It is day 6 of 'lock down'. With school and presentations held online, I was working to reconfigure my A0 sized panels to fit the PowerPoint slide aspects ratio. While preparing for the presentation, however, I was interrupted by the intensifying thuds on my ceiling, presumably caused by neighbours above working out. Seconds later, I overhear commentaries of the weather coming from someone else’s balcony. These are interesting times; measures reminiscent of war are being put in place even in the absence of machineries and bullets. Across the globe, people are forced to take whatever outside activities they were engaging in into their homes. As shops, offices, and eateries close, we adapt by window shopping online, creating our little office at home, learning to cook a bit better, and keeping ourselves fit with the help of YouTube or virtual group workouts. Essentially, no one is spared from having to cope emotionally, and having to make constraints to our daily lives within however many square meters of house space we have. While all hopes are pinned on the eventual and rapid decline of the spread of the virus, it is also prudent to remain pragmatic with the possible outcome of a delayed and long-drawn battle, and that certain measures may remain even at the end of this pandemic. As designers, it is imperative for us to reconsider the ways we perceive the nature of a dwelling unit which at present does not cater to such multifarious and complex social activities. How then may we respond to spatial considerations for a possible future that will never be the same?
For many people during this time, the home necessarily serves as a work and learning space amongst many other things. It is a reality that our residences are often unable to accommodate the typical office space that the majority are accustomed to; no office cubicles, or large meeting rooms to host a number of people. Yet, with the shift to work from home, we are beginning to see that perhaps our spatial understanding of what an office or home is must be re-evaluated.
The mainstream approach to a functionalist office design dates back to the industrial period. With the rise of manufacturing industries and the spatial manifestations of factories, offices became the staple for control and hierarchical establishments. The Johnson Wax building, by Frank Lloyd Wright, was an early typology of offices that has influenced the contemporary corporate operations and structures. The open plan concept that hosted a multitude of workers divided by class (blue collared vs. white collared), whilst being overseen by managers were designed primarily to increase work efficiency. This was further popularised by Frederick Taylor. The division of working classes were enforced by the presence of offices, wherein white-collared workers were placed in pristine conditions, separate from the blue-collared workers. Even in a post-Fordism economy today, such linear workflows and rigid operations are still being implemented.
Technological advancements and a more fluid understanding of the workplace, the spatial responses to offices have become more versatile. No longer are workers bound by tethering and landlines; the rise of portable devices, wireless connectivity, cloud spaces essentially negate any need for people to be tied to a space. The Interpolis in Tilburg, The Netherlands served as an example that spearheaded the renewed understanding of the workplace as an 'activity-based working' environment, where more importance was given to the social interactions between people at work, rather than being determined by a physical space. Employees were not assigned a fixed place in the office, and were free to move and hold meetings and discussions wherever. Indeed, in a world where we have easy access to the internet, mobility and connectivity have increased drastically, and the idea that a physical space determines the office is rather out-dated.
Imagine a world where the 'home' is not just defined as a space for eating and resting, but is also an office, a school, a gym, perhaps a clinic. “Small office, Home office” or SoHo, for short, is indeed a spatial typology that would see a growing relevance to people. Though this design typology had been around for some time, it is far from being ‘mainstream’. It appears to cater to only a specific strata or demographic of people, especially those participating in the gig economy. However, with the majority of people working from home now, it points to the fact that there is a great deal of possibility for offices to be decentralized into the individual’s home. Virtual spaces like Zoom seem to have replaced the physical spaces, and perhaps with more sophisticated improvements, these virtual spaces could become even more seamless. As designers, we too have to begin considering typologies similar to that of SoHo in response to the ever-changing needs and dynamics of our societies. In putting forth the idea that the workspace is now decentralised to homes, it is not simply about increasing physical isolation - indeed, barring any safety concerns, employees should be free to meet up with fellow colleagues at a common space like a cafe, or shared workspaces should they desire physical interaction. Rather, it is the consideration for creating a conducive environment for a new lifestyle.
Following the 9/11 attacks, airport security stepped up and cockpit access is no longer permitted to passengers; a part of the world was never the same again. There will come a day hailed as 'post-pandemic', and as we wait upon normal to return to us, could we begin to reconsider what 'normal' really means? Perhaps in this time when the world is being so massively shaken, designers may adopt a forward-thinking response for how we imagine spaces and functions, and to radically consider the spatial divisions that exist between resting, living, working, learning, and playing. Homes may have to expand (spatially and programmatically), public spaces take on an even more important role. And perhaps work spaces will no longer limited to traditional workflow, but take on more flexible roles. Even if “normal” has long gone past us, we can still hope on the creative minds to adapt to this changing world.