23 mins

08 Florian Idenburg

Internationally renowned architect Florian Idenburg talks about the significance of flexible workspaces and why the pandemic is a pivotal moment for society to redefine its relationship with work.

Florian Idenburg says utilizing all five of the senses and incorporating more project-based rooms will allow people to embrace an introverted working style.

Florian Idenburg, co-founder and partner of Brooklyn architecture firm SO-IL and author of the forthcoming book Human(s) Work, believes the office of the future will involve increased flexibility, autonomy, and imagination. 

On the episode, he considers the pandemic as a moment to rethink our relationship with the workplace and our jobs, the need for project-focused workrooms, and how workspace design might be best approached by focusing on experience instead of function.

Read more about how Idenburg believes that the role of architect will have to change to design more diverse spaces for all types of people and experiences here.

Transcript Below

SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Florian. Welcome to The Workspace of Tomorrow. It’s so great to have you with us today.


FLORIAN IDENBURG: Thank you for having me.


SB: We’re spending so much time at home right now, and I wanted to start on that subject: the home office. From your perspective as an architect, how has the pandemic affected or reshaped our notion of what a workspace is, with all of us spending so much time in our homes?


FI: Yeah, the way in which we retreated in our homes was quite sudden. Somewhere in the middle of March, whole tracks of office landscape were left abandoned, and we all ended up in our homes, and we had to sort of improvise in a way and figure out how to work. It was one of the largest, maybe, experiments in modern history in trying to figure out how would people adapt to their new situations. 


People, in the beginning, were very worried about productivity, and they thought productivity would go down dramatically. And then, maybe two, three weeks in, people started to realize, hey, this isn’t so bad. There’s actually a bunch of really good things here: I don’t have to commute anymore. Maybe I don’t have to spend so much time checking myself out in the mirror before I go out. People found some efficiencies throughout. And actually, maybe got more productive through a level of sales where also people got really worried that they just kept on working as if there was no more boundary. For everybody to redefine their relationship to work, I think this is a very fundamental moment.


SB: How do you think this will find its way, post-COVID, into how we design our workspaces?


FI: First of all, people will think very differently about the nine-to-five situation, about being in the office at a certain time, for a certain amount of time, and then going back home. I think the office will become one of the spaces from which people will work for very specific things. And, you already saw that happening at the moment that people were talking about working from home, or teleworking, which has been a very long conversation already, but the office as one of the nodes within the work universe in which we work. So one big thing will be that we won’t necessarily have the nine-to-five, five-days-a-week standard expectation of people being in this one space together.


And that will affect the way people design their offices. I was speaking to an architect here in Amsterdam yesterday. They had thirty desks. Now they have ten, and they have a very large meeting room—like a big project table, basically, where everybody can have enough distance—and they only allow people maximum two days a week into the office, and the rest you have to work wherever you want. And so, they kept the same staff size, but they’ve reduced it of their fixed workstations from thirty to ten, made this large flexible space, created much more air and much more airiness within the office. And I think that idea of not the super-cramped—trying to cramp as many bodies within a small floor plate, but actually really making it a much more open space, and one that is not occupied by this large group of people continuously. That will be, I think, maybe the first lesson, but also one that might stay after there’s a vaccine, and maybe there’s no threat anymore of Corona.


SB: One of the great paradoxes of this pandemic, of course, is the fact that we all have to remain indoors on some level to be safe from the virus. And yet, it is indoors that the virus is most easily transmitted. How are you thinking about that as an architect, and how do you think that very notion is going to play out in workspace design?


FI: It’s interesting. We worked through the concept design of a new residential building in Brooklyn in the last couple of months, and there, very clearly, the home as a place from which work can be done, but also, really, the maximization of the exposure to the exterior were two of the drivers that we embedded within the plan. Rather than having a single balcony, there the idea is really that almost every room has some sort of relationship to the exterior, either be it through French doors, or through a balcony. But really, pockets of space, so that you can also use a variety of spaces around the “fringe” of the workspace, or of the living space. But in this case, also, bedrooms are designed as home offices. So the idea that you always have access to the outside, I think, will be something that will both exist within residential buildings, but also probably offices.


What is interesting, I think the U.S. doesn’t have as strong regulations with regards to natural light as in Europe. In Europe, there is always already more perimeter and more exterior spaces. But I think, for instance, having almost exterior meeting rooms built into the office itself, or carved out of the curtain wall where people can have outside meetings, I think, could also be something that we might start seeing.


SB: I’ve never thought about it, but there could actually be policy changes in America that could shift the design of our workspaces.


FI: If you look at the history of the code in New York, many of the regulations with regards to health and wellbeing and access to light and air, were actually triggered by pandemics and illnesses. Certainly health is one of the main drivers for code, basically. Yeah.


SB: Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.


FI: Yeah. Exactly.


SB: Workspace flexibility is going to be particularly important going forward. What’s your personal definition of flexibility?


FI: If work is in some way the agreement between an organization and a human to exchange some of his or her time for a larger goal of what that company or organization has in mind, that relationship will have to be one that is meaningful. Flexibility will always have to start from how does it aid, and how does it help the person engaging in that relationship. The ability to create a comfortable space for a person to really do their best work, that should be the way we should think as designers about creating those environments.


I think it’s going to be a combination, indeed, of schedule and accommodating much more diverse and complex schedules. And I think technology is helping already with being able to have all these flexible schedules still line up into something that is productive for the organization, or the company that the engagement is with. Space-wise, as well. I think what was interesting, there was always the discussion recently about how these open office landscapes were really bad for introverts. I think this pandemic era was the return of the introvert being super comfortable, and showing, actually, that introvertness, basically, is something that is a quite comfortable and attractive environment as well to be in.


I think there will be more of that. Meaning there will be more accommodation of various stages of, say, expressiveness and introvertness. And I think that that will be the way in which we need to transform the workplace to something that’s going to accommodate that better.


SB: What are some solutions that you can think of off the top of your head, either real-world or imagined, that can embrace this flexible idea you’re talking about?


FI: I think there will be more project-based rooms rather than large shared spaces and shared desks. So really, the ability to just isolate yourself within space and work there for longer stints. And we’ve seen it already though. A little bit, the private office has come back, but I don’t think it’s going to be a private office, like a corner office with a name on the door. But really, the ability to just have a space that you can occupy for a certain amount of time that is really private and enclosed. I think there will be more of that. And again, then this alignment of various schedules, so that room is not necessarily occupied continuously, but it’s also not empty half of the time. I think that’s where most innovation will happen.


SB: I wanted to bring up the subject of deep work, and the need for privacy in this context. You’re forthcoming Taschen book, Human(s) Work, goes into this in some detail. Could you talk about how architecture shapes deep work?


FI: Deep work is indeed the ability to have long stints of time being very concentrated on one task. It means the elimination of distractions. The elimination of any sort of thing that would interfere. And so, interference is something that you can sense. It can be sound. It can be messages. It actually comes to you in these various radio waves: light, audio, but also text messages or emails, and stuff like that. The challenge would be to reduce as much of those distractors. No cats jumping on your keyboard, for instance, or other things that we’ve seen in the pandemic, where those things actually take away from the fact that you can really concentrate.


Multitasking—and I think there’s a lot of research being done—it’s actually really hard for people to multitask. There’s a real amount of time being lost at the moment. They can switch from one task to the next. There’s this residue that stays, and you can’t really concentrate. And so, I think for those who require to work on things. and for extensive time, because it’s not old work that requires deep work. There’s a lot of work that people do that is much more direct and keeping in the flow. In the text, I’m also talking about the studiolo, which was this space that existed during the Renaissance. The Medicis had this. It was a space within their home that was a way for mostly Renaissance men, at that moment—so there’s a question about that today. But basically, the idea that you can take yourself out of your everyday reality and, in a way, lock yourself in a small room. And that room was not only something that shut out all these distractions, but also produced new imaginations, because they were aligned with illustrations of symbols of the arts, or of food, and it was there to stimulate non-lateral thinking.


It’s like, what sort of stimuli could we surround ourselves with that allow us to open up our minds and open up our brains to think differently? I think that that’s going to be very interesting, to try to figure out what would be those triggers today. What sort of ideas do we need today? What is the imagery that we need in order to come up with the thoughts that would help us as society and as humanity to step forward?


SB: Fascinating. David Rockwell, actually, who was Episode 1 of this series, spoke to me a little bit about his piano room that he has in his studio with a Steinway in it. And he goes there to escape, and it’s become this retreat within the busier work environment. I know another architect as well who’s got a shoji screen behind her desk, and she’ll jump behind the shoji screen and meditate for twenty minutes a day. So, it’s finding these or creating these spaces, even in larger work environments.


FI: Exactly. Yeah, and in the book we also talk about the laboratory, and labs as workspaces. And those were always designed to be far away from everything. Post-war, the labs that used to be integrated in offices, they went to the suburbs and they tried to move them as far away as possible from the businesses themselves for people to really get into sort of this deep space. We talk about Archimedes’s bath, because a eureka moment happened for him in the bath. It had to do with the fact that it was about volume and water, and he was in the bath and he had the eureka moment. But also, it’s like, what is the setting in which those great ideas come in?


SB: It strikes me that it’s almost in some ways like bringing the home to the office. I can’t help but think that some of how we’re seeing deep work affected by all of us working at home is going to maybe have some sort of effect post-COVID on the designs of our spaces, thinking about the elements of the home that might find their way into a work environment.


FI: The big question is really Why would we distinguish between home and work? Or what are those two terms? What was really interesting to see was all of lower Manhattan empty during the pandemic, and Brooklyn being really thriving in a certain way, because that’s where most people were. But the question is, do we need both those cities? Do we need the residential city, and do we need the office city? And why do we get into our subways? And why do we get into this commute?


There’s something ritualistic about it. Then there’s something exciting about going out and bumping into people, and not knowing what to expect. So there is a joy, I would say, and a journey from one’s home to the workplace, because there can be surprises and serendipity. But at the same time, that sort of relocation doesn’t seem to make too much sense necessarily. Maybe you can just commute to somebody else’s home and work from there. I can commute to your home and you to mine, and then we work from our homes, and then we go back to our… No, but you know what I mean? Like in some way, the polarity between the two is not very productive.


SB: Yeah. They’re not binaries.


FI: No.


SB: What are some of the things you’re thinking about in terms of the role of the architect in our post-COVID reality, particularly when it comes to designing the places where we work?


FI: The book, which hopefully, I think it’s going to come out early next year. It was something we were trying to do. And so this is this book, Human(s) Work: The Office of Good Intentions. And it speaks about how we as architects and designers, what is the role of the architect within the design of the office space. And so, the “good intentions” alludes to this idea that as designers, we always are trying to make the world of work more comfortable, more humane, more well intended. But also, in that act of participating in that, ultimately a company is trying to extract as much value as possible out of its workers. So one of the things is that, I think as an architect, what the book is trying to do is at least heighten the awareness that what are you participating in? And so I think it’s going to be really important for designers to be very aware of creating as honest and as supportive an environment as possible for the people that engage in work.


And what can we do? I think we could project new types of space. At the same time, having looked at fifty years of office space, I think the things that mostly changed things are, for instance, the type of work that needs to be done. So, technological innovation affects basically which bodies are needed on the floor to do what kind of work. Many of the things are driven by outside things, and the architect ends up giving it form, but the drivers are economical, social, or cultural. 


SB: I’m curious how you think about creating a poetics of space in the workspace.


FI: Wow, Spencer, you have a lot of very difficult questions for me.


SB: And how do you do that on a budget?


FI: Yeah. There you go. And on time. 


We’ve worked on a space for Logan, which is a video production company. They work in advertisement, but they do a lot of 3-D visualization. It’s sort of a paperless office, but light is really important. They work mostly on screens. It’s mostly animations, and they work with a lot of freelancers. We did this a number of years ago in SoHo. And we basically installed a series of screens, almost like a Robert Irwin installation, in which we created some sort of sense of privacy between the different groups and the different teams, but not real walls.


In some way, you saw the shadow, or the outline, of your temporary colleague, because it’s mostly freelancers that work there. We wanted to create a space that’s very soothing, that’s very attractive, that people could concentrate on the work that they were doing. And there was some sort of awareness of the other. There were other humans around you that were also working. And I feel that if you ask, where did we attempt to [create] a poetic workspace? I think we did that relatively well there. But I think it ties into, again, creating an environment of comfort in which people can really do their best work.


SB: After COVID, how will we get gregariousness to re-enter the workspace?


FI: I know. It’s going to be very, very key, no?  The spontaneity that happens by just putting a bunch of people in a room, obviously, humor comes back as well, because it’s what humans do. I think there’s going to be a return, and it’s going to be a full embrace again, certainly when people feel a little bit more safe. But I think at the same time, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole bunch of people sitting next to each other with their headphones on, Gchatting with each other. They don’t have to do that in the same space, and then they realize that their colleague isn’t actually sitting next to them.


I think the focus on the value of these human interactions, or the interactions with materials, depending on what industry you’re in, but for us as architects, models and the tactility of materials remains extremely important. The office will shift to being the best place for the things that have to happen in person, and all the stuff that’s going to happen through technology can be done elsewhere, and that’s where the flexibility can be.


But for instance, also, and this is always the conversations people have. They say you can do a lot of things on video, but coming to the final decision, or the deal, the contract, I think that will be, absolutely, we need to be in a room—


SB: Right. Yeah, the handshake. I imagine actually we’re probably going to live more in a world where we might see a bow, similar to how the Japanese function. Could you talk about how you’re thinking about the link between the physical and the virtual? What are some of the connections you see between architecture, the built world, and digital environments, like the internet?


FI: Yeah. It builds a little bit on an interest that we’ve had in the office for open structures. In the ’70s, there was structuralism in architecture, which moved away from form follows function. It was not spaces designed for particular functions, but more structures that enabled spontaneous use. It was very much in line with what was happening in the ’60s and ’70s. And that’s great. But when it really starts to work is at the moment that you have technology that helps you schedule. I think the combination of openness in architecture—so where in the past, maybe, the physical needed to organize, now I think the digital can organize and the physical can actually be the space that enables, that opens up, and that transforms.


I feel we should move away, and that’s maybe also my argument with regards to the difference between a building for living and a building for working. If we just create a variety of spaces that have a direct effect on how we sit within our body. Then we have a good digital tool that helps us organize when, who, which body is where, that’s where I think the two can work together really well. So, almost thinking of space much more through the way it’s experienced, rather than what you’re supposed to do there.


SB: I wanted to bring up the idea of the senses in real space,  like Juhani Pallasmaa’s book, The Eyes Of The Skin. How do you think about the importance of engaging the senses, and do you think that we should have office spaces that think more about how we’re engaging see, touch, hear, taste, and smell in our day-to-day lives?


FI: Completely. You were talking about phenomenology. And there is a movement within architecture that argues design very much through that. The challenge often isn’t always: Whose body is sensing? And in this case, and certainly with that group of people that were mostly elderly white men. And so, if that’s what they sense, then how can you design for other bodies that sense maybe in different ways? I think the challenge is there to acknowledge that one person’s experience is not somebody else’s experience. And so, in architecture that is purely derived from an individual author, who then forces that experience on everybody else who has to come into that space, that’s a little bit the achilles heel of that argument. In the meantime, we all feel. We all have senses, and we all have experiences. And our environment has an effect on our physical wellbeing. The more diverse spaces and different settings of comfort we can create, I think that’s ultimately the role of the architect.


SB: What’s the thing that you’re most excited about that gets you the most hopeful for the future when you’re thinking about workspace design? Connected to that, if there were a big takeaway from this book project you’ve been doing for years now, what is it?


FI: I think in every step—and that’s where the “Office of Good Intentions: comes in—we get a little bit better. Obviously, this raises larger questions and discussions that are being held now about the role of capitalism as the driver of society and the corporation as the thing that we spend our lives on. I think, if you look at it overall, first of all, there’s an incredible history of design and architecture in the workspace that is often overlooked. We look at the museums. We look at the villas or the social housing, but we hardly celebrate, I would say, office design. There’s so much energy, and so much innovation, and so many good intentions within that world. I think what is exciting for me about the book is that it, on the one hand, highlights maybe an undersung history of design within that field. And secondly, I think what makes me hopeful is that indeed it, at every step, there is something that makes maybe the office a little bit more human.


SB: It was so great talking to you today, Florian. Thank you so much for your time. Learned a lot.


FI: My pleasure, Spencer. Always good to talk to you. Thank you.