Offices are sites of information work-specialized places where numbers, words, and sometimes pictures are collected, stored, transformed, and disseminated. 63 So their tissue is mostly composed of desks equipped with information-handling devices (telephones, computers, fax machines, printers, file cabinets, inboxes and outboxes, and the like), meeting and conference rooms, copying centers and mailrooms, and reception and circulation spaces. 64 From the economist's viewpoint, they are locations where value is added to information.
As information work has grown in volume and importance, and as increasingly efficient transportation and communication systems have allowed separation of offices from warehouses and factories, office buildings at high-priced central business district (CBD) locations have evolved into slick-skinned, air-conditioned, elevator-serviced towers. These architecturally represent the power and prestige of information-work organizations (banks, insurance companies, corporate headquarters of business and industrial organizations, government bureaucracies, law, accounting, and architectural firms, and so on) much as a grand, rusticated palazzo represented the importance of a great Roman, Florentine, or Sienese family. So, for example, when the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank wanted to demonstrate its power and importance, it built a shiny high rise in the heart of Hong Kong's business district. Then the Bank of China trumped it by constructing a much taller tower on a nearby, overlooking site.
From this follows a familiar, widely replicated, larger urban patternone that you can see (with some local variants) from London to Chicago to Tokyo. The towers cluster densely at the most central, accessible locations in transportation networks. Officeworkers live in the lower-density suburban periphery and commute daily to and from their work. This tightly focused arrangement (as opposed to more diffuse distributions) allows considerable scale economies to be achieved in mass transit systems. Downtown services meet the needs of people in their worker rolesduring weekdays, while suburban services are there for those same people in their roles as residents in the evenings and on weekends.
The bonding agent that has held this whole intricate structure together (at every level, from that of the individual office cubicle to that of CBDs and commuter rail networks) is the need for face-to-face contact with coworkers and clients, for close proximity to expensive information-processing equipment, and for access to information held at the central location and available only there. But the development of inexpensive, widely distributed computational capacity and of pervasive, increasingly sophisticated telecommunications systems has greatly weakened the adhesive power of these former imperatives, so that chunks of the old structure have begun to break away and then to stick together again in new sorts of aggregations. We have seen the emergence of telecommuting, "the partial or total substitution of telecommunication, with or without the assistance of computers, for the twice-daily commute to/from work."65
Gobs of "back office" work can, for example, be excised from downtown towers and shifted to less expensive suburban or exurban locations, from which locally housed workers remain in close electronic contact with the now smaller but still central and visible head offices. These satellite offices may even be transferred to other towns or to offshore locations where labor is cheaper. (Next time you pay your credit card bill or order something from a mail-order catalogue, take a look at the mailing address. You'll find that the envelope doesn't go to a downtown location in a major city, but more likely to an obscure location in the heartland of the country.) The bedroom communities that have grown up around major urban centers also provide opportunities for establishing telecommuting centers-small, Main Street office complexes with telecommunications links to central offices of large corporations or government departments. 66 As a consequence, commuting patterns and service locations also begin to change; a worker might bicycle to a suburban satellite office cluster or telecommuting center, for example, rather than commute by car or public transportation to a downtown headquarters.
Another strategy is to create resort offices, where groups can retreat for a time to work on special projects requiring sustained concentration or higher intellectual productivity, yet retain electronic access to the information resources of the head office. This idea hasinterested Japanese corporations, and prototypes have been constructed at locations such as the Aso resort area near Kumamoto. 67
In insurance companies, and other organizations that sell disembodied products or take orders to be filled later, traveling salespeople can be readily transformed into high-technology nomads who remain continually online and almost never have to visit the home office. For traditional centers of such industries, such as Hartford, Connecticut, the future looks increasingly problematic as the office-in-a-briefcase displaces the cubicle at corporate headquarters. 68
More radically, much information work that was traditionally done at city-center locations can potentially be shifted back to network-connected, computer-equipped, suburban or even rural homes. Way back in the 1960s, well before the birth of the personal computer, James Martin and Adrian R. D. Norman could see this coming. They suggested that "we may see a return to cottage industry, with the spinning wheel replaced by the computer terminal" and that "in the future some companies may have almost no offices." 69 The OPEC oil crisis of 1973 motivated some serious study of the economics of home-based telecommuting. 70 Then the strategy was heavily promoted by pop futurologists of the Reaganite eighties, who argued that it would save workers the time and cost of commuting while also saving employers the cost of space and other overhead. The federal Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which required many businesses with a hundred or more employees to reduce the use of cars for commuting, provided further impetus. More sober and skeptical commentators demurred, claiming that savings in commuting costs would be offset and perhaps negated by the increased costs of distributing needed supplies and utilities to workers at scattered locations, and that space and overhead costs would not disappear but be transferred to the workers. But by 1993 there was a clear and accelerating trend: there were 6.6 million home-based telecommuters in the United States, up 20 percent from 1991. 71
At the same time, many observers have become convinced that the very character of daily work is transforming in ways that reinforce these tendencies. Robert Reich's policy tract The Work of Nations made a compelling case that advanced economies increasingly rely on highly skilled "symbolic processors" who deal mostly in information. Others have pointed out that, while information-work organizations once could accumulate and retain in fixed locations, over long terms, most of the expertise that they needed to carry on their businesses, this becomes increasingly difficult in an era of economic globalization and rapid political, social, and technological change. Now it is often better strategy to form multipartner, geographically distributed alliances of various specialist groups (consultants, suppliers, subcontractors, and so on) as needed for particular projects, then to disband and regroup as old projects end and new ones begin. We are entering the era of the temporary, recombinant, virtual organization-of business arrangements that demand good computing and telecommunications environments rather than large, permanent home offices.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, as the telecommunications revolution was rapidly gaining momentum, some urbanists leaped to the conclusion that downtowns would soon dissolve as these new arrangements took hold. Melvin Webber, for example, predicted: "For the first time in history, it might be possible to locate on a mountain top and to maintain intimate, real-time and realistic contact with business or other associates. All persons tapped into the global communications net would have ties approximating those used today in a given metropolitan region." 72
There is some evidence that these theorists were right. Consider this telling straw in the electronic breeze. In 1974 Sears, Roebuck and Company proudly built Sears Tower in the Chicago Loop-4.5 million square feet of floor space and the tallest building in the world, right in the birthplace of the office skyscraper. But Sears didn't stay there very long. By 1992 the company had deserted thirty-seven of the forty floors it occupied and sent five thousand jobs thirty-five miles west to Hoffman Estates in Chicago's suburban fringe.
But the prophets of urban dissolution underestimated the inertia of existing patterns, and the reality that has evolved in the 1980s and 1990s is certainly more complex than they imagined. The changing relative costs of telecommunication and transportation have indeed begun to affect the location of office work. 73 But weakening of the glue that once firmly held office downtowns together turns out to permit rather than determine dispersal; the workings of labor and capital markets and the effects of special local conditions often end up shaping the locational patterns that actually emerge from the shakeup. 74
Perhaps the time has not yet come to bid farewell to those vertiginously vainglorious corporate monuments that have defined the great downtowns of the twentieth century. But they no longer seem so inevitable. Given a choice, many of us may prefer working with a net.
4. Recombinant Architecture
4.11. Department Stores / Electronic Shopping Malls
4.13. At Home / @Home