We asked 13 designers show us the future of the office. We got a reimagining of what it means to work.
By Zach Bowman
November 28, 2018
We are made to work. Sure, our thoughts might wander to the languid summer afternoons of our youth, we may pine for the empty hours of vacation, or resent the grinding minutes of our ceaseless weekdays. But humans are most fulfilled when we are at task. The desire to produce is a gift of genetics, an heirloom passed from parent to child across our eons. It is the ceaseless engine behind our dominance as a species.
Stop and consider the fuel. Tally the hours spent in the arms of a lover, the days wandering a far-flung metropolis, holding your father’s hand, being immersed in Tolstoy or Steinbeck—the sum total will pale in comparison to the ocean of time put toward earning a wage. We spend more of our conscious lives at work than doing anything else. The common number is 90,000 hours. One-third of our total existence.
No wonder occupation is wrapped up in our sense of agency. Jobs often define us, place us in history and society, and become a shorthand for who we are. Especially for creative types. When it’s good, our work is an expression of all our skill and experience. Who can verbalize the brilliant wholeness of seeing a project to completion? The feeling of a final period on an essay, the last stroke of a paint brush, or definitive swipe of a plane. It goes beyond pride.
But right now, we are struggling. Struggling to understand the evolving nature of work, and our growing dissatisfaction with it in the digital age. There hasn’t been such a drastic, irreversible change since the Industrial Revolution. And, like the generation caught in the wake of that great shift, we wonder what exactly the future of work will mean for us. For our friends. For our children.
Looking for answers, Surface asked a dozen forward-looking designers and architects to imagine the workspace of tomorrow. The guidelines for this commission were intentionally lax, allowing for maximum creativity. The brief: “We want to see a visionary, provocative idea about where and how we will work in the future. Everything from sketches to physical models are fair game. Don’t think five years ahead. Think fifty.”
The results range from the academic to abstract. Some of them, like “Labor Galleries” from Andy and Dave, feel acutely optimistic, emphasizing collaboration and cohesion. Other proposals, namely the brilliant and biting “Gestalt Intelligence Device” by Material Lust, express our anxiety over the push for productivity and profit. These designers seemed to agree on only one thing: the profound effect that work has on our quality of life.
So what will tomorrow’s office look like? Delightfully unrecognizable or achingly familiar? Stark and utilitarian or warm and nurturing? Will it recall the communal augmented reality of Rafael de Cárdenas’s “At Large Indoors,” or be constructed from the wild, biodynamic materials of Wang & Söderström’s “Ultra black 3kxPorouSuperFoam”? Perhaps a bit of both. Or something else entirely.
(Left: Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs building in suburban New Jersey photographed by Weston Wells during a renovation by Alexander Gorlin Architects.)
Labor Galleries: A Space for Work in a Post-Work Economy
By Andy and Dave Studios
Automation and artificial intelligence could make the worker economy obsolete, while preserving the workplace as an IRL social space in an age of super-advanced network telecommunication. When the virtual realm becomes the primary arena of interaction, physical spaces offer a novel alternative.
“Labor Galleries” is a meandering network of linked physical spaces, occupied by communities of workers. Any gallery could be a space where the hyper-specificity of online community-crafting is physically reproduced. The basic elements of each gallery can be customized to align with its community.
If post-scarcity humans no longer need to “go to work” to survive economically, these communal areas could develop into an entirely autonomous cultural realm, where work is done for its own sake.
By Valerio Dewalt Train Associates
Modern commutes are often lengthy and even harmful. Studies show that the average American worker’s daily commute is about 30 minutes each way, but for more than 3.6 million of them, the trip to the office is at least 90 minutes. This time yields little of redeeming value. Longer commutes have also been linked to negative health effects, including obesity, high blood pressure, and depression.
UNWIND recalibrates work-life balance by improving the journey in between. The plan is a two-part strategy, which redesigns the entry to communal office spaces and takes advantage of commuter rail lines in major cities. First, an isolated pathway allows commuters to disconnect from work as they exit the office. Second, those with longer commutes may dedicate their transit time to various forms of self-care. The result reframes commuting time to promote—rather than undermine—the working person’s well-being.
By Kin & Company
The buildings we occupy tend to bind our freedom, both physically and psychologically. The workspace itself is designed to commodify our time, our thoughts, our lives. We propose a future in which the workspace will bias the personal narrative of the individual, performing more emotionally than physically, with the architecture serving as a canvas for the fractured collage of memories an occupant projects onto it. Space will be anonymous, illuminated, and transparent, void of extraneous details and overt architectural elements, and limited only by the malleable and textured experiences that have shaped our lives.
At Large Indoors
By Rafael de Cárdenas/Architecture at Large
Seeking to restore habitability to a world in crisis, our workplace is a communal augmented reality. Modeled after the ruins of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum, the endlessly expansive interior is navigated via virtual reality orbs. From the central corkscrew, branches sprawl into manifold domains of ever-changing possibilities. In this realm, we spawn into digital avatars that are protean and semiotic, rather than simply anthropomorphic, like radically advanced emojis. Here, we are entirely mobile, animating the fluently ambulatory space through constant navigation of its terrain. Mobility is the means of productivity; distraction is essential. Spontaneous encounters, the discoveries we make in our incessant peregrinations, are our currency.
By Bureau V
In the coming decades, handheld devices will establish a new paradigm of working intelligence. Individuals will become socially trained for rapid, reactionary, and quick-response modes of communication, consumption, and production. Subsequently, a state of distraction will become the dominant and accepted form of contemporary life.
As a result, business innovators will work to hone and champion a sprint mode of production, while seeking to move beyond the downsides of the distracted state. In this effort, Neutrals will become coveted tools in workplace environments. Combining soft material comfort with the electromagnetic, signal-blocking Faraday cage, Neutrals offers the office environment a focused respite for 20- to 30-minute bursts of concentrated intellectual and creative time.
Often clad in gauche colors, Neutrals’s open mesh design, with visual and acoustic continuity, allows for a sense of connection to the workspace environment, while its spatial isolation creates an opportunity to engage in the ever-elusive state of prolonged concentration.
By Concrete Cat
In the distant future, nuclear Armageddon has ravaged the planet but the office worker soldiers on. The office is temporary, moving; the office is everywhere. With our modular and versatile office system, any derelict space can be your next pop-up office space!
Component 1: Sanctuaire – Safe Haven
Climb inside the warm embrace of Sanctuaire for a brief respite from the world. An integrated Faraday cage gives you a break from the constant bombardment of electromagnetic fields and radio waves. Take a moment to recharge, uninterrupted.
Includes: Radiant heating, soft amber lighting, solar recharge flowers, interior and exterior lounge seating, and ports for chaining to other office elements.
Component 2: Bureau Aujourd’hui – Office Today
Your mobile office has inductive charging, data ports, solar flower mount, and adjustable heat. A moveable office, pick it up and drop it off where ever you like and claim a chunk of space for yourself. Comes with an adjustable shopping cart mount for the office worker on the go!
Component 3: Du Pied le Pierre – Warm Feet
You’ve walked for miles with a burden. Slide your feet into a luxurious thermal stone to keep you warm and toasty during a nuclear winter. Powered by solar arrays and can be linked with the rest of the Avenir Concret office system.
Wang & Söderström
Note from the year 2072:
Today’s office represents a response to the horror of open workspaces in the early 2000s. The revolutionary introduction of porous structures during the 2040s allowed us to create a different kind of workplace—one where privacy and connectivity are intertwined just so, giving workers a personal space that is also perfectly incorporated. (Among our most popular products to date is the Ultra black 3kxPorouSuperFoam, a structure so dense it makes any outside connection impossible for the persons inhabiting it.) This latest evolution of the porous office, complete with liquid-dense thinking tanks and transparent, netlike meeting structures, can provide flexible spatial situations for any company.
Ynna Mit Head of Marketing 3kxPorouSuperFoam
By Studio Giancarlo Valle
The meteoric rise (and eventual fatigue) of branded co-working spaces will give way to a new, non-prescriptive space that is once again personal, idiosyncratic, and authentic. We will crave what our increasing digital work lacks: tactility, personality, presence, and intimacy. The vacuum of the internet will allow for a more decorative physical world to flourish. Flexibility and openness will be replaced with specificity and purpose. Work environments will once again be soulful and will connect emotionally with those who use them.
The Working Gallery
By No. 12
No. 12’s concept focuses on a cylindrical working building with 360-degree outward-facing views. It follows the idea that landscape vistas satisfy an intrinsic human need to be attached to nature in order to ensure good mental health and well-being.
The future of the workspace should not be initially focused on how the office is decorated but on how it makes you feel. It is proven that stagnant indoor environments are linked to health risks, and the fact that people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors is a key factor when considering the future working environment.
A Palladian cylindrical structure of generous proportion, “The Working Gallery” contains six towers rising through the core of the building, each clad in water- and air-purifying plantings.
These six towers comprise the core structure of a multidisciplinary work station linked back to Frigyes Karinthy’s theory of six degrees of separation. “The Working Gallery” would be tailored to all businesses, promoting cross-professional interaction.
The arched external framework celebrates beauty, symmetry, and proportion, steering away from the generic, cubic, and cramped workspaces of today. Repeating rows of arches frame every view to the landscape beyond.
– Cylindrical form allows constant outward views to greenery and landscaping.
– Central cores to towers, clad in greenery and water elements to promote wellness and personal well-being.
– Expansive ceiling heights allow for a greater sense of space.
– Future to be focused on generosity of space to promote positive working environments. Moving away from the current small square box office mentality.
– Central hub as a future development of the co-working environment. These spaces will be one large destination that will deliver and support all personal and professional needs for multiple businesses all under one roof.
– The future of the workspace should not be initially focused on how it is decorated but on how it makes you feel.
– 6 core towers have been selected to create the structure because of the theory by Frigyes Karinthy of 6 degrees of separation. The idea that “The Working Gallery” would be tailored to all businesses, promoting cross profession interaction.
– The responsibility of an employer or business will be equally focused towards personal well-being as it is towards professional delivery of work. Due to the ever increasing 24/7 working schedule, creating happy and well staff is proven to benefit businesses.
– Cleaner and brighter spaces that are warm and inviting with flexibility to suit employees’ varying and personal working styles.
– The central 6 core towers would be clad in air-purifying planting. It is proven that stagnant indoor environments allow pollutants to build up creating a health risk. With people spending more than 90% of their time indoors it is a key factor to consider when discussing the future of the working environment.
In 50 years, we’ll share the world with our children, grandchildren, and possibly great-grandchildren. We’ll work only 10 hours per week. Renewable energy will preserve the planet’s balance, allowing us to travel to the antipodes in minutes. But what about our work?
Surely, many of the jobs that we currently know will be replaced by bots. Still, according to futurist and theorist Kevin Kelly, inefficiency and non-rational decisions can never be replaced. As a result, jobs in the creative field will continue to exist, although in different ways.
By PARA Project
Balls in the air bumble above. They form a curious, cloud-like conference room ceiling; replacing the old one that finally broke, the fragments of which are memorialized in the floor. Hosting the room, the balloons vary in subtle ways to house and hide all requisite utility—an infrastructural surface, providing light, sound, imaging, and more. Collectively they gather in levity over the common table for conference and counsel, celebrating the diversity of ideas and workforce below. More ideas, more plans, more voices. More balls in the air.
The Death of “Real Estate”
By WRNS Studio
Transparent and approachable security technologies will democratize access to space, and the division of public and private will be a function of invisible boundaries rather than real estate. We will be free to work wherever and to cross borders that were previously impassable. As such, spaces will become interchangeable tools. Individuals will seek to represent themselves and establish their identities through their chosen surroundings—be it a café, the penthouse of a glass office tower, or a remote cabin in the woods. All will be available as spaces for work, navigated by coordinates rather than ownership. New rituals of work will arise as the daily selection of space drives new experiences and delight. Options for spatial isolation also create opportunities to engage in the ever-elusive state of prolonged concentration.
Gestalt Intelligence Device
Brought to you by Material Lust
Be your own boss! Never go to the office again! Now with your own personal GID!
The Gestalt Intelligence Device harnesses the computing and processing powers of your brain when you’re not using it! Just sit down and put on the easy-to-wear GID—you’ll be amazed by the feeling of renting out your own brain matter!
GID connects totally painlessly* to your cerebral cortex through skin membrane contacts, then wirelessly transmits to the IVAH Data Farm via your iPhone XXX. At IVAH your brain’s 86 million neurons mesh into a network of millions of other brains, all working together to process complex calculations. The processing power of the IVAH data center is leased out to universities, emerging nations, military industrial complexes, election oversight committees, and counter-intelligence agencies around the world! Amazing! For each hour of rented brain space, you will be paid generously in cash—and you’ll never have to leave the comfort of your own home!
*Side effects include but are not limited to: headache, nausea, vomiting, inner-ear euphoria, cardiac arrhythmia, death, and moderate to severe amnesia.
“The Future of the Work Place” is presented in partnership with Manhattan West, an eight-acre, seven-million-square-foot mixed-use development with a two-acre landscaped public park on the West Side of Manhattan. When it opens in full in 2020, it will include some of the most modern workplaces in the world.