The built environment is poised for a transformational shift as work and
public life merge into the public mesh.
The Architectural Design Program at Stanford University, the School of Architecture at Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design, and architecture firm WRNS Studio have published a new book, Workplace + Public Realm, suggesting that the built environment is poised for a transformational shift as work and public life merge. The book reflects the findings of a yearlong research studio led by the three entities. The endeavor benefitted from the sponsorship and expertise of primary backer Jones Lang LaSalle, as well as Kilroy Realty, Knoll, Intuit, Equity Office, and CoreNet Global—Northern California Chapter.
The nature of work has always shaped the built environment, which has evolved significantly from agriculture-based townships to industrial cities connecting vast infrastructural networks to clerical cities of hierarchy and order. With the Information Age in full swing and automation positioned to further skew the workforce toward creative and strategic thinking, the market demand for innovation is reaching a tipping point. Knowledge work compels what WRNS Studio partner Bryan Shiles, who conceived of and co-taught the class, calls the “public mesh,” or the blurring of workplace and the public realm, with intriguing and complex implications for the built environment.
The class, which took place during the 2015/2016 academic year, used different sites in Boston, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley to investigate the impacts of changes in work and workplace upon the public realm and vice versa. “Planning and designing places for work today not only means reorganizing our physical environment in new ways, but it also means developing novel approaches to capture and investigate the practice of architecture and design as it undergoes radical change in terms of its actors, processes and places,” notes Kristian Kloeckl, Associate Professor at Northeastern University, who co-taught the studio. Adds John Barton, Director of Architectural Design at Stanford University: “New modes of practice call for new modes of education as well. This studio collaboration not only investigated urban work issues, it explored new curricular approaches and asked students to learn, collaborate and lead in wholly new ways.”
The students’ research points to two key benefits—flexibility and work/life integration—sought by today’s knowledge workers who expect meaningful interaction as well as autonomy over the processes of their work. While flexibility and work/life integration have been well covered in journalism, the students’ research, as organized in the book’s opening chapters, compels a deeper inquiry into the commonly held assumptions of both. For instance, workplace flexibility is not just a matter of making buildings adaptable for future uses; it’s also about supporting worker wellbeing by allowing for flexibility in when, where, and how work happens by situating work in close proximity to infrastructural networks like transit or other amenities like fitness. Likewise, the work/life dynamic shifts from balance to blur, as it can often be difficult to know in any given moment if someone is working or “doing life.” As most knowledge work can now be done anywhere, the workplace must evolve for relevance by offering experiences, tools, and spaces one could not find outside the office.
From an evolved understanding of the concepts of flexibility and work/life integration arises the need for a new kind of platform to better support them—the public mesh. The public mesh is an ecosystem, or network, of publicly accessed places, mutually defined by public and private entities, which happens at different scales and through different territories of public and private ownership. Shiles points out that the public mesh is nascent—its more obvious nodes becoming evident in spaces, networks and infrastructures shared by workers and the public. “In this ‘becoming’ lies great opportunity to shape new spaces of engagement and access,” says Shiles. The public mesh is still far from being worked out, as explored in chapters on security, jurisdictional dynamics, and territoriality and boundaries. The book is intended to catalyze further research on how both cities and suburbs might evolve in more human-centered, responsible ways—to the benefit of both private and public interests—as work and public life continue to merge.
This publication builds off of the yearlong research studio between Stanford University and Northeastern University, exploring common themes and provocations that emerged from the student work.