• "Nimm dir einen Regelkreis
    und tu dich mittenrein
    Schnell erhältst du den Beweis 
    besser kann die Welt nicht sein." 

    (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle, Lob der Kybernetik, 1984)

Praise of Cybernetics, a song by German avant-garde band F.S.K. (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle) first performed in 1984, plays with the German cliché of thoroughness and its obsession with technology. The song is a telling account of what can be called self-conditioning through reason: “Take a control-circuit and put yourself right into it. Swiftly you have the proof, a better world cannot be”, as the jolty translation of the refrain reads. “Games are for play…”, so the song starts. “Yet life is one algebra, and is solved through reason”. Algenra is here identified as as a thing, an object. It longer means literally the reunion of broken parts, no longer the study of equations and relations in their multiplicity. Multiplicity gets metaphorically reduced to one equation and to one relation: the control-circuit of cybernetics, to which subjects voluntarily subordinate themselves in order to realize how good life is. The song narrates surreal and dreary life-situations of people with German cliché names like Edgar, Heinz, Senta or Horst, balancing self-determination and self-control in the search of a better world. 

The song is first being performed in 1984, at a time, when political figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also German chancellor Helmuth Kohl just came into power signifying what is commonly referred to as a new political and economic regime, circumscribed as neoliberal, consumerist, and informatic. Yet, the coming to power of such political figures was merely an interim symbolic culmination of an ongoing process of alteration and restructuring of Western industrialized societies’ constitution from a disciplinary society towards a society of control. A process that needs to be traced to the immediate Post-War years and today can be witnessed in its full extent. The emergence of such a new, pervasive regime, able to organise and govern society at large, can neither be attributed to one single political ideology, nor to a specific cultural shift, and neither to a specific moment in history. However, the development of new technologies and its accompanying logics did have a significant impact on this process, as the rise of cybernetics can be seen as a fundamental factor in the construction of new forms of social control, that the song is highlighting. 

Cybernetics, in its formative years following WW2, proved very attractive to the political left.[1] Its hypothesis promised a new form of governance that could overcome despotic and hierarchic authority and finally free humans from tedious labour through the implementation of flat hierarchies, or the introduction of digital machines, known today as computers. Soon, a popular strand of cybernetic thought, obsessed with information flow in machines and biological systems, permeated and influenced numerous disciplines, and soon entering the architectural discourse.[2]

One spatial application of cybernetic principles, that was less explored by architectural historians, is Bürolandschaft [office landscape]. Bürolandschaft was invented by Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, two German management consultants, and their transdisciplinary team of mathematicians, information scientists, artists, and, at the beginning, with no architects.[3] From its founding moment in 1956 the so-called Quickborner Team [QT] was engaged in developing, what they would call, a scientific design methodology to optimize administrative organizations. Organisationskybernetik [cybernetics of organization] as they initially would call their method, was the foundation for the design of a series of office landscapes between 1959 and the late 1960s, later on including the spatio-organizational concept for the Federal Chancellery of Germany in Bonn[4] and Hans Scharoun’s infamous state library in Berlin. Their method for administrative organizations was based on meticulous quantification of all aspects within an organization, putting an emphasis on information-flow through participant analysis and counting interactions, like phone calls and meetings. The design process included participation of representatives of a given organization, and aimed to optimize information flow. Its explicit goal to fully automate all work-processes and to free all workers from tedious labour and to dismiss them into everlasting leisure time.

To Eberhard Schnelle cybernetics was an emancipatory conceptual model that had the potential to transform the aspect of heteronomy of labour into an autonomy of every singular human being. By overcoming imposed moral standards such as honour, duty, loyalty, and diligence, that are “in the position to exact performance from the lower ranks without the return of any material value”[5], Eberhard Schnelle’s argues, a new pragmatic and goal-oriented society could be constructed, with the “aim of making the entire system more creative, in other words more rapidly adaptable and more capable of learning”.[6]

Bürolandschaft designs explicate this idea of a creative and potentially rapidly and constant adaptable organization and space. On the one hand, it is the very organization of administrative work itself that was aimed to foster creativity, understood as the active participation of all workers in finding solutions for a problem, and the adaptability, or learnability, of the organization in relation to feedback from within and from outside of the organization. It was QT’s conviction that there is enough knowledge and creative potential within a given organization to deal with and master any complex problem. Hence, the idea was to concede everyone within the organization the same freedom and the same equal status within the decision making process, in order to make available that very knowledge. The only limitation to the granted freedom was the “restraint to cooperate.”[7] In that sense, the organization of office landscapes considered all co-workers on the same hierarchical level, be it the owner, a group-leader, or someone only assisting in a work-process. An important asset of office landscape’s organization of work was the introduction of calculating machines, like punch-card apparatuses in the late 1950s, that took over repetitive work, considered to be tedious. In the QT rhetoric co-workers got addressed as experts, as scientists, and as creatives. They were no longer mere workers to fulfil a task through disciplinary guidance, but got addressed as autonomous subjects, that had to take on responsibility and become pro-active in problem solving. All the workers had expertise, no matter what their task was in the former work hierarchy. And this very knowledge was important to make available for the administration’s efficiency. At the same time, these autonomous human experts were incalculable for the cybernetic organization. After all, the management would not know what and how an autonomous expert would decide in relation to a given problem, potentially even deciding against the given goal of the enterprise. Hence all experts were teamed up in small interrelated groups and bound to a normative decision making process that involved consensual decision making. Hence participation was crucial for the success of this form of organization. Workers in that space, freed from the feeling to be supervised from a gaffer, started to work from their own impulse, and at the same time would control other co-workers through defined participatory processes. 

The design of the space itself allowed and fostered permanent re-arrangement and adaption of the organization. The seemingly endless, air-conditioned and artificially lit interior designs looked chaotic. Yet they were meticulously calculated, taking into account, for example, noise level, sight lines, or team affiliation. The designs were set-theory like temporary arrangements of custom-made, moveable furniture, partitioned through pot-plants and colourful shields, all including fully fitted break-rooms. As Kurd Alsleben, an early associate of QT, postulated, the design intended to produce subjective spaces “that were experienced by each individual from his respective position”.[8] An average view of the larger space at a maximum of ten meters was guaranteed, access to the individual work groups and the routes within the office landscape were marked by plants and were never planned to go directly through a work group. The orientation of the desks was programmed so that one was not looking directly at one’s colleagues or “forced” to observe one another. The spatial result aimed to afford privacy for each worker, as it was described in the QT’s leaflet of its very first office landscape “Buch und Ton” (1959/60):

  • “Thanks to the construction of the furnishings, a transparent and spacious effect is achieved. The irregular rhythm of the layout and the range of colors in the space divide up each close range for the perception, so that each of the many workspaces forms a subjective space affording privacy.”[9] 

The paradoxical formulation of an “irregular rhythm”, a rhythm that does not follow any symmetry or controlled movement, but instead is acyclic, quite aptly articulates QT’s intended ambition. The visually “irregular rhythm” lays claim to realize a bureaucratic apparatus without bureaucracy. And no matter how improbable this ambition is, Bürolandschaft designs were inasmuch successful as to create an atmosphere in which workers were feeling valuable, and, to paraphrase Praise of Cybernetics, happily put themselves into a control circuit, and stopped to question the very given goal set by a now invisible management. Workers were merely occupied with participating and making decisions within this one algebra.

  • published in: footprint, Delft Architecture Theory Journal, #25: The Human, Conditioned, June 2019


  • References

  • [1] A significant example for the political reading of cybernetics in relation to architecture are the formative years of German architecture magazine ARCH+. See Jesko Fezer, ‘Politik-Kybernetik, Arch+, die Studenten und die IG Bau Steine Erden zwischen 1967 und 1977’, ARCH+ 186/187, 2008, pp95-105. 

  • [2] For example: Yona Friedman’s diagrams on the organization of society, or Cedric Price’ Fun Palace are based on cybernetic principles. But also the projects by Archigram or Haus-Rucker-Co mirrored cybernetic ideas of a new society. 

  • [3] Ottmar Gottschalk, an architect and initially co-worker of Henn architects, who was responsible for the execution of construction work on site of the very first office-landscape realized in 1959/60, only became member of the team later. 

  • [4] cf. Merle Ziegler: Kybernetisch regieren. Architektur des Bonner Bundeskanzleramtes 1969–1976. S. 51–56.

  • [5] Eberhard Schnelle,: Organisationskybernetik, in: Kommunikation Nr. 1, September 1965, Verlag Schnelle, Quickborn, S. 1–26, hier: S. 19

  • [6] Ebd. S. 16

  • [7] Peter W. Tügel: Portrait 3: Quickborner Team, Gesellschaft für Planung und Organisation mbH, p 9-13, in Arch+ 2, April 1968, p. 10

  • [8] Kurd Alsleben: „Bürolandschaft und ihre subjektiven Räume“ in: Kommunikation 11/1965, p. 77

  • [9] Brochure “Beschreibung der Bürolandschaft des Hauses Bertelsmann in der Firma Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton“, no further information available in the Quickborner Team archives. My emphasis.