Stream Lab

The rise of the cool office

Google office, Los Angeles © Benny Chan - Fotoworks and Clive Wilkinson Architects

The office includes both a piece of furniture and space dedicated to work, it is also defined in opposition to the private sphere of housing, it opens as social and cultural scene. Many businesses in the new digital economy to communicate their workspaces. The atmosphere that emerges is an open place, where everyone is free, cool and fun. Cool Office of the trend allows companies to retain employees and ensure the best conditions and beyond the workspace, to convey an image of benevolent enterprise.

The Stream Lab is PCA-STREAM’s research and development laboratory, editor of the book-magazine Stream.

Contemporary office design is on the forefront of change. The twenty-first century company is looking for new forms of collaboration through the design of their spaces, which subsequently reflects their image. With economic factors in flux, being creative with business strategies is paramount. The new office is a result of the change in demographic of the business sector –companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have young CEO’s and employees that are creating a more liberal and flourishing environment. This form of management is being used as a template for their predecessors and contemporaries because of their youth and success. The design of their websites and applications has surpassed the ethereal and reached the architectural transformation of design and management, where quotidian presents itself in the form of the office and the visible and invisible coexist. This is called The Cool Office.

Google Offices, Los Angeles © Benny Chan - Fotoworks and Clive Wilkinson Architects


Discipline and work

From the times when Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were implementing standard floor plans and furniture, the office exercised synchronization in the form of discipline and punishment; it was never regarded as cool – a place you anticipate coming to everyday. The early twentieth century featured theories that separate home and office while infrastructure links the two. In 1958, Herman Miller hired Robert Propst to design office furniture for the new era, where the formula for the everyday commute metamorphosed into home, office, The cubicle and Action Office layout were created and institutionalized by Propst who believed that his design would change office ambiance and motivate collaboration. To his dismay, the cubicle was repudiated and Propst was faced with the fact that it was one of the worst inventions to come to offices – alienating and isolating employees and causing prison-like cells around offices worldwide.

The Taylorist notion of office design no longer applies to contemporary work ethicsTaylorism implies a theory of management that analyzes workflow processes adopted by Frederick Winslow Taylor.. Frederick Winslow Taylor believed that «… only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone»Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper, 1911.. Rows of desks, a suit and tie, and working quietly in the shadow of your supervisor are things of the past.

In 1975, Michel Foucault unveiled Surveiller et Punir, retrospectively presenting the way offices were being run from the twentieth century to the 1990’s obsession with transforming the cubicleFoucault, Michel. Surveiller et Punir: naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.. Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s panoptical design for prisons to describe the hunger for power that arose in modernity. The Panopticon was implemented in theory to the traditional office buildingOp. Cit. note (4). One person surveys the rest, similar to the boss sitting in his office looking down over repeated rows of diligently working employees.

 Apple has revisited Foucault’s notion of power for their proposed headquarters in the suburbs of Cupertino, California. The building consists of 2.8 million square feet of office, research, and development buildings for roughly 13,000 employees. The program includes an auditorium, fitness center, research facilities, a central plant, and parking to accommodate the employees. Apple’s mega-plex might be a step backward, and slightly akin to the Panopticon, but it cannot be judged until completion in 2015. Prior to this, there are examples of free spirited work environments that ditch the formal relationship between boss and employee. Until the late twentieth century it was rare to see the boss integrate with the rest of the office. From 1943 to 1988 in California, Ray and Charles Eames created a laboratory for writing books, working on furniture design, museum exhibitions, making films, and creating They believed creativity and liberalism could be shown in the way you interact with the office, and they were fully committed to an equal level of collaboration. IDEO, an innovative product design firm, used a similar layout for their studio. In 1999, ABC documented the company redesigning a shopping cart. We were able to travel with them through the design process: from the initial product hand off, to the execution of mock-ups, and finally the test try of the winning shopping The video displayed that identifying a boss does nothing for the design process. One person cannot be successful alone.

Eames Office, Los Angeles, 1950

From the office to the city

Frank Gehry designed the first virtual office for TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. An employee would come in to work, check out a laptop, and find an empty place to sitChang, Jade. «Behind the Glass Curtain.» Metropolis Magazine. 19 June 2006.. This did not work for the folks at TBWA/Chiat/Day. In 2011, another progressive company took over this office. The firm Clive Wilkinson Architects redesigned the space within Gehry’s original design to create a playground for Google’s engineers. From the beginning, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page initiated a different management techniqueGirard, Bernard. The Google Way: How One Company is Revolutionize Management as We Know It. San Francisco, CA: No Starch Pr., 2009.. This is represented in the Googleplex. It is not just an office building; it is a complex with all the components that will keep the engineers willing and eager to stay at the office day and night. Furthermore, it is a clear representation of the tangible architectural elements that the client can be apart of, as well as the intangible notion of trust that is ever-present but not necessarily seen.

The headquarters for Facebook, the world’s largest social networking website, practices the same belief in blurring the lines between work and play. Studio O + A color-coded the walls to differentiate team rooms while some walls are unfinished so employees can draw, write, and sketch on them. More importantly, they used a Facebook page to talk about the design of their new office while the building process was happening. It is a full-on collaboration not just for their «job» but also for the way they live and interact within their home away from home.

Through this sense of freedom brought on by new management techniques, a form of office fetishism has surfaced. Some examples are the Post-It wars, Converse trends, bicycles at the desk, and Casual Friday’s. Though they seem to be a frivolous waste of time to traditional businesses, to some they are seen as valuable teambuilding exercises – although they cost time and money, they benefit everyone in the end.

In Montreuil, France, the War of the Post-Its began in Summer 2011, giving us an example of inadvertent collaboration. Employees covered their windows with Post-Its reflecting figures of pixilated iconic imagery. Idle workers at Ubisoft created the aliens from Space Invaders, thus initiating a response from BNP Paribas bankers across the street«POST-IT – Les Open-space parisiens se déclarent la guerre.» Le Monde. 01 August 2011.. Perhaps this started as a way to avoid work, but it manifested into a tell-tale way for co-workers to interact through a series of steps: first, come up with an idea for an image; second, graph it with the appropriate size of post-its, color palette, etc.; and finally, execute these ideas that sometimes stretch the entire façade of a building.

Post-it war
Post-it war
Post-it war
Post-it war


Innovation and domesticity

When Bill Gates started Microsoft, one of the first things he did was take off his tieConsidine, Austin. «On the Web, Every Day is Casual Friday.» The New York Times. 18 March 2011.. This sparked the infamous fashion statement business casual and declared the demise of power-knowledgeFrom Foucault Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison. Foucault believed that power and knowledge were fundamentally connected. He often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, power-knowledge.. Rather than being formal and uncomfortable at work, Gates allowed for flexibility within the office. Casual dress eased into corporate America during the dot-com boom and later reached other countries. One day a week employees can leave their formal work attire at home and dress down to the office. This is known as Casual Friday. Some companies that have a more relaxed dress code celebrate Formal Friday. The Casual Friday faux pas also exists–since the casual day is often on Fridays, it gives the feeling that the weekend has arrived and brings inappropriate attire to the office.

An image of the Facebook headquarters reveals an aesthetic for the contemporary office. Employees fraternizing during work hours while resting on a desk; bicycles leaning against walls giving peace of mind to the owners who need not worry for thieves; the letters h-a-c-k hanging from the ceiling that holds a motivation for employees. The Eames’ rocking chairs are next to a coffee table accompanying a blue sofa similar to a family room. A large rug covering the ground adds a familiarity to the open space, with colorful walls, and plants disbursed throughout the office. What is not present in this image is a manager telling them to get back to work – because they are working, at their own pace, in their own clothes, surrounded by their own things.

Facebook Headquarters, Palo Alto  © Cesar Rubio and Studio O+A

Like the proverbial house drawn with a pitched roof and smoking chimney glorified by Robert Venturi, we could do the same with the office – take a crayon to paper and you would have floor upon floor, repeated with people sitting at desks, in anticipation to break out of the building and be on their way home. So what is the intention behind the new form of office design that is straying away from our familiar iconic view of the office?

Dreamhost Offices
Dreamhost Offices


Hundreds of How To books about office design have been published. The question is not how to design the office. It begins with in-house redesign and reinvention. If management believes in traditional hierarchical sectors, then adding a bike and a splash of color to a wall will not make a cool office. The key to becoming a cool office lies in knowing how to make your employees comfortable while being at their most efficient. Ornamentation is not a means to a solution. The twenty-first century company is showing that the formula is not to distribute tasks, finish that task then move on to the next ad infinitum; going from A to B should be customized by the employee. What happens from the moment you receive the task to when you have finished it is completely up to you. In 2010, held a competition for the World’s Coolest Office where they gathered the coolest working office designs«The Worlds Coolest Office.» This is a symptom of misunderstanding the role of aesthetics, which cannot be used as a strategy for core office transformation – the design solution begins with the unseen.

Organization layout of Google offices © Benny Chan - Fotoworks and Clive Wilkinson Architects

Google’s introduction to their Code of Conduct states, «Don’t be evil.» Google says it is «about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally –following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect»«Code of Conduct.» Google Investor Relations, 2 December 2011.. This is why we trust that Google, with their see-all/know-all access to our email, daily searches, friends, family, location, satellite views of our home and work, personal conversations via phone, Google Talk, Google Video, etc., will not use this to do harm against us. Running parallel to this incredible amount of information, the image we have of Google does not intimidate us. They are cool, they play ping-pong, wear flip-flops to work, and say things like «Don’t be evil.» Of course we trust them. By doing this, Google has proven that image is everything, and the way your office is designed reflects that image. This is where the visible and invisible collide.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple in Jobs’ parents’ garage; Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook from his Harvard dorm room; Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed Google through their PhD research at Stanford University.  It is safe to say that all of these inventions were brought about through serendipitous, informal, almost work-avoiding situations. The creators of these modern day phenomena, names we now use as verbs and at least several times a day, have transformed how we use the internet, interact with people, and now how we design our offices when - quite possibly - all they wanted was to re-create the original place where their discoveries were made. Hence, the old mantra «it’s not personal, it’s business» is obsolete.

Pooneh Erami under the direction of Aurélien Gillier

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)