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Some years ago, curator Chrysanthe Broikos worked in a museum nestled in an old one-room schoolhouse. “It was terrific and frightening all at the same time,” she recalls. “It was a beautiful little space with a very intimate feel, but I was the only full-time employee. I was there on my own in this one room all day long, and I found it very lonely when I didn’t see other people around.”
These days, Broikos, 35, works out of a cubicle in the much biggerand more illustriousNational Building Museum. And recently she’s been spending a lot of time thinking about good and bad office design. Late last year, Broikos co-edited On the Job: Design and the American Office and co-curated the National Building Museum’s exhibit of the same name.
Broikos bills On the Job as the first “holistic” study of the American office environment, combining the normally distinct fields of corporate architecture, interior decorating, office technology, and office anthropologythe hot new specialty that investigates how an office’s layout and the interpersonal relationships it spawns shape how workplaces operate.
Despite the recent spike in telecommuting, “the office is not going away,” Broikos says. “In fact, I think the opposite is true….Folks are having to put out the latest, greatest product every six months. The only way that companies can pump them out is with teams working together in close proximity over a short amount of time.”
The book, heavily illustrated with photographs and floorplans, traces the evolution of office spaces over the past century. Early offices were open, factorylike workspaces in which workers labored desk by desk, row by row. Workplace privacy came much later, following the growth of “knowledge-based” sectors that value individualism and autonomy.
The invention of the cubiclewhich flopped in its first iteration but succeeded in its reformulated version in the ’70salso helped. “Whether the birth of office-furniture systems and cubicles is good or bad can be debated,” Broikos says. “But they do provide privacy and space for those who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.” While statistics suggest that cubicles have shrunk somewhat in recent years, office-furniture companies have been trying to develop ways to refine and personalize the climate and sound environment within cubicles. “I think that, generally, people say they’re pretty satisfied with their own work space,” she says. “Even if people don’t like it at first, it grows on them. Once you ask them to change, you find great resistance.”
Broikos expects that, over the next couple of decades, builders will begin to embed technological innovations within buildings’ architecture, such as the ability to scribble something on a wall and have it automatically distributed to everyone in a work group. That, she says, would be fitting in an era when office parks in the Dulles corridor are less significant as architectural monuments than as temporary holding pens for flickeringand often fleetingimages on computer screens. “Companies are moving in and out of these spaces like this,” she says as she snaps her fingers. “And when they’re gone, some other company will take their place.” Louis Jacobson