How open concept living is driving us up the torn-down wall

It has long been said that good fences make good neighbours and, sitting in the middle of this pandemic, I am convinced that a nice solid wall might make me a better person, or at least one who loses her temper with her children less often. Over the last two-plus years — with me working from home, and my daughters often schooling from home, and everything happening in this home — have on occasion fantasized about kicking in a wall. If only I had a wall to kick in. Instead, I have one of those homes you can see a good way through. It came this way when I moved here, the openness listed as a feature, not a plane for a constantly rolling tumbleweed of kitchen, dining-area and hallway mess, a mess sans frontières.

For quite some time now, it has been taken as a done deal that what we all want in our built spaces is open-plan everything. But I don’t know a single person who has not in some way suffered from open architecture during the last couple of years. There are the condo dwellers who’ve covered glass curtain walls with cardboard to stop the oppressive sun that didn’t bother them when they were out of the house most the day; the quarantining families all wearing headphones inside; the people who rent in open offices who now could not go there. It takes only one day of remote work from the closet to realize that the design of your home is not as “multipurpose” as you thought. It probably takes less to acknowledge, if you are a white-collar worker, that your focus might be better in the closet than in the noisy, wall-less office you once commuted to daily.

The high era of the open interior, it seems safe to say, is drawing to a close. There is considerable data showing that open offices make workers sick more often. Add in our looming reality of getting on with life, COVID notwithstanding, and it’s easy to imagine that the workplace will be the first place to change. In 2017, one survey estimated that 68 per cent of American offices had low or no separation between workers. The increasingly common practice of “hot desking” employees — creating a musical-chairs office where nobody has their own personal real estate — erodes the boundaries further. It goes beyond health concerns. Long before the pandemic hit, millions of office workers were in a kind of space-induced existential crisis, living with a humming, rage-tinged frustration brought on by severely unprivate workplaces that literally gave them nowhere to hang their hat.

And so, to our era of the Great Resignation. After two years of remote work, the numbers of employees who say they won’t go back to their offices are absolutely mind-blowing. An Ipsos poll published last year had more than a third of office workers saying they would quit if they were forced to return full time. Another had 49 per cent of adults born after 1980 responding that they’d consider quitting. Still another survey, from Harvard Business School, found that an astounding 81 per cent of people who have been working from home through the pandemic want either a hybrid schedule or not to return at all.

Given all the problems of the contemporary office — perpetual cutbacks, ever intensifying work, soul-destroying commutes, toxic bosses — it feels wrong to lay this mass aversion at the feet of bad office design. But to blame design is also not without reason, because the plan of a space holds so many of its hopes and dreams, and also so many of its silent prejudices and imposed norms. Illness is one of the best BS detectors, and in a pandemic era, the incongruences seem more exposed than ever.

The problematic open office of today was largely forged in the 1990s. Certainly, there were earlier forms of open-concept workspaces: the midcentury German Burolandschaft (“office landscape”), or American furniture firm Herman Miller, with its 1960s idea of the ergonomic “Action Office.” But it was in the last decade of the 20th century, on the sprawling campuses of Silicon Valley, and in new media companies in cities like Manhattan and Toronto that “open plan” was taken up with a kind of countercultural religious zeal. Here, the chancy, the casual, turned aspirational, and “spontaneous collaboration” and “serendipitous encounters” became creed — as if unfettered communication was the primary thing knowledge workers needed to be healthy and productive. The “way to increase communication,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in an enthusiastic article on “the new office” published in “The New Yorker” in 2000, “is to have as few private offices as possible. The idea is to exchange private space for public space.”

From the start, though, open-plan offices were disliked by the people who had to work in them. A famous example is the hubristic experiment undertaken by the ad agency Chiat/Day in the 1990s. Jay Chiat, whose agency made some of modern advertising’s most memorable moments, from the Energizer Bunny ads to Apple’s “1984” commercial, apparently had an epiphany while skiing in Telluride. The office of the future would not only be paperless, but also deskless and with very few walls. Two bureaus were designed, one by architect Gaetano Pesce in Manhattan, and another in a Frank Gehry building shaped like a giant set of black binoculars on Venice Beach, the building that now houses Google’s L.A. office.

In Pesce’s extremely whimsical Manhattan office, meeting zones had employees sitting in repurposed Tilt-A-Whirl cars with clients. Employees spoke of roaming around looking for their collaborators for hours, or of hiding in toilets to take private calls. A tribal territorialism for the few enclosed meeting rooms emerged, with teams arriving at the office at 6 a.m. to set up camp. Chiat would do walkabouts to break up these “nests,” convinced that keeping people unanchored would lead to peak creativity. Often, staff ended up just working from home. Many used their car trunks as filing cabinets. In 2019, the writer and former Chiat/Day director Shalom Auslander told NPR’s “Planet Money” that working in the Manhattan office was “like sitting inside of a migraine.”

During the early aughts, when researching her influential book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain travelled to Silicon Valley, a haven for both the introverted types she was studying and the new hyper open-concept offices laying waste to the sectioned floor plan. “And literally the first thing that happened is everyone started whispering to me about how much they hated their open offices, how corrosive they were to productivity,” Cain recalls.

“Back then, everyone putting in open offices had this idea that they would have the same creative energy as a café,” she says. “But an open office plan is nothing like a café, where you have the social freedom to interact or not, to leave if it’s too noisy, to not be evaluated by someone monitoring what you are doing.” Yet open offices were an orthodoxy that you could not speak out against. Executives who wished to hang onto enclosed offices were seen, Cain says, as unenlightened. “As if wanting to have privacy was an act of unseemly privilege rather than a basic need of all humans.”

It’s easy to understand why open offices spread so widely. They are cheaper to build, and can expand or contract with a company’s changing situation. But the productivity piece — why so many North American companies believed open offices to be more efficient — is harder to get one’s head around. It doesn’t take a specialized genius to scan a pen of office workers wearing noise-cancelling headphones, or pretending their AirPod ear buds are on, to figure that maybe the open office’s engineered sociability has nurtured a less social workplace. Indeed, when firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions were found to decrease by 70 per cent, according to a 2018 paper by Harvard Business School professors Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban. With the physical walls gone, workers needed to erect boundaries in other ways, such as employing selective deafness or non-verbal cues, like looking at your computer screen in a very steely way with the hood of your sweatshirt up. It’s counterintuitive, but in the open office people had to become more actively introverted just so they could work.

In the esthetics of how we like to live, there are eras defined by openness and others by contraction — and, as with two sides of a coin, one always backs the other. That our present iteration of the open-plan interior came together in the 1990s, a decade of great expansion and flow, is no coincidence. The ’90s were the era of NAFTA, of the EU and the euro, of the rise of the boundless World Wide Web. People had laptops and cellphones and there were cheaper-than-ever plane tickets, and suddenly it seemed everything was portable, including coffee, which now came in ingeniously jacketed and lidded cups designed, like never before, for easiest transport. Gay marriage was set to take off, and Nelson Mandela was the president of South Africa. Breaking barriers was, in many ways, the spirit of the age, and its architectural expression was an almost preening openness.

There seems no great leap between the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the mainstream rise of the glass curtain, between Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and, two decades later, HGTV’s Property Brothers tearing down every dividing wall. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a new or newly renovated house or condo that is not open concept. New-build houses in the 21st century are much bigger than they used to be, but they are also designed with fewer types of rooms. This has largely been the doing of the “great room” — the kitchen enlarged and blown out into both dining room and living room, so that it eats most of the home, save the areas kept for sleeping and toilet. After the year 2000, these big, often echoing spaces, often punctuated by a granite- or marble-topped kitchen island, became ubiquitous. Contemporary condo interiors would literally be impossible without this floor plan, which like the open office, is sold as a light-filled, free and creative way to live — the unbuttoned polo to the separated house’s stuffed shirt.

The question is whether an open-plan home was ever really freeing — especially for women, its target market from its earliest days. In the early 20th century, before European architects like Mies van der Rohe made high-concept, low-comfort glass boxes synonymous with modernism, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright presented open-home plans in Ladies’ Home Journal. That Wright (whose “Prairie Style” homes were templates for the later American suburban styles of the ranch house and the split level) and dozens of other American architects chose to publish architectural floor plans in a women’s magazine is no mistake. Women have always been decision makers when it comes to the home. And by midcentury, as middle-class houses gave up butler’s pantries and domestic help for automatic dishwashers and electric ranges, the practical branding of the open plan coalesced into one familiar line: that these homes were good for mothers, who, even when toiling in the kitchen could have unimpeded views of their children.

It’s amazing that more than a century later, this is still the common refrain when showing open-plan homes, be it 800 square feet of low-income housing or the most ginormous new McMansion. As if monitoring children’s homework and wrestling matches while scrubbing pan grease is every parent’s version of Having It All.

I get it. I’m a working solo mom. Like millions of Canadians, I have no choice but to multi-task most of my hours. But the fact that so many of us have come to see this architecture where labour is front and centre as luxury says something about our age. For all its claims of clean-lined harmonious living, the open-plan home melds work and play in one unending grind. Think about it. The other line often given about open home layouts is that they are “great for entertaining.” But just who is entertaining so much? And great for whom? The guests, who are expected to eat and drink while watching their host cook and clean? Or the host, who works in full display of people having fun?

The key word here is display, a practice that in recent years has become situated into our daily living in some unprecedented ways. For centuries, a durable home truth in Western architecture was that money bought privacy. The rich had hedges and private baths and corner offices with heavy oak doors. It was those several class rungs below who were forced to do much of their daily living in constant view of others. But the open-plan era, where we all live our private lives in an increasingly public manner, has caused a flip-flop. And now the problems of the poor have not only been accepted by the wealthy, they’ve been deemed fashionable.

The most incredible example I’ve found of this is in a circa 2016 trend in high-end Toronto residences, where renovators were converting master bedrooms to include visible ensuite toilets, effectively killing the last taboo in what people might decently do in front of others. Could this fashion for the reveal go any further than rich people pooping in the open in the name of enlightened style?

There is such thing as a built overshare. I will never forget taking my four-year-old to see her father’s new office in Toronto’s Liberty Village circa 2015, where my ex-husband was hired to run a division of an achingly hip media company. Seeing her father’s office, a broiling all-glass cube stuck in the middle of an unenclosed room, she asked, “Does Dada work in an aquarium? Or is it a stage?”

The answer was kind of both. Our decisions over what parts of our lives to live full-frontal have been revised so much in the past few years, it’s hard to recall that there was a time not very long ago that taking a phone call in a restaurant felt like a rude leak between our interior and exterior lives. Exhibitionism and non-privacy are so much the norm nowadays that many of us, however reluctantly, suffer from the feeling that an experience is only fully realized once publicly consumed, like a freshly baked sourdough loaf on Instagram.

Given that our century thus far has been so willingly exposed, so fixated on transparency, is it any wonder so much of its resulting architecture has been erected in sheer glass? Twenty years ago, I wrote about an architect in Houston, Texas, who had designed a low-income housing project that was practically all window. “Why should an invisible group of people choose to live behind walls rather than reveal their lives?” he asked, obnoxiously. Whatever one’s response, these days, given size constraints, there is “no choice” but to go with open plan, and so privileged concepts like “flow” trickle into places where the dignity of basic privacy might be better placed.

Things can only get so open until something like the opposite becomes desirable. And now, COVID may have helped tip the balance. After two years of lockdowns, it’s no exaggeration to write that we are living in an increasingly hunkered era. Just as populist political trends like Brexit and America First have large segments seeking comfort in isolationist, border-tightening ideas, most new home trends contain some kind of studied snugness, from obsessively cosy Millennial fads like hygge to the cluttered, Aladdin’s cave maximalism evident in this year’s trendiest shelter magazines. The style vernacular is moving away from unfettered one-world airiness. “Transparency” feels like yesterday’s buzzword. In an age where even the air can infect us, we talk more about setting healthy boundaries.

Even pre-pandemic we were starting to hear about “broken plan” offices with more divisions and about plug-and-play “walk-in furniture,” such as felted phone booths and “meeting dens.” Since her book’s publication a decade ago, Cain has consulted with companies like Steelcase, the largest manufacturer of office systems in America, to create built solutions for offices that have become, in her words, “too extroverted” in their design. These are small signs of transition for workplace architecture, but they point to an increased understanding that workplaces need not just provide an architecture of inspiration, but also one of plain old shelter.

Residential design is seeing a similar shift. For the past two years running, the American Institute of Architects’ annual survey found double-digit declines in interest in open layouts. Lately, some designers — maybe even the same ones who were doing those insane bathrooms — have begun playing with enclosure, like great room kitchens containing a walled off “messy” or “work” zone, essentially, the return of the pantry.

As for my modest home, I have a single kitchen wall going up in the spring. I got the number of a builder from my neighbour, who spent all of 2019 pulling down every wall on his ground floor so that the light could get all the way through, and then weathered the pandemic with the blinds closed tight, because his family was home all the time, and everyone could see into his house. When the builder came to my place she stood in her big boots and said my rooms would feel small with dividing walls, and didn’t I love being able to see my kids when I was making dinner? I answered that I love my children very much. But that given the shape of my life, I’ll be able to love them better in a small room — with a wall.

Mireille Silcoff is a novelist, journalist and editor based in Montreal. She was the founding editor of Guilt and Pleasure Quarterly, a New York-based journal of Jewish thought and ideas. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, the National Post, the Guardian, Ha’aretz, and other publications.


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