One of the best and regrettably hardest to find scenes from Jaques Tati's timeless film Playtime (above) is where Hulot - the bumbling and sympathy-laden hero of this brave new world - attempts to navigate a maze of office cubicles on his thankless mission around a modernist identikit Paris. The sameness, symmetry and intractable efficiency of the constructions of these new spaces make his journey confusing and impossible, stripped as it is of naturalistic and humanistic symbols and pointers.
Tati was prescient in his vision of a world of cubiclisation and also in our reaction to it and feeling towards it. Playtime was released in 1967 only seven years after the invention of what was arguably the very first office cubicle system - the Herman Miller Action Office. Herman Miller were giants of modernist furniture design, most famously as the manufacturers of Eames furniture but one of their lesser celebrated innovations was the Action Office, from which all modern cubicles can be traced.
Prior to the Action Office, most workplaces followed a 'bullpen' format - a militarised arrangement of open desks with offices at the periphery of the floor housing managers who could see the regimented lower workers by leaning out of their door.
The aim of the Action Office - and subsequent cubicles - was to lend a degree of privacy and peace to individual workers - the illusion of their own 'room' but taking up significantly less space, at lesser expense and without undermining the hierarchy of established corporations. Business innovations of the post-war period and the opening up of the business world to women meant that mangers had learned that a degree of autonomy could be rewarding and that a slight de-regimentisation of the body of workers could lead to higher productivity as the impression of personal space opened up the power of choice and initiative for the individual worker.
The modular, personalisable nature of the Action Office was endemic of modernist design. In twenty or so pieces, a working environment could be built specific to any individual and their job and workload. It could be reused, cycled, disassembled and reassembled elsewhere for no additional cost but still gave the user a sense of control and individuality in their working environment. That in turn translated into a feeling that management considered the individual worker trustworthy and important. But, much like Tati, even at the time there was criticism. In fact, the designer of the much more successful Action Office II, George Nelson, disowned himself from it, writing in a letter:
One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for "employees" (as against individuals), for "personnel," corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.
Above: IDEO's Dilbert Cubicle
We know how well parodied the cubicle has been since and we know that new, hi-tech employers (like Google below) have sought to distance themselves from the 'cube farm' of the 20th century as far as possible. To some (myself included) the cubicle is a symbol of surrender - the willingness to surrender true choice and freedom about your working life and it's habits
But the cubicle has another curious effect - by presenting the worker with their 'own' workspace - enclosed and customisable, it presents an alternative or parallel to the home where, like the home, the need to obey the rules and rituals of others in the environment are hidden behind a veneer of ownership and individuality. In this way, the cubicle perhaps served to reinforce the work/home divide - there are two spaces that are yours, one in which you work, one in which you live.
The cubicle, against it's designed intention, did nothing to break and free the hierarchy of the traditional corporate structure - apart form perhaps the notable exception of breaking some of the racial and sexual prejudices in the business environment. Essentially, it served eased the tensions that the nature of communication technology necessitated.
The cubicle came near the beginning o the end of large corporate structures. As transport and communication infrastructure across the developed world grew, flights, cars and telephones became cheap and efficient. In this world, the most convenient office model involved a community of commuters who worked in a single building for ease of interaction. The car eased this setup by allowing for these commuters from a wide area and the telephone allowed for inter-office communication between these large structures and between people within them. One of the major effects of this mentality was the skyscraper - the most potent symbol of corporate mentality. But as the number of people who could work in one building grew with profit, the sense of importance for the individual worker shrank. The cubicle was the solution - by literally blocking others from view and hearing, the worker would gain a sense of individuality and importance.
Part of the genius of Tati's playtime is how he mocks the ideology of the relatively young modernist architectural movement. His characters move in straight lines and ninety-degree turns and conform to movement through space as envisioned by Le Corbusier and friends with no recourse to basic human nature. The cubicle was if anything an advanced and serious version of this parody. Designers and employers are under no illusion now that it's possible to conform the desires and behaviour of employees by designing lines, angles and arrangements in a certain way. However, by physically reordering the workspace - presenting a user with illusions of individuality and choice it's possible to mitigate against these desires and any potential disquiet.
What then happens if we take the same normalised mentality of the cubicle resident but free it from this space? What happens when it becomes more expensive for a business to own a large office with furniture and hundreds or employees than to hire distant freelancers through the web for specific tasks? The menial and repetitive, devaluation hidden behind a veil of individuality and personalisation but in a new type of space.