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Rethinking Openness, Space and Organisation

Rachel Hurdley Profile Image

This comparative study of four university buildings aims to question underlying assumptions driving the architectural transformation of workplaces.  Traditionally-designed buildings, with cellular offices, fixed rooms for set activities and hierarchically-ordered spaces joined by corridors, are seen as outdated and detrimental to modern working practices.  New open-plan or ‘combi’ offices, meeting hubs, ‘touch-down’, ‘break-out’ or spaces for ‘serendipitous encounters’ are designed to be collaborative, informal, mobile working environments.  Current trends such as ‘shop windows’ and ‘showcases’ for organisations are manifested in impressive gateway buildings, artworks and extensive use of glass. The restructuring of work, new technologies and unsustainability of many existing buildings justifies a review of workplaces.  However, there is no adequate evidence base for equating architectural ‘openness’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘innovation’ with new forms of organisational culture. 

Mobility and flexibility are ambiguous concepts, associated both with innovation and strategic dominance, and with disempowering instability.  To align built-in openness/transparency with democratising and opening up organisations condemns privacy and separation as hierarchical, corrosive and old-fashioned.  However, the mediaeval Great Hall was perhaps the most open and flexible of multi-functional spaces, where master and servant, men and women, conducted business and entertained, using tables for eating or sleeping on according to time and need. Yet everyone knew their place and function in the feudal social order.  When you know you are ‘below the salt’, who needs walls?

Aims:

- To carry out a close-up examination of the interface between space and organisation in four differently-designed departmental buildings on one university campus. 

- To examine how different spaces change the possibilities of human action, interaction and identity over time.

- To track the design process of a planned ‘Gateway’ building to the campus (intended for multidisciplinary research and public engagement), scrutinising how strategic aims are implemented as built form.

Funder: Leverhulme Trust

Duration: 2011-August 2014

Project Links

To view photographs and videos from the ongoing fieldwork, please visit Rachel's Flickr site.

Rachel discusses the hidden power of corridors with Laurie Taylor and Jeremy Till. The chance meetings, gossip and confrontations which actually undermine hierarchy will all be lost if we fail to appreciate the seemingly unimportant passage between doors. BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed.

Links for Dr Rachel Hurdley