published in:

Harvard Design Magazine, number 26, “No Sweat,” F/W 2018. Pages 4 - 12

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The Incorporation of Dissent: Bürolandschaft and Its Contemporary Legacy

In 1960, an open-plan office—a temporary test space for mail-order processing—was inaugurated on a converted top floor of a warehouse at the corporate campus of Bertelsmann. The air-conditioned office space for the Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton was roughly half the size of a soccer field: 128 feet wide and 220 feet long, with a height of nearly 10 feet. It was lit by open, white fluorescent lamps (specifically, “white deluxe”). Its key characteristic was its visually loose, even chaotic arrangement of furniture, equipment, punch card automats, and desks that soon became a blueprint for postwar office design for administrative organizations, widely known as “Bürolandschaft” (office landscape). Soon after it was first developed in Germany, Bürolandschaft appeared in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1970s, when the British architect and workplace specialist Francis Duffy introduced it into the English-speaking world.

 

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Another significant aspect for understanding the high ambition of Organisationskybernetik was Luhmann’s early concept of a “theory of society.” Luhmann’s grand theory claims that autonomous, functional spheres like law, art, religion, and politics interact through communication in society. In the manuscript’s introduction, finalized in the mid-1960s, Luhmann emphasizes the contradictory nature of what he calls the “traditional concept of society”: at once all-inclusive while also demanding demarcations between the state and the community, Luhmann affirms this concept’s contradictory nature and argues that exactly these logic inconsistencies are a structural requirement of society. For the young Luhmann, society must be constituted with its contradictions and its paradoxes, in order to allow “falsification” and hence enable progress through dissenting opinions and viewpoints.

It is exactly the contradictory nature of society that marks an important aspect of Bürolandschaft: its design is pragmatically geared toward and incorporates dissenting opinions as knowledge feedback within the organization. Coworkers’ distinct and often contradictory thoughts and skill sets were seen as valued assets, and thus they were integrated into the design of the offices themselves—through involving of personnel in participatory decision-making processes, for example. These differences were understood as beneficial to decision-making processes and the development of calculable and codable work processes and routines.

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Read full text in:

Harvard Design Magazine, number 26, “No Sweat,” F/W 2018. Pages 4 - 12