Elave: Nothing to hide commercial 2007 © Images & sounds
After Ethel Baraona Pohl and Cesar Reyes in August 2011, today’s guest writers are also talented bloggers, Mariabruna Fabrizi & Fosco Lucarelli, Italian architects practicing in Paris. Their blog, Socks Studio, is fed almost everyday with plethora of inspiring documents among which, some of them (here and here) were the object of my articles.
Their essay, Nothing to hide. The blurring of the physical and temporal line between life, work and education is a very interesting investigation about the spaces of control invented by capitalism. The latter found a new form in a system of production that can now complement its well known assembly line – currently outsourced – with a branch which principally consists in ‘inventing’ new desires for consumers whose bodies have been captured. The prison in which they (we) are kept has no wall, no darkness, no folds to hide in. Productivity, in this new work form paradigm, is achieved through the embrace of the subject for his condition and his voluntary slavery to a work hierarchy that did not change through history. Through encouragements to practices of ‘self-achievement’ and ‘relaxation’ hides a will to decrease any form of criticality from the subject. Such scheme is already highly problematic within the professional world but even more in the Academia. American universities, for example, are legitimately known as high skills providers, however, through the continuous encouragements to engage with extra-curricular activities (sports, clubs, fraternities, etc.), they also form citizens who strongly lacks of critical sense as Richard Arum’s research shows. As usual such system of control has a space and as architects, we are responsible to embrace or refuse its codes. Mariabruna and Fosco’s text is a good introduction to know what the latter are.
Some years ago an eye-catching tv commercial for Elave, a skincare products company, provoked a rather discernible YouTube backlash. The ad showed completely naked laboratory staff technicians wandering, talking and studying in an ethereal-white open work environment, apparently unaware of their nakedness. The literal message was that Elave had no worrying chemicals in its formulations and therefore “Nothing to hide” (as asserted through the campaign’s tagline).
Curiously enough, in order to promote the safety of the work done in the house, the campaign choose a rather NSFW attitude. Yet it would be misleading if not puritan to target the stunt as the usual “sex sells” example: not only it is frankly hard to detect any sex appeal in the perfectly shaved humankind appearing in the spot, but a deeper digging could reveal the subliminal and perverse way either public institutions and private corporations are hiding work exploitation and new means for profit under pseudo ethical calls for transparency and openness.
Oftentimes Léopold Lambert has claimed the violent nature inherent of architecture. Architecture, he mantains, is never innocent, because even the simple translation of a drawn line into a physical wall can express the material condition for an oppressive act of territorial division, thus identifying the locus for the manifestation of authority and repression.
In the following text we’ll try and evaluate a dialectical position: what if contemporary existential violence linked to (first world) immaterial work exploitation is no longer perpetrated through physical borders, but also precisely and conversely through the deliberate blurring of markings, limits, lines? What if this physical lack of boundaries finds an existential counterpoint in the societal blurring between domestic and collective space, between working time and life time, between childhood and adulthood?
As the symbol of countercultural 1960’s utopia, the exposed, naked body was the most literal expression of the overcoming of Foucault’s disciplinar universe and the so-called “changing of paradigm”. The emancipation from an ordered, paternalistic model, (in which religious, moral or political authority constantly interferes with individual freedom, to a new “individualistic” model (in which the individual is able to determine his own conception of Good and to decide whatever is worth doing of his own life) was, about two decades after, instrumentalized by a new managerial discourse that translated the original demand for freedom and emancipation into a reorganization of work, around the rhetoric of flexibility and the “construction of the self”.
Today, according to post-operaism thinker Paolo Virno, as post-fordist labor gets dematerialised, capital occupies not only the working hours but absorbs a worker’s entire existence, as well as his thoughts and creative desires. Products are not just meant to be consumed but they aim at setting new modes of communication and knowledge. Hence, production, asserts Maurizio Lazzarato, is no longer only the mere production of goods, but the setting for new conditions and variations for production itself. As post-industrial capitalism has blurred the boundaries between production, consumption, information and communication, the consumer himself does not merely consume, but is “creatively” engaged.
In 1969, years before mobile-communication had developed ist possibilities, Hollein proposed an inflatable mobile office, that provided a take-along-workspace for the nomadic worker. Photo © Hans Hollein
In modern-day networked society, accordingly, even individual knowledge is a means for profit. As well as companies’ employees, students are subjected to similar instances of flexibility and are supposed to evolve their capacity of adapting to the changing conditions of work. The pedagogical demand-and-offer surrenders to the imperative of production and it is subject to the new-management rhetorics of adaptability and elasticity. All this is reflected into architectural’s speculation and practice, one example of which is the project for the new school of architecture at Nantes, built in 2009 after winning the competition, by Parisian office Lacaton & Vassal.
Interiors of Nantes School of Architecture. Photo © Yvan Razafindramanana
Following the competition brief’s demand for “adaptable, elastic, flexible, evolutive and neutral spaces”, the architects provided a literal interpretation of a vocabulary that’s more common to corporate workplaces than to public scholar institutions.
Designed as a Koolhaasian generic plan, this manifesto-building is constructed “like an Ikea”, empty like one of the corporate offices in the London City, but visually brutal as a huge manufacturing warehouse whose structures are in naked concrete and transparent, polycarbonate skin.
Plans of Nantes School of Architecture. © Lacaton & Vassal
Interiors of Nantes School of Architecture. Photo © Yvan Razafindramanana
In a comparable shift from the workplace as a disciplinar space (we remember Tati’s Playtime cubicles) to the 60’s rational heterotopia of the Bürolandschaft, the underpinning conception of the school of Nantes is the reduction to superposing, neutral plateaux. Here, the spatial indeterminacy and the “weakness” of the plan are destined to favour a permanent adjustment, and an eventual openness to third party activities (other than teaching and architectural researching) by private ventures, as clearly asked even by the competition’s brief.
At the same time, the first years of the school show how the individual students feel disoriented and seem incapable of transforming these huge, empty spaces into a warmer place. A defeat that evokes Fredric Jameson’s analysis of postmodern hyperspace (“The cultural logic of late capitalism”): “(…) This latest mutation in space–postmodern hyperspace–has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world”.
Whereas educational institutions tend to adopt the spatial rhetoric linked to spaces of manufacturing and immaterial production, contemporary, advanced workplaces borrow, in turn, their aesthetics from places which are traditionally antinomic to productive environments.
Interiors of Google headquarters in Zurich. from Il Post
Following the idea that the longer an employee voluntarily stays at work, the more he is productive, a new trend in bureau design is increasingly updating the general model of the open plan into a further iteration, currently sold under the name of “imaginative“ or “creative” workplace. Behind this expression lie environments which are conceived to adapt to different personalities, allowing to work in a more static or nomadic way, to relax, to gather with co-workers through the integration of facilities like gyms, cafes, yoga and play courts.
The most known example is the Google Headquarters (Googleplex) whose entire effort behind the design seems to let people forget that they are entering an actual workplace.
More than an interior design, a camouflage operation, that makes the whole complex look as a bizarre collage between a domestic environment, a public city-scape, a playground for grown-ups, a college: confusing the qualities of heterogeneous environments, blurring the line between typologies and the spaces they identify.
Geek references and legends, somehow connected to the toponymy, (even “Googleplex” refers a minor character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and a generically chaotic and informal space layout, tend to underline the resemblance with a university campus, where you are used, and expected, to work long term hours.
“It’s designed almost as a living environment—it’s much more like being at a university than being in a conventional work environment.”(http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20060619/behind–the–glass–curtain)
As Googleplex is considered one of the best place to work according to a number of reports (cit. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/bestcompanies/2011/index.html) we see that the rhetoric of the management discourse, -employee manipulation through the illusion of a self-realisation through corporate work-, has found another ally: the ambiguity of space decoration.
The inclusion of furniture like lounge sofas, houseplants and lamps, alongside walls’ and floors’ bright colors schemes dissimulates an office typology behind the appearance of an idealized home, cozy and somehow responding to a personal style. “Why head home when everything you need is at work?” (cit. http://computer.howstuffworks.com/googleplex3.htm)
Interiors of Google headquarters in Zurich. from Il Post
The rhetorics of creativity as a rediscovery of an inner childish side is underlined by a parallel infantilization of taste and entertainment all over the campus: round coloured pillows, slides, retro video games. But who needs constant care and guidance more than a child?
In fact these places end up mirroring, as its corresponding physical expressions, the all arising culture of “coaching”, (increasingly promoted by contemporary management), or the practice of “supporting an individual through the process of achieving a specific personal or professional result”. Motivational speeches, devoted to the idea of self respect and the promotion of an individual lifestyle, translate into space organisation and decoration. The workplace itself is today able to guide the employee to an apparent self-realization, while improving his/her own efficiency and better fitting the companies’ goals.
The high level of personalization and apparent freedom of these places coincide with the need for “flexible, evolutive spaces”: the capacity to adapt to changes in the organic is a feature which is easily sold even by the firms which provide the interior design: “Such flexibility is highly significant, since it comes in an age where needs quickly change, technology constantly advances, staff members are added or positions are deleted.“
Google promotion of individual creativity, through the creation of a proper complex for its expression, is becoming a model for companies willing to adopt the “Don’t be evil” look, while increasing their employees productivity and market dynamism. (See Accenture Workplace 2.0, and Orange Campus). And if a complete makeover reveals too expensive, why not capitalize in the sympathy factor of “creative” employees glueing 8bit figures of post-it against the companies windows? (http://www.postitwar.com/)
An all encompassing marketing strategy and the consequent building of brand’s identity are increasingly set-up through the commercialization of the workplace’s mise en scène. By breaking down the fourth wall, under the rhetoric of nothing to hide, the company focuses on the image of the worker, that smart-naked-playful individual who is supposed to embody the spirit of the company, while becoming its voluntary prisoner.
Michela Marzano: Extension du domaine de la manipulation : De l’entreprise à la vie privée (Grasset & Fasquelle, 2008)
Luc Boltanski / Eve Chiapello: The new spirit of capitalism (Verso, 2006)
Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Post-Contemporary Interventions) (Duke University Press Books, 1990)
Paolo Virno: A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents)
Valéry Didelon: Valeur d’usage, valeur d’image: la nouvelle école d’architecture de Nantes (in Criticat magazine #8 / septembre 2011)
Maurizio Lazzarato: Les Révolutions du Capitalisme, (Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond, 2004)
Keti Chukhrov: Towards the Space of the General: On Labor Beyond Materiality and Immateriality (in: Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art – E-flux Journal, Sternberg Press 2011 )