September 22, 2020
The enduring struggle to improve the working conditions and performance of people through the design and management of workplaces carries more than a whiff of the Enlightenment, a period in which pure reason was seen by its proponents as more than enough to convince the world of the ways in which we could improve the human condition. It’s a battle that was won in some ways but which endures.
One of the issues with arguments based on pure reason is that they can leave gaps regarding abstract notions such as love, friendship, meaning and beauty. This abstraction seems to be missing at times from the discussion about changes in the way we work. The danger is that a new focus on productivity as the primary measure of how well we work is something we will have to unlearn for a second time.
When it comes to workplace design the idea of beauty seems pretty important. However, the very notion that an attractive workplace will make people happier and more productive seems to assume that we can agree on what is attractive in the first place and that people have access to it.
This was also a challenge for the great thinkers of the first Enlightenment such as Hume, Voltaire and Kant who worked on the basis that one of the best measures of mankind’s progress was how much beauty was spread around by the arts. It’s commendable that they had this goal, but was it conceited to be the people who determined the measures for our taste in the first place? This is the eternal battle for a common definition of beauty with regard to things with which we surround ourselves.
The game is on
It’s all a game but at least serves the purpose of helping us to define common standards of beauty as a way of improving our lives. This thinking has a longstanding tradition dating back to John Ruskin and the social reformers of the early Twentieth Century. It was even bound up in the outlook of John Maynard Keynes who combined his day job as the world’s most eminent economist with another as founder of the Arts Council.
It doesn’t necessarily cost more to make something beautiful rather than ugly
Sometimes we get the balance between form and function wrong in the way we develop our surroundings. We prefer to brief and measure buildings according to their sustainability, cost and efficiency rather than their beauty. This is understandable at all times but maybe now more than usual because of the economic downturn. ‘Space efficiency’ isn’t in the eye of the beholder and appeals to our utilitarian mindset. The importance of such notions may have eroded somewhat recently, but property stories still tend to lead with a square metre figure.
Yet people clearly value beauty and we shouldn’t forget that in our focus on the bottom line. We buy and make things simply because we admire them for their beauty and want to add to the beauty of our world. We are hardwired to associate the beauty of other people with characteristics such as health, virtue and integrity so it’s no surprise that we automatically imbue beautiful buildings and things with abstract characteristics. We can even reach a more or less common understanding of what constitutes the perfect balance of form and function.
This notion of commonality is a useful idea, but is extremely difficult to apply. But that shouldn’t oblige us to focus solely on narrowly commercial or economic definitions of what constitutes good design in the built environment. That we should look beyond the numbers when designing and managing buildings seems obvious. After all, it doesn’t necessarily cost more to make something beautiful rather than ugly.