My Cubicle In The Starchitect's Building

Despite decades of prolific building, 73-year-old Israeli architect Moshe Safdie is still best known for his first project: Habitat 67, the avant-garde housing units constructed for the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal. The building’s 354 stacked concrete cubes never revolutionized housing as many thought they would, but Safdie’s groundbreaking vision probed how to maintain pleasant aspects of suburban living, like personal gardens and multi-view windows, in a high-density urban environment. Over 7 million people visited Habitat 67 during the Exposition, which was remarkable since it was a residential project, not an extravagant “White City” like the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Nearly half a century after Habitat 67, I worked five days a week in a cubicle in Safdie’s latest high-profile creation, the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. And as I stared at a computer screen in my small slice of Safdie-dom, I wondered: What good has visionary architecture ever done for working plebes? Some of the most innovative buildings of this past century have succeeded at radically transforming cities, but have failed to disrupt the traditional layout of internal office space. Why do so-called visionaries repeatedly cement the hierarchical structure of bureaucracy on physical space, rather than challenge it?

Today, Safdie is known as something of a “starchitect,” making his otherworldly designs a part of the mainstream. The new Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (home to the world’s largest infinity pool) and the sprawling, unrealized Habitat Puerto Rico are two of the most striking examples. Starchitecture, according to some critics, is excessive and profit-driven, having spawned the “Bilbao Effect” in cities looking to attract tourist dollars. Starchitects have also been known to help dictators realize their fantasy cities. British starchitect Norman Foster’s master plan designs for Astana, the recently relocated futuristic capital of Kazakhstan, is composed of extravagant structures with little purpose besides feeding the ego of President Nazarbayev. Astana now boasts the largest tent in the world and a giant, luminescent pyramid home to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

Safdie’s style seems tamer than his celebrity architect counterparts, yet he rarely builds without a grand, transformative vision. His “Dream Island” resort will be built in 2012 on an island in Budapest situated on the Danube. A maze of canals snakes in between the luxury casino and 3,000-room hotels, and the project wouldn’t be complete without a 370-foot tall Ferris wheel so guests can marvel at the structures below. A similarly titled project in China “Golden Dream Bay” is further testament to the unspoken exclusivity underlying Safdie’s work. Set for completion in 2014, this beach resort looks like reconfigured Aztec temples stretched along the Chinese coast.

When Safdie isn’t designing luxury resorts, he has tried to make life better for white-collar workers. In the late ’80s, he lamented the “alienating and suppressive” nature of the internal working environment and, as a remedy, suggested more natural light (and even views) for all. From where I sat in my Institute of Peace cubicle, it seemed Safdie had stayed true to his credo decades later. My cubicle was 13-feet away from a window with a view of the Lincoln Memorial (only partially concealed by thick mullions). If one of my bosses left his door open, I could see the top of the Washington Monument. A tour group once walked by my desk and the guide remarked, “Even they have natural light.”

Still, architects must meet the demands of clients. In the case of the US Institute of Peace, the $186 million building was a private-public venture. “Public” as in you paid for it with your taxes and “private” as in Lockheed Martin and BP America each donated a million dollars or more to the building’s construction costs, earning them the title “Founding Corporate Partner.”

Unlike the corporate spaces of some of the building’s backers, the US Institute of Peace is not your typical office building. First and foremost, we are told, the building is a symbol and monument of “peace.” One employee even described it as a “temple.” This claim is literally interpreted in the form of a giant, abstractly configured white dove that hovers over the five-story high building. Had the building been located on Route 66 as opposed to the National Mall, postmodern architects Venturi and Brown might have classified it as a “sculptural symbol and architectural shelter,” meaning the symbol is the building itself. Also, the bird-like roof is not one-of-a-kind as the Institute would have you believe. If you look at Safdie’s portfolio, he used a nearly identical roof for his design of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010, constructed a year before the Institute building was complete.

Beneath the symbolic dove, we find the base office building: a tan concrete structure with deep-set windows set apart by two atriums or “great halls.” Stepping inside, it feels like you’re in a fish bowl. Not just because of the mammoth inward-looking atriums, but also in the way that the office windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling. It’s like being trapped in an oversized Rear Window set, but with no need for binoculars and with people doing far less interesting things. Seizing on this opportunity for symbolism, Richard Solomon, the Institute’s president, said, “The design of the new building embodies the open, transparent, and inclusionary nature of peacebuilding. It expresses the aspiration of creating a more peaceful world, and our work is designed to fulfill that goal.”

This is a building intended to inspire awe in the onlooker, yet it still functions as office space. The back staircases and carpeted hallways form the building’s inner pathways, leading the way from each department to the next. Cubicles carve out the interior space, offices line the windows, and executive offices occupy the corners. For an office, it is pleasant, but the defining characteristics of bureaucratic space remain untouched. As Safdie himself described corporate architecture in the ’80s, “Behind the glittering facades, the office landscapes are gloomy.”

Safdie first tried to rectify the state of dismal American office space back in 1985 with his plan for Columbus Circle. Having been invited to submit designs for the former site of the New York Coliseum, he revealed his design for a mega-structure that was unlike anything ever built in the city. For Safdie, it was his first attempt to build “humanistically” on a large scale, bringing natural light and open space to office interiors. Safdie saw his project as a departure from the featureless steel and glass buildings that, he said, without the base and top, were indistinguishable. To critics, Safdie’s vision for Columbus Circle “looked as if it had been dropped into New York from some alien planet.” The project was scrapped.

Safdie’s Columbus Circle was a reaction to the postwar dominance of international style as the new language of office architecture just as much as it was a reaction to the empty ornamentation of postmodernism. In his design, you can see certain parallels with the Institute of Peace; the curved atriums, floor-to-ceiling windows, and connecting bridges are Safdie’s attempts at humanizing office space. This 1945 blurb from an architectural magazine quoted in Reinhold Martin’s The Organizational Complex could’ve described Safdie’s work:

The workers in the office ‘bull pen’ are having their day, and more is being done for them. They are getting not only better light, better ventilation and better working conditions, but also improved and more cheerful surroundings.

Yet the cumulative effect produces few changes in how an average worker inhabits and interacts with her surroundings. Perhaps this is confirmed by the faulty experiments of sociologist George Mayo in the 1920s. Mayo set up shop in the Chicago Western Electric factory and altered such factors as light intensity and length of breaks in order to determine which elements increased worker productivity. Mayo found that, amongst other conditions, better lighting improved worker output. Decades later, the results of the experiments were re-examined and then discredited. Researchers determined that worker output had not increased or decreased based on external factors like light, but due to the worker’s sense that she was the subject of an experiment. This was dubbed the Hawthorne Effect.

The Hawthorne Effect has not dissuaded scientists from examining physical space to find out what makes people better workers or thinkers. A 2006 experiment looked at the relationship between capacity for abstract thinking and ceiling height. And correlations have long been made between wall color and work-style. A Wall Street Journal article went so far as to suggest it’s “possible to begin prescribing different kinds of spaces for different tasks.” That sounds great, but for most of us, workspace is handed down to us and we must adapt.

Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Neimeyer, who built Brasilia and contributed to the design of the UN Headquarters in Manhattan said, “Architecture has always been directed to the upper class, and things haven’t changed. Nowadays there are almost no creative projects dedicated to improving the life of those who don’t have money… But I insist that the answer to this change is not architecture. It is revolution.”

White-collar workers might not be at the fore of Niemeyer’s revolution, but the attempts to mold office space into some type of utopia, while seemingly well intentioned, make me uncomfortable. Just like calling co-workers “teammates” and a boss your “team leader,” there is something dishonest about attempts to subtly alter work environments to engender whatever qualities are valued in workers these days. Perhaps this is why even visionary buildings like the US Institute of Peace can radically transform city landscapes, but on the inside, the office space comes across as mere tinkering with old formulas intended to bolster worker morale.

Leah Caldwell lives in Washington DC and is writing an ill-timed travel guide to Damascus. She writes about the Syrian media here.

Institute of Peace photo by M. Fitzsimmons; Marina Bay Sands photo by Someformofhuman; Rabin Center photo by Sambach; all via Wikimedia Commons.