Digital history & historiography

Workshop Report: “Perspectives on Uses and Users in the History of Office Buildings”

Workshop Report: “Perspectives on Uses and Users in the History of Office Buildings”

In the hallway of the Maison des Sciences Humaines at the Belval Campus of the University of Luxembourg.

On 21 and 22 November 2023, the BUREU team organised a workshop on the history of office buildings.

On 21 and 22 November 2023, the BUREU team organised a workshop on the history of office buildings. A research project of C²DH and the Modernity and Society 1800-2000 group at KU Leuven, BUREU investigates the “office cultures” of the European institutions in Luxembourg and Brussels (1950s-2000). The workshop aimed to explore such cultures in a more general sense, beyond the specific context of the EU and its institutional predecessors. Through an international call for papers, we invited researchers to delve into histories of the use and users of twentieth-century office buildings. Our aim was to supplement and challenge established research perspectives on offices by highlighting the everyday experiences of office occupants, rather than focusing solely on aspects such as style, symbolic representation and top-down planning. We also sought to address the sources and methodologies that could be used to investigate these experiences. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of historical office research, the workshop participants drew from fields such as (interior) architecture, anthropology, science and technology studies, and of course history. Although the geographical scope of the CfP was not specified, most contributors analysed case studies from Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. While these three countries have undoubtedly been important centres of innovation with regards to office culture, we were pleased to host a number of contributors who explored more “peripheral” locations such as Japan, the Philippines, Portugal and various Latin American countries.

The workshop was opened by BUREU’s principal investigators, ANDREAS FICKERS (C²DH) and MARTIN KOHLRAUSCH (Leuven), who welcomed the participants to the event venue at the Maison Schuman in Luxembourg City. The introductory presentation by project coordinator JENS VAN DE MAELE (C²DH) provided an overview of the current state of research on office buildings. It was noted that the amount of historical research on office buildings and office cultures is rather limited, despite the significant role of administrative activities in modern societies. Possible reasons for the lack of attention given to the office as a research subject include its perceived ubiquity, banality, and continued presence. This underconceptualisation is surprising, given that the twentieth-century office was subject to “Foucauldian” social engineering practices similar to those applied in other architectural typologies, such as hospitals, schools, and prisons. Throughout the course of the century, managerial ideologies effectively aimed to discipline office workers both mentally and physically through various material and conceptual techniques. These techniques subtly shifted over time, but maintained a strong degree of continuity. Although much historical research still needs to be done, it is evident that there has been a recent increase in academic interest in office architecture. This trend correlates with a renewed interest in bureaucracy as a societal phenomenon.

Following the introductory session, CRAIG ROBERTSON (Boston) delivered a keynote speech, sharing insights from his 2021 monograph The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. Robertson compared the original design and intended purpose of the cabinet with its practical use, focusing on the US during the interwar period. He highlighted the reciprocal influence between designers and users by examining design modifications, such as changes in materials to prevent injuries. Robertson showed how design choices both affected and reflected the bodies of intended users, with a particular emphasis on women’s experiences. Contemporary sources, such as user manuals, stressed the pivotal role of the teaching of filing techniques in the education of girls. These findings illustrate how objects can convey a narrative not only from their creators but also from the workers who use them.


Panel 1: Managerial Cultures (I)

The first panel, chaired by RIKA DEVOS (Brussels), focused on the theme of managerial cultures. MARCO NINNO (Leuven) examined the evolution of offices occupied by the European Commission in Brussels during the 1950s and 1960s. His archival research uncovered the civil servants’ advocacy for private offices and revealed that the use of private offices was similarly prevalent in member state administrations. Ninno’s most significant discovery was the unambiguous acknowledgement that there was no scientific foundation for the “efficiency” of private offices. Consequently, he conceptualised private offices as a “materialised imaginary”, describing the Commission's self-perception as a “unique elite organisation”. He suggested that an examination of this architectural materialisation could counterbalance the anonymous nature of the EU’s institutional history.

PETRA SEITZ (London) redirected attention to Herman Miller’s Action Office II system. She exposed underlying dynamics that caused a paradox: while the mid-century era of office architecture was characterised by a progressive and flexible forward-thinking philosophy regarding work(spaces), the resulting designs were inflexible cubicles. Drawing on Marxist Labour process theory, her research suggested that the “cubicleisation” was influenced by Herman Miller’s idealistic views on labour, as demonstrated by the firm’s corporate ethos and profit-sharing plans. This explains why despite workers’ complaints about their ineffective office spaces, the design persisted, causing institutionalised assumptions about work and labour to become detached from reality.

The first panel was concluded by ANA MEHNERT PASCOAL (Lisbon) who presented a case study of government offices during the Portuguese Estado Novo dictatorship (1948-1974). Her analysis focused on the investments in new buildings and the restoration of historical monuments overseen by the Directorate-General of National Buildings and Monuments. The restoration and modification of public buildings was influenced by political, economic and social contexts. Consequently, the conception of office layouts during times of “office modernisation” was heavily influenced by the administrative hierarchy. Although users were consulted about their work requirements during the planning phase, their role in the shaping of office spaces was ultimately deemed insignificant.


Panel 2: Environmental and Psychological Aspects of Office Work

The second thematic panel was chaired by FREDIE FLORÉ (Leuven) and delved into the environmental and psychological aspects of office work. The first presenter, JOERI BRUYNINCKX (Maastricht), focused on the scientification of users’ tolerance of light and sound in post-war offices. From the 1950s onward, offices were increasingly designed as integrated engineered spaces, with lighting, acoustic, thermal, spatial and social dimensions expected to influence the users’ mental state, physical comfort and health. Bruyninckx highlighted various approaches to environmental management in Britain and the United States by presenting case studies on the “glare discomfort index”, “noise criterion curves” and “articulation index”. He suggested that engineers aimed to achieve a balance between foreground and background by using the concept of the “envelope”. This was done through the creation of acoustic privacy zones and task lighting. The goal was to enhance employee comfort and increase their focus on task execution.

In the same sphere of ergonomics, TATSUJA MITSUDA (Tokyo) discussed the significant impact of air conditioning in tall office buildings in Tokyo during the early postwar period. Heavily influenced by American ideas, it was believed that a better-regulated indoor climate would propel the productivity of workers and machines. Initially, Japanese corporations relied on traditional thermal norms and practices; after 1945, western-style office buildings were constructed, marking the “colonisation” of office spaces through techno-economic tools. Mitsuda discussed the gender dimension and the underlying power dynamics, including debates on clothing choices, health issues and workspace adaptations. These discussions demonstrate an awareness that universal thermal standards do not exist. Engineers have indeed been unable to find solutions to cater to the different thermal needs of male and female employees who share the same office spaces.

Continuing the topic of gender roles, AMY THOMAS (Delft) discussed the role of women workers in workplace design and activism in post-war Britain. She drew attention to Michelle Murphy’s 2006 monograph Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers as a valuable analytical tool. In terms of work hazards, office design theory can consider two main factors: physical and mental wellbeing, which are linked to the employee’s perception of control and freedom, as well as to the worker’s wider social environment. It can be concluded that office design has seldom been utilised to promote social change. Yet, while groups such as the “Women and Work Hazards Group” (established in 1977) may not have aimed to change ideas about office design, they did empower women workers to take more control over their workspace.


Panel 3: Managerial Cultures (II)

The second day continued the discussion of managerial cultures with a panel chaired by STEPHANIE FRANSIS (C²DH). Speaker PHILIP MICHAEL PAJE (Manila) discussed the paradoxes of work cultures in modern office buildings in the Philippines, explaining how American colonisation caused a shift in perceptions about work. As office employment became a symbol of social prestige, contradictions in work cultures arose. Formal structures, such as official office rules, came to coexist with informal ones, such as interpersonal power relations and unspoken leadership hierarchies. Based on personal experiences, Paje demonstrated how language choices were crucial in shaping work relations. Additionally, he reflected on the interconnected nature of space, time and work in Philippine office buildings.

GERNOT WECKHERLIN (Dessau) examined the epistemology of modernist architectural design practice. Starting from the early twentieth century, design knowledge was increasingly influenced by experts from various fields, including management and information technology. Weckherlin’s research focused on office architecture and organisation in Germany from 1914 to 1969, highlighting the impact of influential figures such as Max Meyer, Ernst Neufert and Walter Gropius on architectural education. Weckherlin also emphasised the strong relationship between the development of managerial thought and architectural planning.


Panel 4: Computers and Office Technologies After the 1960s

The presentations of the final panel (chaired by ANDREAS FICKERS) focused on the relationship between IT technology and office cultures. In her case study on the German multinational company Merck, CHRISTIANE BERTH (Graz) explored the emergence of the networked office in the 1980s and its implementation in Merck’s Latin American branches. The eighties were characterised by rapid technological change, which presented serious planning challenges: office managers had to reckon with a plethora of software and hardware systems. Berth contrasted negative visions of the future office with more optimistic ones, highlighting the complexities of technological impact. She emphasised the value of oral history interviews in understanding perceptions of technological change in the office.

BERND HOLTWICK (Dortmund) discussed the debate on screen work in West Germany from 1974 to 1996. His discussion focused on the evolution of screen usage in the workplace and its impact on occupational safety and health. During the 1970s, a debate about the health risks of screen work emerged, with trade unions expressing concerns. Despite the development of innovative workstation designs, many screen workers continued to work in sub-optimal conditions. During the following decades, the office remained a place of continuing technological transformations, resulting in the emergence of the home office concept. However, challenges related to workers’ autonomy and control remained unresolved.



For the concluding panel, RIKA DEVOS and FREDIE FLORÉ were asked to reflect on the workshop as a whole. Throughout the large variety of sources and themes explored by the contributors, certain issues surfaced repeatedly. These include gender relations, power dynamics, the significance of managerial thinking, the supposed analogy between factory and office work, the emphasis on efficiency, and the persistence of problems that contribute to “inefficiency”, such as poor climate control and uncomfortable furniture. From the perspective of planners (i.e. architects and managers), it seems that problems were often attempted to be solved through “even more planning”, with the aim of controlling and predicting outcomes. However, these attempts often failed due to the inherent deviations and deviances that arise from buildings being used by people. Another possible reason for the persistent complaints about “inefficient” offices may be due to the ambiguous nature of the efficiency concept itself. Despite the promise of objective calculation in the world of administration, many aspects of office work have always remained unmeasurable. This makes them, to a degree, “uncontrollable” by office managers.

Finally, MARTIN KOHLRAUSCH, ANDREAS FICKERS and JENS VAN DE MAELE raised some additional open questions. How can we interpret the combination of modern office buildings and techniques with pre-modern material symbols of status, such as the wall carpets in some of the executive offices presented during the workshop? How can office historians conduct more in-depth research on poorly documented, yet socially significant, office spaces like hallways and break rooms? And what can be learned from sources barely tackled during the workshop, such as comics/cartoons, films, novels, and advertisements in popular magazines?

The workshop Perspectives on Uses and Users of Office Buildings revealed the enduring potential for historical inquiry into the office. However, the event also illustrated the inherent difficulty of investigating the personal and embodied experiences of lower- and medium-ranking office users, due to the seemingly insurmountable lack of adequate primary sources documenting their perspective. As a result, these perspectives are to be reconstructed in a roundabout way, often via top-down sources by managers and architects who speak for the users, and do not let the users speak for themselves. Therefore, a statement made by British architect Francis Duffy over four decades ago remains as topical as ever: no researcher of office history can do without “a trained historical imagination”.