In contemporary architecture and urban design, there is great emphasis on creating flexible open plan spaces. Expressions like multi-use or multi-purpose are often used to further describe this ambition. Such terms are associated with schools, sports facilities, cultural institutions, offices, housing and urban spaces alike and it often manifests itself as a way of selling the project to a client.
But what exactly does flexibility or multi-purpose mean? Does flexibility imply that different groups should be able to use the same area or space at the same time? Or does it simply mean that the space can be used for different activities, but at separate occasions? If the former is the case one might suggest that conflict of interest are immanent, and if the latter is true, the term is fairly empty as most spaces can, after all, be used for a variety of activities.
The Open Plan
The open plan can be traced back to the industrial revolution where it enabled complex manufacturing processes to happen efficiently. However, designers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle refined the concept of the open plan in 1950s Germany. Their 'Bürolandschaft' or office landscape, is regarded as the predecessor to the contemporary open plan office. The ambition was to create a collaborative and humane work environment where innovation would flourish and this rhetoric remains remarkably unaltered today. The new Apple campus in Cupertino, California is perhaps the most renown of recent examples. Over the past decades numerous studies have been conducted out in order to monitor the effect of this design strategy. The following excerpt explains how the reality does not necessarily correlate with the intentions:
Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness. In a 2005 study that looked at organisations ranging from a Midwest auto supplier to a Southwest telecom firm, researchers found that the ability to control the environment had a significant effect on team cohesion and satisfaction. When workers couldn’t change the way that things looked, adjust the lighting and temperature, or choose how to conduct meetings, spirits plummeted.
These studies suggest that if a space is too open and undetermined it becomes less flexible and the Apple campus has also received internal criticism for being too open, even prior to its inauguration. In open plan spaces interruptions are inevitable and as a result the time of completing a task extends significantly. These environments also seem to favour a high degree of multi-tasking which in turn produces a lower quality output. A room or a public space that does not cover for fundamental needs like being able to choose wether to be private or not are in danger of become mono-functional or hardly used at all. If one becomes overexposed in an environment, the natural reaction is to withdraw from the position in order to feel safe and to be in control. This particular phenomena can be observed in any urban plaza; urban spaces that do not offer variation and different degrees of exposure tend to be reduced into points of transit.
Flexibility as Design
Flexibility does not simply appear if one provides a blank canvas. It appears through physical surroundings designed in such a way that they offer a various levels of exposure, facilitate for different needs, personalities and tasks. Both built- and natural space have an intrinsic hierarchy and a set of thresholds. In order to master complex design programs architects and planners have to overcome the fear of designing. The following statement from Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger further explains this:
Flexibility is ostensibly inherit in relativity, but in actual fact it has only has to do with uncertainty; with not daring to commit oneself, and therefore with refusing to accept the responsibility that is inevitably bound up with each and every action that one takes.
The Wall as Mediator
As such, a wall or a barrier can provide a higher level of flexibility and enable space to operate on various levels simultaneously, and as a result preventing it from becoming mono-functional or overexposed. To some physical boundaries might have certain negative connotations, but if used in a conscious way they can liberate a space. After all, architecture and urbanism deals with space. Space has boundaries and it is our responsibility as architects, planners and designers to establish these boundaries and to design the thresholds between them.