and of ‘high office’, and the Vatican, the White House and the Mansion House all have concrete significance to us as symbols of those different forms of office. But our concept of the office as a building type shares none of that majesty of significance. So we need to find a fresh critical approach to consider what it has been and what it might become.

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Cortile of the Uffizi, Florence begun c1560 - one of the first specially built office building

‘We need to find a fresh critical approach to consider what an office has been and what it might become’

One of the origins of offices is to be found in the world of Italian banking, during the Middles Ages. The Medicis established the first recorded countingroom or office ‘where they keep the affairs of the Bank’ in their Milan palace, at a time when book-keeping was just beginning to be understood as a financial discipline. The Medicis sought to set up a financial system based on bills of exchange in order to service more effectively their basic trade in wool, initiating, for the first time in history, a system of trade control that was quite separate from the business of exchanging commodities - a form of financial activity that could be pursued away from the market-place itself, with no direct relation to the citizen on the street.

It is the characteristic which has shaped the development of the office building more than any other. For, unlike open market buildings, offices are closed off to the flow of the public, communicating only between themselves, and not witn the outside world. The Medicis, therefore, were amongst the first agencies to develop this segregation of activities, providing offices within their palaces, such as that in Milan, where a manager - one might even describe him as a bank manager - would be installed in apartments on the first floor, or piano nobile. But even before their time, money-lending and other forms of financial exchange had been developing distinct from commodity exchange, with separate locations within the market-place for their transactions, such as the Loggia dei Mercanti in the square at Bologna.

As the focus of financial power shifted from Italy to the Netherlands and Northern Europe, these arrangements, where financial dealings were separated from the rest of the market, and took on a hermetic and professional character of their own, developed to create the buildings of the international financial institutions which we know now.

‘One of the origins of offices is to be found in the world of Italian banking, during the Middles Ages’

The origins of the term ‘Bourse’, to describe the Paris Stock Exchange, lay in the palace and Place de la Bourse in Bruges in 1641. Today there remains a fascinating correspondence between our modern dealing floors and their historic predecessors. The Bruges place, with its loggias, known as ‘factories’, where the agents of the dealing institutions, or ‘factors’, would execute their transactions, is exactly analogous to the London LIFFE Exchange, where we see the ‘factories’ of the various institutions ranged all around the dealing floor, and the ‘factors’, dressed up like jockeys in their strange colours to identify themselves, rushing out into the meeting-place to deal, and back into their ‘factories’ to check their VDUs for the satellite information which supplies them with the power to deal.

Another analogy can be pursued, for these shouting, gesturing characters also represent the mythical successors of the Cockney stall-holders on Brick Lane market - a local market in Spitalfields of the old fashioned kind, still related to citizens, where commercial activity continues to follow the patterns which animate cities, unlike the activity on the dealing floor, which, in an architectural and environmental sense, kills cities off. Hermetic and introverted, the dealing floor represents an environment dedicated to transactions quite foreign to ordinary citizens, enclosed in a building that is totally unconnected to people outside its interests - although it may indirectly affect the economy of the locality. By contrast, the old-fashioned market represents the territory of local transactions, springing out of the substance of local life.

This differentiation is recognised very early in documents on office buildings, and in the structures of their time. The earliest public official building recorded by Pevsner is the administrative building of Como, called the Broletto, from the word ‘brolium’, which means to ‘fence in’. The ‘fenced in’ administrative office is on the first floor for security, with the marketplace underneath it, a pattern which was true of subsequent Italian administrative buildings.

Various treatises on office buildings appeared in the fifteenth century. Filarete underlines the importance of combining government buildings and commerce in the same place, and some 20 years after he wrote his book, the architect Francesco di Giorgio wrote a treatise on offices which provides a description very similar to the sort of brief one might get from a commercial developer today. The building is to be a courtyard (one might call it an atrium) with only one entrance, and access to all rooms is from a circulation system around the atrium, on each side of which is a stair. In a sense it is a prototype for a modern office, which seems to suggest not that developers are looking back to Francesco, but that building types themselves are simply not so various as one might think and, inevitably, modern buildings will have much in common with their predecessors. Arup Associates’ No 1 Finsbury Avenue, for example, is extraordinarily close to Francesco’s example, with a courtyard, or atrium, in the middle, two entrances rather than one, and vertical circulation running up each end. Francesco also refers to a building type which he does not actually draw, called the Casa degli Officiali, and here perhaps is the first use of the term ‘office building’.

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Left: the Royal Palace, Amsterdam. Originally the town hall, in effect and office block. Right, top: Somerset House, London. The first purpose built office block in England is a mixture of a corridor building and the collegiate type with staircases opening off the courts. Right, bottom: Soane’s Bank of England: ‘the most astounding public office ever erected in England’

The Uffizi in Florence, known now as a great art gallery which has held the Medici collection since 1574, was in fact built in 1560 as a comprehensive office building for the administration of Florence and its various officials - the commissioners for the militia, and for public demeanour, mostly concerned with the regulation of prostitution, and the guilds. This building probably provided the pattern for subsequent public office buildings, of which there were not many further examples in Italy, but which started to appear some hundred years later in Northern Europe. The great Town Hall building of Amsterdam (now Royal Palace), built in 1648, is an example, with a marvelous plan based on two courts, divided by a great raised central hall which is reached by a staircase in the centre of the building. Around the courts runs an enormous coffered and vaulted colonnade which gives access to the offices on the perimeter.

The size and scale of this building are such that they would still be impressive today. Building scale has become a great issue in planning now, perhaps because we tend to relate size to significance: if a building is very large, we expect it to have commensurate meaning, and if it does not have that meaning, resent its claim on the public consciousness. Offices, for the general public, do not have that significance which would give them the right to size - but it is not size in itself which is necessarily objectionable. It is intriguing to remember than when, in the nineteenth century, the Church decided to demolish the spires of Lincoln Cathedral, public outcry at the loss to this huge monument was so great that civic disorder broke out in the city, and although the plan was carried through, it was quite clear that nobody wanted the building reduced in size.

‘The Uffizi in Florence provided the pattern for subsequent public office buildings which started to appear some hundred years later in Northern Europe’

The first large purpose-built office in England was Somerset House. Designed by William Chambers, it represented a logical development in the growth of public administration and the buildings which housed its activities. The palaces of Westminster and Whitehall, which had been royal domains before the Civil War, had been swallowed up by offices of various kinds; but Somerset House was the first structure put up expressly to contain such functions, and its plan reveals uncertainty about exactly what kind of animal it is. A very early example of a corridor building, it nevertheless incorporates staircase arrangements on the lines of the Court, where the cellular organisation of chambers points to the influence of the monastic and collegiate tradition. To the riverfront, it has the presence of a palace, with a great rusticated plinth punctured an entrance for river traffic, the regular fenestration broken by terrific open porticos to bring south light into two narrow courts. The porticos, supported on great arches, were surely inspired by Piranesi’s fantasy drawings of Rome.

Perhaps the most astounding public office building ever erected in England was Soane’s Bank of England, started some 20 years later, and its demolition must constitute the greatest act of vandalism of this century in this country. But from these outstanding examples of purpose-designed buildings, offices at this time generally took a smaller, less grandiose, form - the lawyer’s chambers, or the counting room in the merchant’s house, where business and domestic activity took place in close proximity. This long tradition of combining commerce residence and office created the great medieval merchants houses of Europe, which reached their beautiful expression in Venice. Here the warehouses on the lowest levels, with offices and accommodation above, were adorned with splendor by the families who owned and inhabited them to express their status and identity. This tradition continued in London well into the nineteenth century, and is documented in Booth’s poverty maps which, and for public demeanour, mostly concerned with the regulation of prostitution, and the guilds. This building probably provided the pattern for subsequent public office buildings, of which there were not many further examples in Italy, but which started to appear some hundred years later in Northern Europe. The great Town Hall building of Amsterdam (now Royal Palace), built in 1648, is an example, with a marvelous plan based on two courts, divided by a great raised central hall, which is reached by a staircase in the centre of the building. Around the courts runs an enormous coffered and vaulted colonnade, which gives access to the offices on the perimeter.

‘Somerset House represented a logical development in the growth of public administration and the buildings which housed its activities’

The size and scale of this building are such that they would still be impressive today. Building scale has become a great issue in planning now, perhaps because we tend to relate size to significance: if a building is very large, we expect it to have commensurate meaning, and if it does not have that meaning, resent its claim on the public consciousness. Offices, for the general public, do not have that significance which would give them the right to size - but it is not size in itself, which is necessarily objectionable. It is intriguing to remember than when, in the nineteenth century, the Church decided to demolish the spires of Lincoln Cathedral, public outcry at the loss to this huge monument was so great that civic disorder broke out in the city, and although the plan was carried through, it was quite clear that nobody wanted the building reduced in size.

The first large purpose-built office in England was Somerset House. Designed by William Chambers, it represented a logical development in the growth of public administration and the buildings which housed its activities. The palaces of Westminster and Whitehall, which had been royal domains before the Civil War, had been swallowed up by administrative offices of various kinds; but Somerset House was the first structure put up expressly to contain such functions, and its plan reveals uncertainty about exactly what kind of animal it is. A very early example of a corridor building, it nevertheless incorporates staircase arrangements on the lines of the Inns of Court, where the cellular organisation of chambers points to the influence of the monastic and collegiate tradition. To the river front, it has the presence of a palace, with a great rusticated plinth punctured with an entrance for river traffic, the regular fenestration broken by terrific open porticos to bring south light into two narrow courts. The porticos, supported on great arches, were surely inspired by Piranesi’s fantasy drawings of Rome.

Perhaps the most astounding public office building ever erected in England was Soane’s Bank of England, started some 20 years later, and its demolition must constitute the greatest act of architectural vandalism of this century in this country. But apart from these outstanding examples of purpose-designed buildings, offices at this time generally took a smaller, less grandiose, form - the lawyer’s chambers, or the counting room .in the merchant’s house, where business and domestic activity took place in close proximity. This long tradition of combining commerce, residence and office created the great medieval merchants’ houses of Europe, which reached their most beautiful expression in Venice. Here the warehouses on the lowest levels, with offices and residential accommodation above, were adorned with splendor by the families who owned and inhabited them to express their status and identity. This tradition continued in London well into the nineteenth century, and is documented in Booth’s poverty maps which, surprisingly to us today, show places like Commercial Street and Whitechapel in the East End colour-coded in red to represent wealth - an indication that merchants were living above their warehouses in an area where the great philanthropists and social observers were simultaneously recording the most dismal conditions.

The other office type, which is so vividly recorded by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and The Pickwick Papers, was the small professional office based on a range of rooms, as in the chambers of the Inns of Court. But new economic demands were leading to the growth of large bureaucracies requiring appropriate buildings. An early example was Robert Taylor’s Stone Buildings in Lincoln’s Inn (1774-80). Although incomplete as executed, the plans show that horizontal circulation throughout was intended, representing a deliberate move away from chambers to corporate organisation, and a precedent for the design of the modern commercial office building. These changes were stimulated in part by the enormous expansion in the demand for office floor space, which increased during the second half of the nineteenth century, created by the shift away from craft industry into manufacturing industry, introduced by the Industrial Revolution. It gave rise to the emergence of three new building types: first, the corporate office, which grew out of the civic tradition of the official palazzo; second, the specialised exchange, which had developed from the market-place; and then, finally, the most radical development, the speculative office itself, which was intended for no client in particular, and peculiar among building types, because treated as a commodity which, in certain places, becomes shamelessly utilitarian and, because of its nature, utterly placeless arid anonymous.

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Left: Cockerell’s Westminster, Life and British Fire Office, London. A symbol of the affairs of the firm. Right, clockwise from top: Lutyen’s Britannic House, the large office building contributing to urban order. Shell Centre, South Bank, small windows for small offices at a time when ‘the commercial world had become utterly disconnected from architecture’. Lever House, New York, and the Pirelli building, Milan - classics of Modernism, which will be re-valued

Corporate offices

Cockerell’s Westminster, Life and British Fire Office, London (1831-32) is the world’s oldest insurance office, an interesting example of the corporate headquarters belonging to the tradition of buildings intended to stand as symbols of their owners or occupants and their affairs. Internally, it has much the air of a big country house, with a series of large and small rooms for specific activities, and none of the sort of flexibility or uncertainty that prevails in present-day offices although, in fact, the number of staff virtually tripled over a period of 60 years. It made definite architectural statements in a way that is difficult today, and it did so with that demonstrative vigour that we associate with Victorian and Edwardian commercial architecture. A late monument to that tradition is Lutyens’ Britannic House in Finsbury Circus. This great building deploys its Classical language to bring its repetitive storeys of accommodation into a greater order, of metropolitan scale. Brilliantly composed, it is also responsive, enclosing Finsbury Circus in a gentle curve.

During the twentieth century, corporate scale has increased at an incredible rate, requiring a commensurate scale of enormous organisational buildings epitomized in London by the Shell Building on the South Bank, which has a floor area of approximately 42 acres. Shell is a poor building architecturally and is symptomatic of a period when the commercial world in Britain had become utterly disconnected from architecture. Elsewhere great corporate clients still commissioned the best architects to design their headquarters buildings, and many classics of the Modem Movement were born, such as the Lever and Seagram buildings in New York and the Pirelli Building in Milan - buildings which will probably be re-valued when the over complex flavours of PostModernism become sickly. Some British clients woke up to architecture in the 1960s, but there are few distinguished office buildings in the City. Exceptions are Commercial Union and the P&O Building, now set off against Lloyd’s, that extraordinary gesture of technical optimism. Foster’s Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich is similarly inspired by a poetry of pure technique. Earlier, in the West End, the Smithsons’ Economist building was a successful solution to the problem of accommodating a very high plot ratio, embracing the metropolitan scale of the city, without jeopardising the Georgian scale of StJames’s, and this remains a demonstration of how large corporate buildings may be related to a historic context.

‘The role of companies in shaping the development of an architecture of offices has been significant when they have asked their architects to consider the design in terms of their own organisation’

The role of companies in shaping the development of an architecture of offices has been significant when they have asked their architects to consider the design in terms of their own organisation. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building (1904) in Buffalo, work study theories and the tremendous expansion of low-skilled clerical employment, taken over by women typists, are determinants in the spatial arrangement. The women occupy the galleries, and the clerical staff the lower floor in all one single corporate volume. Around the walls, rather evangelical exhortations to work hard are inscribed in gold leaf, while the typewriter, Gestetner and telephone symbolise the new characteristics of the Larkin inail order business. Later, Wright was to design the headquarters for the Johnson Wax Company, one of his greatest, most inventive buildings. The clerical pool is like a great open court in a complex city of executives. I wonder whether the pool, with its inverted tapered columns topped by circular discs separated by reeded glass, was not derived from the huge lily pool which Lloyd Wright made at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo as if it was seen from underneath. This is a practical commercial building which is also deeply and mysteriously beautiful.

At Centraal Beheer, Herman Hertzberger designed a maverick and wonderful building where conventional notions of clearly defined office floors are challenged by turning them into a series of almost balcony-like structures, built up within the shell of the enormous overall envelope. The result is a kind of labyrinth of little streets and alleyways in which the employees are curiously free to express themselves in their own furnishing of their individual spaces- a total contrast to the great American environment of infinite ceiling and floor, without particular sense of room or place. This return to making rooms has architectural origins in the work of Louis Kahn, but it must also reflect political resistance to the deliberately subduing aesthetic of universal corporate power, and the search for more humane and personal working conditions. Colin StJohn Wilson’s unbuilt headquarters for Lucas made this kind of proposition and it was followed by two projects by Arup Associates, fortunately both built, offices for Lloyds at Chatham and headquarters for CEGB outside BristoL Both manage to find a sense of human scale and place within what are very large buildings.

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Clockwise, from top: Commercial Union by Gollins, Melvin, Ward Partnership. A new standard of office building in Britain. Lloyd’s by Richard Rogers Partnership: ‘that extraordinary gesture of technical optimism’. Willis Fabery by Foster Associates: ‘the poetry of pure technique’ The Economist Building by Peter and Alison Smithson, accommodating a high plot ratio without jeopardising the Georgian scale of its surroundings. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, the work study environment. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax building. Centraal Beheer by Herman Hertzberger. A labyrinth of little streets and alleyways.

Exchanges

 Quite unlike corporate headquarters, exchanges are market-places and meeting places, places for social activities varying from the scale of the great Stoa in Athens to the original intimacy of Lloyd’s Coffee Shop now reconstructed in the Lloyd’s building. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the exchange became an increasingly important building type, with cellular accommodation around the central collective space. The Piece Hall in Halifax is a typical example of an eighteenth-century market-place which can be seen as a prototype for the covered exchanges which are a great feature of English cities, the Royal Exchange of Manchester, or the Com Exchange in Leeds, or London’s Coal Exchange.

The latter, a painted cast iron and highly decorated structure, was pulled down in another great act of vandalism. These were buildings of tremendous rhetoric, products of an era capable of making great statements, and they stood as powerful symbols of the public acknowledgement of commercial interest, quite unlike most commercial buildings today.

Speculative offices

Most offices today are speculative, in the tradition which saw its beginnings in the nineteenth century. Edward l’ Anson, a commercial architect, delivered a paper to the RIBA in 1864 entitled Some Notice of Office Building in the City, which drew attention to the emergence of a new building type, designed on a speculative basis, in a repetitive manner, and consisting of a complex of chambers for rent to small or large businesses. In America, the speculative office building was called a ‘unit building’, after the repetitive fenestration system which was a characteristic of such blocks, together with the frame structure which allowed for the installation of glass partitions. Classic examples, such as Peter Ellis’ Oriel Chambers of 1864 in Liverpool, one of the first iron frame buildings where the frame is expressed without any masonry cladding, already bear a strong resemblance to the modern office block.

‘Office buildings of all kinds have this potential to play host to the citizen’

After Chicago’s great fire of 1871, this building type provided the model for the design and construction of huge towers of chambers, such as Burnham’s Reliance building, in which the density was such that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the plot ratio in the centre of Chicago was 20:1, which compares to a mere 5:1 prevailing generally in the City of London today. In Buffalo, in Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, again a system of repeated stacked chambers, we see set out for the first time the notion of the modern office building as subsequently crystallised by Mies van der Rohe and SOM, with no attempt at modulation of the facade from the top to the base - a solid base in Sullivan’s building, which would have been replaced by piloti in the Mies or SOM version. The Guaranty Building actually has a curiously banal plan, more like a hotel than a compact office block, with a court scooped out of the back to provide cross-ventilation in the days before mechanical air handling. The invention of air-conditioning eventually allowed blocks to be planned with far greater density. Beneath the slender great spire of the Empire State Building is a deep plan structure, with three tiers of offices on each side of the core - factory-like conditions of employment, reflecting contemporary ideas about work, and the sharp distinction between places of work and places of pleasure.

The future

So with this inheritance of ideas about offices, what history are we making now in the development of the office block? We can make skyscrapers, or we can make what Demetri Porphyrios has described as ‘groundscrapers’ - because the high plot ratios of buildings like Centre Point are surprisingly similar to parts of Edwardian London such as Kingsway - medium rise buildings with a high proportion of ground cover. The questions we face are not simply about style, or appearance, despite the importance of our sensuous, visual experience of buildings. More fundamental is the impact of buildings on the places which they surround. That forlornness so typical in office buildings of today is very much a result of the way in which they hit the ground, irrespective of their aesthetic appearance above that level, their style, or age, or any other intention. It is a failing the citizen does not experience in, say, the wonderful loggias around the edge of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which offer shelter and shade from the sun, but also shops and commercial activity underneath dense repetitive floors and fenestration which could be offices.

‘There is no reason why the office as a building type should not re-invest itself with a sense of belonging to the community, with feelings of pleasure, or a kind of faith’

Office buildings of all kinds have this potential to play host to the citizen, to provide a place for local transactions within the structure set up for making foreign transactions, like the Broletto in Como or the public buildings of Siena with markets beneath them. We can find models in London, like the Piccadilly or Burlington Arcades, which penetrate large commercial blocks. Space offered to the public in this way need not be uncommercial if it provides viable premises for retailing activity. At Broadgate now, the great central rotunda is beginning to develop a public life, and to build up a reputation as a place where things happen. In our own competition proposals for Paternoster Square, we sought to invest the streets with different characteristics, based on contrasts we could identify between the different public places we knew. Thus, east-west streets might be open at the top, glazed over halfway down between the offices in the middle, and then covered with open vaults at the bottom, a hybrid between a galleria and Nash’s Opera arcade by the Haymarket. North-south streets would not be enclosed, allowing the sun to penetrate.

Another idea was that public routes could be taken through under the circulation of the office buildings themselves. The belief that a massive office redevelopment in present-day London can viably incorporate public arcades completely integrated into the office block system, just as at the Milan Galleria, is also the basis for our Spitalfields proposal. Ground level is opened up to small shops and market stalls, and the local things that citizens enjoy. There is no reason why the office as a building type should not re-invest itself with a sense of belonging to the community, with feelings of pleasure, or a kind of faith, on the part of the public, which moves around it. This will be achieved if the office as a building type reconciles the claims of commerce with those of the citizen. But whether this will happen depends finally on the attitude of the developer.