It’s hard to pinpoint the very first example of the open plan office, but it’s generally agreed that it came to the fore in the 60s and 70s – and was at least partly driven by a rise in open plan architecture more generally. New ideas of management and theories of work, as well as a belief that office space needed a drastic shake up, also helped drive its adoption.
And although many now perceive it as the epitome of drab, corporate culture trying hard to be egalitarian, the open plan office was surprisingly controversial in its early years. “A lot of young architects and designers really saw this as a radical and even youthful solution to the office,” explains Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, assistant professor of design history at Purdue University, and author of a new book uncovering the development of the open plan office in the US.
“There was a kind of counter-cultural association of it as well. In my book I talk a little bit about the McDonald’s office – which had this think tank room with a giant waterbed in it – as an example of how they were writing these countercultural reference points into the open plan, and you can see that not only in the interiors, but the way they marketed and talked about it.”
Not just a 700-gallon waterbed – which, by the way, sat in a padded circular meditation room accessible via a hatch – the 1971 McDonald’s corporate HQ played rock music in its cafeteria, and encouraged workers to dress in “fashionable ‘mod’ clothing”, writes Kaufmann-Buhler. Journalists reported on the space as “a reflection of their progressive corporate culture”, and McDonald’s executives emphasised that its more youthful approach would attract and keep talented workers that weren’t interested in having a prime corner office spot. It’s strange to think about all this now, when, for many, nothing seems more pedestrian than an open plan office.