Workers Cubed!: Excerpts from an Atlantic Interview on the History of Cublices

Cubicle life

I wanted to republish this but have not gotten any response from the author on Twitter and figured I would just excerpt the best parts and just do that instead.

One of the earliest and most interesting parts about this is the history of the cubicle.

Some of which you can find here:

The original designs for the cubicle came out of a very 1960s-moment; the intention was to free office workers from uninspired, even domineering workplace settings. The designer, Robert Propst, was a kind of manically inventive figure—really brilliant in many ways—with no particular training in design, but an intense interest in how people work. His original concept was called the Action Office, and it was meant to be a flexible three-walled structure that could accommodate a variety of ways of working—his idea was that people were increasingly performing “knowledge work” (a new term in the 1960s), and that they needed autonomy and independence in order to perform it.

In other words, the original cubicle was about liberation.

Of course this plan for “liberation” doesn’t last:

Later, an increased division of labor and enormously expanded hierarchy led to the offices that we more or less recognize today: large floors, filled with desks, where lower level employees work; offices along the side of the building for middle management (each of these with slight gradations to indicate status or privilege: a nicer desk; carpet on the floor, etc.); and corner offices for executives, or even different floors with different bathrooms. In places like these, space almost directly reflects hierarchy.

But are all features of a cubicle bad?

 And there are features of cubicles—such as the need to partition wide spaces—that I suspect will continue to be useful and never go away; these needs precede the invention of the cubicle itself. If people weren’t meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens, maybe they weren’t meant to have new open plans foisted on them in the guise of their encouraging “serendipitous encounters,” or whatever new buzzword justifies these often poorly thought-out designs

Here we get some of the intentions behind the book:

I suppose part of the reason I wrote the book was to make this stuff visible, to make this sphere of work that so many people do have some kind of history, and to show how power and class were operating in settings where they seemed to be hidden. It’s hard to do it without homogenizing a very varied and difficult field—without creating and relying on some abstraction called “office work”—but in that sense I was actually responding to the voices and sources that I found, where people did tend to speak of office work in a very abstract, universal way. The title of the show The Office sums up this collective understanding in an instant.

The interview ends in a mixed but interesting way, here are some highlights of that:

It’s very easy, as an observer, to imagine that the superficial dullness of office work reflects the emptiness of the work and lives of the people who perform it (and it’s just as easy to imagine that a bright, airy, contemporary open-plan space or colorful dot-com playground reflects unbridled creative brilliance).

If you take a different, longer view, and try to look at what it was like to work in offices, you find so many attempts to make work better. Whether Helen Gurley Brown’s peppy advice on how the office offers sexual freedom, or even Propst’s attempt at giving workers autonomy—all of which come out of the hope that work might one day be better, that somehow a realm of freedom might be wrested from a regime of necessity. So you might also see the office as a weirdly utopian space.

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