Story line: whatever happened to the narrative workplace?

At the turn of the millennium, storytelling in workplace design was all the rage, as big-bang brandscapes dominated the field. Today, we’re more circumspect about a narrative approach. Why?

When Clive Wilkinson Architects set out to create a new home for advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding in a former factory in Irvine, California in 2001, the resulting scheme heralded the high watermark for what might be called the narrative workplace.

Watermark is an appropriate phase, as Wilkinson opted for an elaborate harbour-side metaphor for the entire project, with a ‘land side’ of ‘floating’ wooden structures that terminated at a jetty-like bridge, and a ‘sea side’ presenting a spread of blue and green work desks.

This ‘big idea’ of an office sited on an imaginary waterfront shifted the narrative after the same architect had created an office in a Los Angeles warehouse three years earlier for rival agency TBWA Chiat Day, which was modelled on a slice of 1960s Greenwich Village compete with vintage cars (see below).

No longer blank boxes

What both of Wilkinson’s big-theme schemes in California at the turn of the millennium taught us was that over-arching narrative space ideas were a good idea in workplace design.

Offices were no longer designated to be blank boxes betraying little of the inner life of the organisation – instead, they were to reimagined as ‘brandscapes’ and conscripted to a present a story about how innovative their occupiers could be.

Metaphors aplenty emerged from the studios around this time. At the Newport Beach headquarters of surfing and skateboard clothing brand Quiksilver, designers Bauer and Wiley created a ‘beach community’ with a polished boardwalk and ‘beach shacks’ made of slatted wood.

The new Massachusetts campus of sporting goods giant Reebok by NBJJ meanwhile sported an interior basketball court, a perimeter running track and a plan representing the coiled energy of an athlete on the starting blocks.

But 16 years after Foote, Cone & Belding made waves with their work interior, what do we make of the big-bang narrative approach?

Looking up from the sea at a cliff face made of surf boards. Foote Cone & Belding, Irvine, California; Clive Wilkinson Architects

The story wears thin

We have become more circumspect, it seems. The trouble with an elaborate interior metaphor is that the story wears thin for employees with constant retelling. And the more deliberate and over-powering the theme, the more the office space runs the risk of being scored down by staff.

Seasoned workplace observers might recall a landmark UK office scheme for a Japanese car maker, which made explicit visual reference to the automobile with an internal central street, parked models, halogen car lights, metallic finishes and lots of glass.

But this attracted some negative comments in post-occupancy surveys about over-egging the metaphor. Not everyone, it seems, appreciates such an explicit strategy for the work environment to force everyone to ‘live and breathe’ the brand. That is why we don’t see such dominant brand-led visual motifs in workplace design these days.

Even the most lauded pioneer of this approach, Clive Wilkinson, a keynote speaker at the WORKTECH West Coast 2017 conference, now admits that the explicit narrative trend has largely run into the ground.

In its place is a more generic approach. Designers today tend to treat such concepts as ‘community’ or ‘neighbourhoods’ or ‘commons’ in the abstract. They are less explicit as storytellers about giving space character; they no longer run to the trouble of articulating real jetty bridges or harbourside cafés.

Apply more sparingly

Not that Wilkinson has abandoned the use of staging entirely: his West Coast talk was titled  ‘The Theatre of Work’ and he describes theatre as ‘as the amplification of human life, the re-energising of memory and experience, the reawakening of passion’. It is just that the technique is applied more sparingly at key points in the interior rather than as a blanket approach.

Another speaker at WORKTECH West Coast, Aaron Taylor Harvey, director of environments at Airbnb, explained how the company’s new San Francisco HQ features ‘The Boat’, a large wooden structure for informal seating and meeting, as a centrepiece in its atrium. Despite the narrative potential of the Airbnb scheme, The Boat is simply a brilliant standalone device in one space rather than part of a more extended narrative theme.

It’s okay to tell the story – but let’s be subtle about it…

In large office buildings with vast floorplates and several repeating floors, it is tempting to use narrative techniques to aid wayfinding and orientation. Large, non-repeating objects (artworks or structures) at the entrance to each floor might help to identify where we are and find our way around.

But today designers generally resist the temptation to thread the theme all the way through each element of the interior, even if the client is a recognisable big brand.

A clue to the current approach lies in the famous Dutch headquarters for Tilburg insurance company Interpolis, completed by Abe Bonnema in 1997 before the narrative workplace trend really gained momentum.

This featured a café themed on different world cities (from Barcelona to Rio) at the entrance to every floor. But the carnival stopped with the café. The metaphor was simply an orientation device and never heavy-handed.

Today the feeling seems to be that it’s okay to tell a story – but let’s be subtle about the narrative and not beat the people who come to work each day over the head with it.