The Workplace of the Future Design Competition revealed a wealth of fresh ideas and a bit of uncertainty about exactly where we’re headed.
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WINNER: Vertical Flux: The Office Tower as Fluctuating Atmospheres by Joseph Filippelli, a graduate of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, recently started work at Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects.
Image: Rafael Soldi
“I was interested in the concept of gradient, pulled through with temperature, lighting, privacy, social interaction—offering a total wide spectrum of choice on all those different levels,” explains Filippelli on the phone from his new job at Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects. Rather than insisting, Howard Roark–like, on the architect’s single vision of an ideal environment, and rather than piling on, Google style, an endless list of amenities, Filippelli’s primary goal was to offer the ofﬁce’s imagined occupants the widest range of possibilities. To do that, he baked in a continuum of environments, from private to public, hot to cold, bright to dark—adjacent to each other, like the pavilions of a botanical garden.
He derived the design from his master’s thesis project, which took on (of all things) an ofﬁce building in Cleveland. Examining the last century of the American ofﬁce, Filippelli identiﬁed a key moment when the workplace had taken a wrong turn: the postwar arrival of inoperable windows and complete HVAC systems, which standardized the atmosphere. It’s not typically put quite this way, but Filippelli’s notion was that when we standardized temperature, all the other elements of our environment followed. Ofﬁce workers were no longer masters of their own domains, but beholden to a set of optimized—and therefore standardized—conditions. It wasn’t about good or bad design, but merely the same design across a single space. “Nobody was really satisﬁed, because it was hitting that middle ground,” Filippelli says. “It’s hard to generalize for two people, let alone a group of people.”
Filippelli deliberately portrayed the space with a dreamy quality. “Those renderings were never supposed to be literal,” he said. “They are more Xrays of all the systems in play.”
Courtesy Joseph Filippelli
The comfort-based approach he imagined cracks open the section of an ofﬁce building, with leasable modules that stretch between ﬂoors and ﬁt together, Jenga-like, forming “a ﬂuctuating gradient of vertically distributed atmospheres.” Of all the variables typically considered in new ofﬁce designs—break-out spaces and workbenches, elaborate kitchens and a library-like cocooning room—somehow the basic idea of temperature control has rarely entered the discussion, ostensibly imagined to be too expensive or difﬁcult to control. But by rearranging the space vertically, Filippelli convincingly shows that natural temperature gradients created by light and height can drive different kinds of programs: a “communal garden stair,” an “active-work table,” or a “single-occupancy modular ofﬁce pod.” There are allusions to touch-screen surfaces and “thermally active” materials, but for the most part, this workplace of the year 2020 could be built today. “I’m not pushing the envelope of anything we don’t have available,” Filippelli acknowledges. “I’m not using crazy technology where people are zipping around in little hovercrafts.” Yet it seems oddly ﬁtting that in a climate-obsessed future, our most pressing wish (and a workplace’s greatest perk) will be simple temperature control.