‘Why can offices be so boring?’ This is one of the key questions posed in Gideon Haigh’s illuminating book The Office: A Hardworking History (2012). It’s a query that many readers will empathise with, just as they will with the answer that Haigh subsequently provides. ‘It goes with the territory,’ he explains: offices are boring because they’re places of work and, well, work is normally tedious. ‘An office too exciting,’ Haigh speculates, ‘might conceivably be failing in its mission.’
This answer, however, would carry little water with Brookfield Properties, the US developer behind landmark office blocks such as 100 Bishopsgate in London and 388 George Street in Sydney. In September 2022, Brookfield Properties released Art of the Workplace, a report published in the context of sharply declining office occupancy levels – a phenomenon accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic and the concomitant rise in hybrid and home working. Though the pandemic has receded, this problem for landlords has not disappeared. In the first three months of 2023, for instance, US office vacancy rates rose above 20 per cent; in London, office vacancy now stands at 8.6 per cent, with the value of these spaces expected to drop by close to 40 per cent before the end of next year. With Art of the Workplace, Brookfield Properties offers suggestions on how to reverse this trend. Not least among them: put more artworks in offices.
Art of the Workplace is based on a survey of 1,000 workers in the United Kingdom, whom Brookfield Properties describes as being attracted to working in ‘spaces enriched by art, culture and wellness, which they believe promote creativity, contentment, socialising and learning’. Adding art to spaces (which Brookfield Properties bundles together with ‘the nurturing practices of wellbeing’, as represented by photographs of people doing crunches in a skyscraper) is the best means to create ‘spaces that inspire and generate an instinctive sense of purpose’. In its own developments, Brookfield Properties has commissioned a series of recent works and exhibitions: outdoor installations by Anna Lomax and Emily Forgot; gallery-style displays in lobbies by Anna Ray and Anton Alvarez; and works displayed sporadically around buildings, such as wall-mounted painted silks by Christian Ovonlen.
Brookfield Properties is not alone in this approach. The organisation Art in Offices specialises in sourcing works from emerging practitioners (price range: £40 to £60,000), arguing that their addition to workplaces ‘directly translates into people being 35% more productive’. Landmark, a provider of co-working and office spaces, similarly believes that if ‘staff walk into a once-bland office to find it spiced up with art spices, they’ll know their company is treating them and showing appreciation.’ Fortunately, Landmark is itself a bazaar for just such spices: ‘Boost office morale with an artwork,’ the company’s website advertises, ‘one month’s free rental, PLUS 10% off when you buy or rent.’ Many of the works exhibited in such spaces are of high quality and produced by artists worthy of support (particularly given that the majority are relatively early in their practice), but it is telling how frequently office art programmes yoke art to its financial benefits for a company. Art can be many things: here, it is predominantly a driver of productivity.
This use of art as a carrot is not new. The phenomenon combines elements from the rise of Silicon Valley-style offices, in which companies lay on amenities and often-absurd leisure activities (BrightHR in Manchester provides Nerf guns and indoor goalposts) to maximise the amount of time that employees spend in their buildings, with the more widespread use of art as a means of placemaking. Canadian developer Westbank, for instance, describes its public partnerships with artists as helping its buildings become ‘a cultural platform for the creative city’, and purposefully blurs the lines between art commissions from the likes of Zhang Huan and Elspeth Pratt, and its commercial architecture. Westbank’s Vancouver House skyscraper, for example, is explicitly marketed as a ‘living sculpture’. For those who have not seen the tower, it twists a bit in the middle.
In all of these examples, art’s predominant value is financial – its capacity to lure people into a space in order to spend or make money, be they residents, shoppers or workers. The phenomenon is essentially one of placemaking, taken out of its familiar semi-public context and applied to the physical confines of a nine to five. Brookfield Properties and its ilk hope that by transforming places of work into places period, they can reverse the trend of declining office occupancy. As its Art of the Workplace report declares, ‘[offices are] clearly not just about work’; they are ‘crucially important to many workers in fostering a sense of community’.
While an office can sometimes be about community, it is always about work. In fact, even the idea of the office as a specific building typology is comparatively recent. ‘The office did not come into being like the spinning jenny or the factory system,’ Haigh explains. ‘It was first an area – in a warehouse, in a store, in a home – cleared for keeping a ledger or writing a letter. Office functions are as old as commerce; the customised physical location is a far more recent development.’ This, Haigh notes, is the essential truth at the heart of the office – ‘it was an activity long before it was a place’ – and the rise of hybrid working has seen a resurgence of this sense that work is labour, not locale. The addition of art to offices, however ‘nurturing’ it may be, will do little to change this.