Just before the beginning of the eighties, Bob Geldof and his band shot to world fame with a song whose refrain became familiar to everyone, even if very few at the time really understood the meaning. Like any self-respecting punk-pop band, they told a (true) story of a 17 years old Californian girl who one fine Monday took her father’s shotgun and started shooting at her school from her bedroom window, wounding many school kids and killing the head and the janitor. The song’s title is the girl’s answer to why she did what she did - a crazed version of the Monday morning blues that afflict many, who, of course don’t then kill colleagues and superiors (although on occasion, it might solve many a problem, not least that of psychological harassment). 25 years on, the idea of a microchip implanted in the human body strikes us as prophetic as it is plausible: a microchip to enhance our interactive capacity with the world and the infinite number of electronic interfaces we come across in our daily fight for survival. Especially at work, which practically everywhere involves ICT, as the prehistoric ‘tertiary’ sector becomes - or has become - the ‘primary’ sector.
Many sci-fi flights of fancy have been generated in the wake of absolutist forecasts that in the future work will entail ever smaller, ever more sophisticated machines. Some claim that the office will be increasingly impalpable, a series of electromagnetic waves travelling miraculously between every kind of object or person to enable the communication and manufactures necessary for everyday life. We are not yet at that stage, however, nor are we likely to be for some time. Sure, there may well be a few authentic, super-paid, nomadic workers with no working hours or time attendance requirements moving freely around the world with just a latest generation cell phone that can read and write e-mail, send faxes, draw, and send sound, visual or film documents and anything else imaginable, creating a non-existent, omnipresent office. But we will still continue to see the huge service-sector office blocks for a series of reasons, not least economic considerations of real estate speculation, and cultural factors: the office is a retreat from domestic anxieties and provides interaction with others. So the tradition type offices will remain, especially as the symbol of corporate image. Whether large or small, increasingly integrated and advanced, streamlined and flexible, ready to change size and skin, the office will continue to make people subordinate to a place and an organisation. By the same token, even “nomadic” workers will still have to contribute to their organisation through their hand-held, portable devices. In this sense, today’s office designers are not only those antiquated architects who, even with Computer aided Design-Rendering and other simulation programmes, take months to develop new work space. Designers are also those sci-fi technical people who every two weeks put yet another batch of functions into the lowliest cell phone, allowing its user to far outstrip the traditional clerical worker at his desk (a breed still extant, as a visit to any Italian Ministry will prove), the symbol of a degrading office routine, with only an old, often temperamental PC.
The dimensional and conceptual ambiguity over the office of the future is indicative of how the concept of “limits” has become blurred. This is the battleground on which ‘new project approaches’ are slogging it out. For it is not just humans who suffer from ‘borderline’ personalities - poised between schizophrenia, or bi-polar depression, one day super-heroes, the next paralysed victims of a lack of self-esteem - but also objects, spaces, interiors, architectures and furniture. With great psychological insight, Jean Nouvel and his group of designers anticipated this new project dimension in their Cartier Foundation when they created furnishings whose components could happily be used also in the domestic setting. Similarly, albeit many years after, the Vitra Home operation, directed by Rolf Fehlbaum, re-proposed many of the company’s period pieces originally designed for the workplace as ‘conversation pieces’ for the home. True to his character as an adventurer (in the sense of an explorer), balanced between architecture and design, Jean Nouvel recently brought off another notably feat: the physical integration between architecture and furnishing. The envelopes of Barcelona’s Agbar skyscraper, the interface between the exterior and the offices inside, are not just containers for working materials. The variegated tints of the outer shell contribute to the chameleon-like appearance of the outside. However, it is more likely that the much heralded quantum leap towards “thinking” objects and interiors of the future, following the hard won research of the nineties, will not come from the cumbersome office furniture industry but rather from the work of European groups in the sixties, starting with the likes of Archigram. Making use of a plethora of then futuristic technology, media and materials, Peter Cook and partners, the Amazing Achigram, laid the basis for new environmental utopias, and more especially set down the iconography of the cybernetic architecture that is now standard fare for a whole range of contemporary architects, starting with masters like Foster, Rogers, Piano and Fuksas. The tireless experimentation of the first ‘Super-Group’ in the history of architecture was driven by juxtaposing new technologies and new lifestyles. Their research extended to the smallest detail to include the means (clothing and objects) with which the individual interfaces with his environment. Almost 40 years separate David Greene’s Living-Pod of 1965/66 and Steve Jobs’ micro-mega-walkman, the iPod. Conceptually, however, the two are practically contemporaries. Similarly, there is probably but a short step between this unlovely little box with a prodigious memory and a garment that retains memories and functions to meet expected and unexpected events. At most it will be an aesthetic distance. For there’s no comparison between David Greene’s Suitaloon - an inflatable suit that created a little pneumatic refuge around its wearer - presented at the 1968 Milan Triennale - and the ugly iPod earphones that look like appliances for the deaf, or the ridiculous Bluetooth earpieces that make Bavarians, Romans and chicanos look like Doctor Spock. It’s like comparing the latest generation of would-be auto ‘navigators’ that pack up after the first wrong turning, or those useless Palm Pilots whose pen requires the steady hand of a surgeon before they will work, with the 1969 Cushicle - again by Archigram - a garment-cum-furnishing concentrate of information, protection, comfort and human transport: a multi-function, multi-form - indeed formless - object that changed with contingent requirements. There are extraordinary similarities between these designer productions - considered off-the-wall at the time - and the intelligent materials able to adapt to physical characteristics and varying environmental conditions prospected by recent R&D.
Real media and IT interactivity, theorised by 1960s utopians as the peak of human freedom, is now becoming a realty. It has not, however, taken us beyond the confines of human nature. Even Al Qaeda fundamentalists know how to use the networks, media and all other ITC facilities. It allows someone to exist virtually, yet at the same time permits him not to have a physical being. It’s a version of “liquid modernity”, philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s famous definition of contemporary society. Simulation remains the danger it always has been, whether at an interpersonal or business level, regardless of whether people are in a fixed or mobile office. IT may well enable wide encounters but it is equally responsible for many disappearances into the evanescent maze of the Web. Where have the love e-mails my ex once sent me? Where can the office boss find the messages of Miss S testifying to psychological harassment? There’s not much difference between rummaging through old papers found in drawers or files and scrolling down messages sent, received, or unread on a pc, cell phone or palm pilot. The medium has not the message.
*Author, designer and editorial consultant of the journal Domus,
Stefano’s personal show “Instant Karma” will be inaugurated
at the Artra Gallery, Milan on March 29.