How Offices, Schools and Restaurants Benefit from Urban Design Inside Buildings

Klaus Philipsen
Community Architect via Sustainable Cities Collective
July 16, 2015

Uber design by SHoP Architects The building is designed as a kind of vertical city, divided into "neighborhoods" with a circulation spine on the Third Street side called "the Commons." [...] the idea is really that every neighborhood, every engineered neighborhood is connected to this interior street called the Commons." (Christopher Sharples, Principal SHoP Architects)
Uber design by SHoP Architects The building is designed as a kind of vertical city, divided into “neighborhoods” with a circulation spine on the Third Street side called “the Commons.” […] the idea is really that every neighborhood, every engineered neighborhood is connected to this interior street called the Commons.” (Christopher Sharples, Principal SHoP Architects)
It has been said that Central Park is New York’s “living room.” New technology firms and 21st century schools compete in creating collaborative workplaces forming “neighborhoods” connected by “streets” leading to “commons” or “town squares.” Flexibility and adaptability are king, blurring the lines made by walls until inside is out and outside is in.

Nature is part of this game, first with buildings set in nature (the office park) and then with nature in buildings, like in the huge tent-like structure proposed by Bjarke Ingels (BIG) for Google in Mountainview.

It can be confusing to follow the many iterations of forms, from urban to suburban back to urban, from undesignated spaces to specialized spaces back to undesignated ones. Closed offices open up, then fill with cubicles, then become open offices again.

We move from specialized classrooms to open classrooms, to flexible learning studios with moveable walls and learning streets. Houses with rooms along hallways become open plan houses, combine to form McMansions with some of both, then collapsing into all-in-one micro units.

What does it tell us about the state of society, technology, planning and design if we use urban design terms to describe interior space arrangements and room names to describe urban design?

This article is an attempt to get to some of the bigger developments that are behind the relationships described above and the terms we use to describe them. There appears to be little literature on this except for what is written about office, residential or school design specifically. Thus, my explanations about the suspected cause and effect for this new terminology and its relationship to societal trends remain anecdotal, speculative and explorative.

The terms neighborhood, street, commons or community create associations with cities. When evoked to describe the insides of office complexes, malls, and schools, one can assume that cities, urban “place-making” and the interaction of citizens in the use of urban spaces is supposed to serve as a model for organizing buildings. What is it that makes it attractive to use urban planning terms for building design? What patterns and values encountered in the city do building designers aspire to?

In a time before the urban renaissance, workspace designers evoked the language of the outdoors, opened offices up to form “office landscapes” (Bürolandschaften).

You can thank the open office movement for starting that conversation, turning concepts such as collaboration and transparency into convention. But the new buzzwords on every workplace designer’s tongue are incubation, cross-pollination, symbiosis and co-working–concepts that are causing even more walls to come down and hierarchies to flatten further. In today’s parlance, the corner office is no longer seen as a prize. (Entrepreneur)

The flattened hierarchies have especially attracted the new technology giants Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Google and now Uber vying for the “creatives.” The random gathering spaces with ping pong tables, date boards or pinball machines have become legend along with the talk at the water cooler. In fact, IT companies were invited when the Department of Defense convened thought leaders to brainstorm the elements of the “21st Century School”. It was the leaders from Cisco and similar industries who brought their criteria for the modern workspace to education. Flexibility, connectivity, and collaboration are the buzzwords that went straight from their mouth into DoD’s Ed specs for their many schools on military bases.

Formal and informal areas are accommodated— ranging from traditional whole class instruction, smaller group project areas, quiet areas, and a casual lounge environment. In addition, support for teachers is provided with staff planning, development and meeting areas. The focus of the Neighborhood spaces is to reinforce collaboration, and project‐based learning. Technology will be integrated throughout the spaces. A Neighborhood includes a hierarchy of different sizes of instructional spaces. The Learning Hub is sized for larger gatherings rather than one single class and is central to the Neighborhood. (Department of Defense school program)

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