Plastic-Profit Offices (Architects as Nerve-Workers)
How Resilient is your Organisation?
Melbourne University’s Paolo Tombesi’s fine-tooth comb through the rise and fall of Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS) in Capital Gains and Architectural Losses: The Transformative Journey of Caudill Rowlett Scott (1948–1994) provides a relevant starting point when looking at the make-up of today’s profit-driven architectural office. It pieces together the beginnings of CRS and their initial attraction to school architecture, their diversification into wider disciplines, the effects of a Saudi petrodollar injection, its public offering and ultimately their collapse and buyout by HOK (formerly Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum).
CRS finding their place in 1950s unabashed American capitalism.
CRS’s evangelical quest for growth began with their early specialisation in schools, planned to coincide with America’s post-war (post-GI Bill) school-building program to rectify its shortage of public education facilities. Following these productive years, Tombesi (2006, pp. 156) says, CRS eventually found that ‘architecture had an intrinsic cash-flow problem that hindered the implementation of a proper self-funded business growth plan.’ Hence, their humble office that began above a grocery shop took to (2006, pp. 163) ‘finance-design-construct-and-operate infrastructural projects that … could provide a solid alternative to the fluctuations of the building industry’ because as the discussions within the partnership eventually concluded ‘…an external injection of capital was needed’ if growth was to occur.
Diversification of services and expansion into other industries is commonplace within the evolution of large multinational companies. Take HOK’s current counter-crisis motto “how resilient is your organisation?”. HOK’s resilience can be seen in telling keywords of their website metadata: ‘fast track global real estate facility advance strategies consulting corporate tower high rise education university government healthcare jail laboratory stadium high performance post occupancy evaluation business call center work’. All of them reserve an acute interest in expansion/diversification in general, four of them in particular (education university government healthcare) reveal their cognisance of the investments of government.
In what seems similar to CRS’s intimate knowledge of school building coinciding with Eisenhower’s progressivism of the day (and also their opening of a small branch in Washington entitled ‘Office for Government Affairs’), HOK use a “trend watch” (just their delicious account) to keep abreast of Obama’s legislative moves (such as this, this and this). (I wonder then
--if policy and specialisation are by this means connected
--why the Department of Defense isn’t a major provider for firms seeking to build capital muscle? If it is, it’s not publicised.)
Petrodollars for everyone! CRS partners in ‘74 at the Initial Public Offering of CRS, American Stock Exchange. (in ‘75 HOK too wins a 2.44€ billion contract for King Saudi University in Saudi Arabia)
What this mercantile inclination risks is
--as is the case with many privately held firms
--the potential of design quality being subordinated to their search for surplus. Remember that HOK is not “public”, but CRS was, and yet one could be mistaken in believing that the old CRS mission (2006, pp.157) to ‘seek high levels of profitability as part of its responsibilities towards shareholders’, is now, to fulfill its responsibility towards HOK’s own bank account.
Click here to watch Life At HOK (tumblr. has not permitted video embedding yet)
Watch Life At HOK.
When asked what a typical day at HOK would entail, the…
man in the checked shirt says, ‘going to marketing, reading the paper’, followed by…
a suited-up man saying, ‘a clear agenda on my part’. Then…
Riccardo (blue-shirted and starched) enlightens us to the fact that he was welcomed with open arms (flown to Brazil after having started only two weeks earlier) after suggesting that the company should expand to the South American markets, because ‘things rise and fall’. [Suggesting that any proposal offered for the sole purpose of economic gain get you places around there]
Michelle (yet more evidence of why latent anti-American sentiment grows) says ‘at HOK, you get to run’ [an insulting joke to the sedentary architect]
Pam (down the back from interiors) is joyful of being given the “freedom” to use ‘any laminate colour’. Tagged on the end as it fades to under her breath, she adds ‘as long as it functions for the client’. [We presume she shared a laugh off camera with the interviewer].
Colin (as the world sits on his lap) says that, ‘a lot of really genuine work, that really is sustainable, is good to see.’ [Colin plays the urban green-collar hard sell]. It’s obvious as…
Jodi (a generic-looking advance strategies consultant, armoured behind a place-less business park) says, the ‘whole sustainability thing’ spearheads HOK’s design agenda: ‘A healthier planet, a healthier building (then with a strange pause, a quick breath and a guilty look to the side, she says), healthier people, better work-life balance, all those sorts of things…’ [One can’t help but notice that the pause is a recognition that ‘better work-life balance’ is perhaps the most difficult demand of a client’s brief to resolve these days]
Kate (a graphic designer), took delight in the completion of a community project. [Judging by the photos the work appears to be polar to the sorts of run-of-the-mill, client-driven projects HOK does]
Toby, whose taken a liking to Hong Kong, confesses that his ‘office is (his) mobile phone’.
Valery, under the title of The Culture of HOK reveals ‘that there are some core values that haven’t changed in 55 years’.
Bill (the president, who is forming his cult of personality with a pair of transparent glasses) uses the example of ‘mid-western values’ to explain how ‘everyone is pulling for everyone else’ in an environment that ‘can be tough’, and yet if you slide back the video a minute or so…
Larry (a design director) explains that there are ‘39 nationalities represented’ in the London office alone.
Reception with No Appointments Receiving Nobody for No-one, Nowhere.
This runs like a scripted marketing ploy where you forget your watching an architecture firm, and it becomes something more like a wee-hour infomercial, with a cast full over-selling pitchwo(men), for a product only the depressed/rich take interest in but you sit there, forgetting how you should be repulsed by this. Whatever happened to sensibilities or (dare I say) art (or better still dirt) in architecture? This reminds me of Gibson’s discourteous description of Singapore way back in ‘93 and how he says Changi Airport ‘seemed to possess no more resolution than some early VPL world. There was no dirt whatsoever; no muss, no furred fractal edge to things.’
And so if it is not ‘mid-western values’ drawn from the very beginnings of HOK in St. Louis in 1955, and if, as the interviewer says, ‘for such a large company I feel that there is very little beaucracy’, how then does HOK run itself? Surely there is, as Tombesi (2006, pp. 160) found at CRS (in ‘76) an ‘internal quality control entity to monitor production routines’, especially as there is such incessant attention on turnover and that even, as Valery revealed, its core values ‘haven’t changed in 55 years’.
Scientifically Arranged Nerve-Workers
Owen Hatherley’s incursion into the Aesthetics of Civil Enforcement somehow fills the middle of all of this
--between the private structure of the “corporate” architecture firm and the plastic humanisation of their front-ends (ie. HOKlife, Populous formerly HOK Sport)
--which is essentially the work they produce (eg. 1, 2, 3). Their work is all ‘glass and steel atrium(s), all criss-cross trusses and 24 colours/Blairite aesthetics/chrome armrail(s) and … streamlined grille(s)’/all today’s class war.
Infinite Reflections (Limitless/Bottomless-ness): The distorted Winter Garden at the World Financial Centre, New York City.
Graham, Dan. 1991. Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube. Mirrored Glass, Wood, Stainless Steel (Photo by Dan Graham)
Dan Graham’s work could be described too as all “glass and steel”, yet this is precisely what forms his fascination with “corporatised” environments
--in particular the corporate make-overs of open public spaces (using gardens and atria). His work claims that these spaces not only contribute to the slow suburbanisation of New York, but also attempt to have a supervised, semi-public green space, to keep the city occupied and “turning-over”. Thus Graham’s work investigates a triunity of “architecture, urban space and power”, the latter related to the corporation’s re-territorialisation of the urban landscape of New York.
Langlands and Bell, 1990. Logo Works: Unilever, Hamburg Wood. Paint, Lacquer Glass. 90 x 90 x 15cm. “I think I see a pagan symbol”
In a similar way, Langlands and Bell’s, Logo Works dissects corporate headquarters revealing what they call a ”super logo”
--a public image strategy that also reveals corporate intentions to employees. Even aside from the artist’s intentions, the works leave an open-endedness where one is propelled to ask, “is that a coded message I can see in there (or is that a pagan symbol that is revealing to me system riddled with ritualistic behaviours and a work-life disfigured)? If the conditions in these spaces are advanced applications of what Ford laid out in 1922 (ie. Ford (2004, pp.80)…the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker and the reduction of his movements to a minimum. He does as nearly as possible only one thing with only one movement.’) then the inside of “super logo’s”
--these “corporate intentions”
--have given way to what Kwinter (2008, pp.115) calls the new, more refined, “invasive reality of nerve-work.”
Nerve-work, it seems, is becoming more prevalent when materialising architecture as Building Information Modeling packages make their way to every privatised personal computer. What BIM software does is further ground the sedentary architect to the point, as Kwinter (2008, pp.115) describes, where they do “what the majority of humans do now…, essentially watch, discern, correct and respond…” This anatomic-tyranny of the workplace (“from muscle-work to nerve-work”) would remind Will Self of his aim to rekindle humanity’s lost affair with space (‘We don’t know where we are’). Most specifically his explanation that it was through the exertion of corporeal forces that the counterchange of place occurred (he uses the example of horse-back riding), and that “changing places” today (from post-steam locomotive onwards) means that we are mediated by barely any physical exertion (if none at all).
Caudill, Bill, 1971. “The Architect is a Team” from Architecture by Team. The Architect is a (“scientifically arranged”) Team.
The following is an intriguing look at the lengths capitalists go to optimise environments (something like CRS’s (or HOK’s [If it is, it’s not publicised]) “internal quality control entity to monitor production routines”)
Ford (2004, pp.118) ’One point that is absolutely essential to high capacity, as well as to humane production, is a clean, well-lighted and well-ventilated factory. Our machines are placed very close together
--every foot of floor space in the factory carries, of course, the same overhead charge. The consumer must pay the extra overhead and the extra transportation involved in having machines even six inches farther apart than they have to be. We measure on each job the exact amount of room that a man needs; he must not be cramped
--that would be waste. But if he and his machine occupy more space than is required, that also is waste. This brings our machines closer together than in probably any other factory in the world. To a stranger they may seem piled right on top of one another, but they are scientifically arranged, not only in the sequence of operations, but to give every man and every machine every square inch that he requires and, if possible, not a square inch, and certainly not a square foot, more than he requires. Our factory buildings are not intended to be used as parks.’
It could be said that today’s profit-driven architectural office operates with a number of devices to maintain expansion and to fulfill missions. The problem is that this plastic humanisation of the front-end, contradicts the scientific arrangement that underpins the office out the back. Soft-bureaucracy is the means by which core-values can stay the same and old regimes can evolve to more profound levels. Now, doing architecture means just doing nerve-work.
Yet still employees are forever non-reactionary. Why? Because as Koolhaas (2004) admits, labour-theft architects are all just “…marooned in a never-ending casual Friday…”
Ford, H., 2004 . My Life and Work. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
Koolhaas, Rem, 2004. “Junkspace” in Content. Köln: Taschen. pp.162-171.
Kwinter, S., 2008. Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture. Barcelona: Actar.
Tombesi, P., 2006 “Capital Gains and Architectural Losses: The Transformative Journey of Caudill Rowlett Scott (1948–1994)” in The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 11, No. 2. London: Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Routledge, pp.145-168.
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