Special | the office after the office
initiated by Evoline
Danes love their community
Adeline Seidel talks to

Werner Frosch

Oct 11, 2013

Adeline Seidel: Henning Larsen Architects is internationally active: How great are the differences in work cultures and how are these reflected in architecture?

Werner Frosch: There are definitely socio-cultural differences that shape work cultures. For example, I believe that in Denmark people became more open in terms of interaction in the work place well before they did in Germany. Over the last decade, the office structures built in Denmark have almost exclusively been open-plan, whereas in Germany a considerable number of cell offices are still being built. That said, building regulations also set a framework that influences an open office culture, albeit it without us noticing. The town hall we realized in the Danish city of Viborg involved creating a space for 800 people in one large room spread across several floors. That would never have been possible in Germany, as fire protection laws here restrict a German office to the classic 400-square-meter unit. In Denmark, proof that escape would be possible within a set amount of minutes is considered sufficient. Needless to say, this regulatory difference creates a lot of scope in the design and planning of office settings.

Werner Frosch at the Munich office from Henning Larsen Architects. Photo © Adam Drobiec

Seriously now, 800 people in one office – is the town hall basically an “office factory”?

Werner Frosch: No! Well, to be precise only 799 people are in the one office space, as the mayor is the only person to have a separate office, so that he or she can hold confidential meetings. Otherwise, there are no single-person offices in the five-story building. Of course, initially that came as a shock to the Danish staff members, who were used to three or four-person offices and now found themselves sitting together with 798 others. Yet, the result is certainly not an “office factory”, and users and staff alike rate the building very favorably. We structured the large building in such a way that there was a multifunction room every few axes. These multi-purpose spaces have different fittings, sometimes you get a work space with one or two tables and chairs, sometimes a kind of lounge with soft, comfortable furniture. These rooms enable the developer to experiment with various different concepts. After years of working in cell offices the idea was to first find out about the potential of such multifunctional spaces, which ones were preferable and which simply necessary.

And which type did the staff prefer?

Werner Frosch: Often rooms that are somehow too “comfy” were not especially well received. I think this is probably a reflection of our habits as are shaped by our particular work culture, namely that it is supposed to be an office and therefore things shouldn’t be too comfy or casual. People worry about what their boss would think on finding them lounging about on a sofa reading, I mean, it doesn’t really look like work, does it...

Photo © Adam Drobiec

Everyone is forever praising the advantages of open-plan offices, above all for improving communication between the staff. Doesn’t eliminating spatial separation also mean more social control by your colleagues? How do you gauge things here?

Werner Frosch: I personally felt excluded from things when I worked in a two-person office. I didn’t enjoy that style of working life, precisely because I noticed that I was cut off from the interaction between all the others. Moreover, Danish office culture centers on togetherness, which means we have communal zones that enable informal chitchat, and space for us to all eat lunch together. In Denmark lunch-time is part of your working day and is paid time, whereas in Germany it is not. That’s a small but important difference, and it certainly leads to better communication between staff members.

You tried to introduce this kind of openness in the “Spiegel” head office in Hamburg, too, but it didn’t take off. What happened?

Werner Frosch: That’s right. In the competition we proposed open office structures with a diversity of views across the central, open lobby. The idea was a large space encouraging constant interaction. What we had not realized was that journalists and media workers don’t tend to want to work in such an open, flexible setting. This could be due to a sense of competition amongst one another or because they need peace and quiet to concentrate and don’t like sharing desks – at any rate we had to completely revise the design of the offices and work stations. The conversion impacted on the architecture: The atrium is now more closed in appearance, there are many more corridors with correspondingly long, sealed wall surfaces leading to the offices, each with space for between one and four members of staff.

Photo © Adam Drobiec

“Siemens” is also not a Danish company: What standards did the company set as regards the new head office in Munich and how did this brief influence the architecture?

Werner Frosch: As developers, major international corporations like “Siemens”, “Microsoft” or “Novo Nordisk” often already have their own office strategy in place or even their own architectural philosophy. In other words, internally they will already have drawn up concepts outlining how people will work and sit together, and what shape everyday working life should take in the new build. That then forms our starting point.

But if there’s already an architectural strategy, what role does the architect then have if he can only influence structures to a limited extent?

Werner Frosch: Well, we believe that as architects we can still play a major role in the decisions as to which elements of the corporate architecture strategy actually then get realized. Because even if a company, be it “Siemens” or “Microsoft” or some other global player has drawn up its own architectural guidelines, it still falls to us architects to give these local roots. We Europeans have “office habits” and regulations that are unlike those of the Americans, with their emphasis on cubicles, or the Asians, who sit rubbing shoulders with the person at the next desk. Our task is to translate the “manual” into the respective local standards or to formulate the relevant requirements. We must design the architecture in such a way that it is flexible, but remains interesting and provides those using the building with high-quality spaces.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

How do you handle the fact that so many developers express a desire for offices that deliver maximum flexibility, and what conclusions doescan we draw from this?

Werner Frosch: In my opinion current trends in office planning do not derive from advances in technology, by which I mean devices such as laptops or tablet PCs that enable us to work flexibly and independent of where we happen to be. Instead, I believe the change in the planning culture is linked to the wish to share knowledge. It is not only things which can be produced: by communicating and interacting socially we generate knowledge. And architecture must take this into account and create a setting for it. The new concepts in office planning set out to bring staff members more closer together again, fostering communication between them all.

So how does architecture manage to persuade employees to share the knowledge they generate to a greater extent than they did in the past?

Werner Frosch: What we need is a form of architecture that facilitates chance encounters between people, in other words an open architecture. The focus here has to be on placing the spaces for chance interaction at the center of things and making certain they offer a corresponding diversity of quality facilities. Let me give you an example: For the research and lab building attached to the “Radium Hospital” in Oslo, Norway we battled hard to include spacious kitchenettes and zones where people could meet. The original configuration did not feature any areas other than the laboratories themselves and the corridors leading to them. Now, four years after the building was commissioned, the developers have approached us saying that they didn’t originally understand what benefit these areas were supposed to have but now see just how frequently the zones are used for the exchange of information – and even for work. And this is precisely how knowledge and team spirit are created.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

Do flexible work structures also require flexible fittings? So how flexible are flexible offices really?

Werner Frosch: In many companies there are flexible work structures such as desktop sharing, and these can function well as they can be smoothly integrated into the internal workflow. We can create the right potential spaces, too. The basic problem is always ensuring the spatial flexibility of such work structures. Depending on how flexibly the spaces are meant to respond to changing processes, things are more or less expensive. In other words, a completely flexible office means one where you can simply click walls into place at the spur of a moment and remove them just as simply, perhaps even slide them automatically. And the more flexible everything has to be, the more you have to do in terms of technology and building facilities. The question then arises: How much flexibility does the developer really need? For example, how often do sections actually relocate inside the building or how often do group structures get realigned? The developer must assess how the employees in the building will use space and spaces and what cycles there are to the workflow. It seems as though only a few companies require these hyper-flexible offices, as we many of the office buildings we design are anything but flexible.

If we look at office buildings realized in the 1980s, then it would seem very difficult to use them today, as they allow for next to no flexibility. What changes should we make?

Werner Frosch: The 1960s and 1970s craze of minimizing everything went hand in glove with a society that had permanently to become more efficient, still wedged in the logic of Fordist production. It never freed itself from that system: You simply cannot convert the buildings and adapt them to new requirements. It involves looking at the electrical installations, the ventilation or shade systems, everything – and even then change is impossible, if only because of the low room heights. I believe it’s important to try and develop buildings with footprints and sectioning (i.e., their interior configuration) and of course internal heights that facilitate their later conversion or the subsequent installation of additional facilities. If in a given building design practically any use is possible – from residential uses through to office work – then we can start talking of truly sustainable architecture that provides maximum flexibility.

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