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The future of London’s workspaces

This year’s London Festival of Architecture will tackle how we work

The world of the workplace is in flux. Traditional industries within Western cities are becoming less visible and less viable. Meanwhile there is a boom in hot-desk-filled dynamic workspaces that take their cues from tech giants. Flexible working and working from home are becoming not just optional but enforced elements of middle-class office jobs as employers try to innovate while cutting costs. At best we are  seeing a revolution in the meaning of work - a blurring of lines between the domestic and the professional that echoes feminist critiques of labour. But at worst workers find themselves in spartan, dehumanising wastelands, barred from keeping a picture of  their child on their desk in the name of agile working in offices which spatialise the insecurity of the workers they house. Where is the role of architecture in this battleground?

London’s architects have the opportunity to both respond to, and lead, the process of change. It is for this reason, that the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) has chosen Work in Progress as its 2015 theme. We hope to explore the changing nature of work and its impact on, and role in creating the city.

‘Work’ is a loaded word. For the lucky, it is the key to a life-enhancing creative, absorbing, process; for others, it’s merely the means to an end. It connects London socially and globally; it is the activity by which we share and test ideas, and often where we encounter our greatest successes and challenges.

The world is in the grip of a new industrial revolution which is evolving faster than we can predict. The convergence of a powerful creative economic sector with the growing software and telecoms sector is generating much of London’s economic growth. Work seeping out from offices to permeate our entire city, influencing its landscape and impacting on daily life. The ‘new industrialists’ are shaping the capital’s economic geography, too, with the commercial core nudging ever eastwards.

‘The city is losing an average of 88 hectares of industrial land every year and the need for housing will increase pressure further’

Meanwhile, workplaces are being remodelled to accommodate changing demands. A report published by City of London Corporation suggests that this is leading to space-less growth and workplaces that ‘are increasingly managed like hotels … with a high level of experience for “guests”,’ - great if you happen to be one of the knowledge workers that City firms are trying to attract, or belong to the ‘flat white economy’. But for hundreds of thousands of people the choice, flexibility and workplaces that cater for their wellbeing are a million miles from their everyday reality.

Fundamental to sustaining London’s economic ecology, declining traditional industries and manufacturing will only exacerbate the divide. The city is losing an average of 88 hectares of industrial land every year (against a Mayoral target of 40 hectares) and the growing need for housing will increase pressure further. The regeneration of inner London is seeing many small businesses - plumbers, building merchants, car repairers, glaziers etc - designed out of neighbourhoods. While it may superficially smarten an area, it diminishes communities. The Greater London Authority (GLA) calculates that there was a significant rise in ‘open workspace’ in the past two years, from artist studios, through to co-working, incubator and accelerator facilities.

All this points to the constant evolution of London, and its ability to respond and flex according to its needs has been part of its success. Yet it is the pace of change, and the combination of pressures and challenges, as well as opportunities, that makes this a rich subject for the LFA and others to investigate.

It is a chance to explore the changing nature of work, and how we make space for that, among the tensions of a growing city. How too to build socially and economically inclusive districts that are designed for people with mixed incomes and a variety of skills. This is crucial to making a London that caters to its diverse communities, not just the highly skilled, knowledge worker. The built environment is critical to that, and the LFA can offer a chance to test how that plays out.

Lead Image: Part members’ club part office, Selgas Cano’s Second Home in Shoreditch is one example of a new workspace model, but offers no solution to the rapid loss of traditional industries.

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