Spread from: AA Files #76

Regardless of all the talk about the end of labour, life in our societies is all about work. Ever since the 1960s the grand narrative of a leisure society has persisted, as some kind of promise that, at some point in the near future, we will be freed up to do what we want. In leisure society there would be no need for labour. There would be no need to worry about how we survive and live, since consumables would always be at hand. Yet at the same time work – as the activity producing objects, a process with a definite beginning and end, be it remunerated or not – has become diffuse. The objects produced are no longer just material, but become immaterial. Today work processes entail linguistic communication, coding and interacting with computers. There is no production without communication, and some even assert that today the soul is at work. Work permeates all aspects of human activity: work-time and spare-time merge, the actual job becomes indistinguishable from education and vocational training, private life and vita activa are commingled.

In some cases a distinction between labour and work is useful. The German philosopher Hannah Arendt, for example, writing in English, used the distinction between labour, as the necessity to reproduce humankind, to produce consumables; and, on the other hand, work, as the activity to construct a world of things in which humankind feels at home. From this, she arrived at her concept of action denoting the possibility of humans interacting with each other, becoming political. As architect I am interested in the spatial and organisational consequences and challenges that arise out of labour, and in outlining how contemporary labour has taken on specific forms, how it is organised, and what political and societal challenges relate to that. In doing that I use labour and work interchangeably. For me, a definition borrowed from Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri and American political philosopher and literature theorist Michael Hardt seems to be productive: The World is Labour.

The idea that the world is labour ties in with the most fundamental meaning of labour. It is labour on and in the world that secures and enables human existence. In English, labour also connotes giving birth. The German Arbeit relates to drudgery in the fields, to wrest food from soil. Both meanings point towards labour as a struggle of sorts, in which humans are at the mercy of an unpredictable nature. To insist that the world is labour also emphasises the fact, as Negri and Hardt point out, that the dominant economic model, also known as ‘capitalism’, is not a spatially and conceptually confined system, but has rather become an all-encompassing condition, that today captures the whole globe and has infiltrated the state apparatuses and their juridical systems. For me, ‘the world is labour’ proposes that capitalism has become an uncontested second nature, which affects all of us.

It is the merit of Negri and Hardt to focus, as their book’s title Labor of Dionysus already suggests, on joyful labour power, the joyful ability of a wo/man to work. They discuss the obvious paradox of labour being at once vital, creative and constitutive, and capitalism’s ability to capture this human energy, mounting it into its processes of surplus-value creation. They go on to identify the joyful aspect of labour as a positive force to subvert capitalism’s regime. In Negri and Hardt’s use, ‘the world is labour’ expands the traditional Marxian concept of commodified labour processes, with a multitude of social productions. It is shifting the focus away from male-dominated industrial labour processes. Affective labour as well as care and domestic work are just a few topical concepts that have arisen from this perspective.

Yet, realising that the world is labour also reminds us that Western industrialised countries and their metropolitan areas are just nodes in a contemporary all-embracing capitalist world wide web. It points also to that fact that the oppressive and disciplinary industrial regime has not disappeared. Dirty industries just get outsourced to far-away countries, becoming invisible to societies in metropolitan areas of the West, although they depend on them and implicitly exploit their labour force. In this sense it also questions the timely narrative of labour becoming digital, creative and so on, promising ever more self-determination and freedom to each and every individual.

Spread from: AA Files #76

There is no doubt that capital’s constitution has radically altered since the end of the Second World War. While its outset can be traced to the immediate postwar years, the changes became tangible and entered a broader discourse in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also German chancellor Helmut Kohl, are international figures symbolically representing this new political and economic reality referred to as neoliberal, consumerist and informatic. The coming into power of Helmut Kohl, for example, is termed as ‘turning point’ (die Wende), suggesting the replacement of one regime with another. Yet I would argue that this definition is misleading. The coming to power of such political figures was merely a preliminary culmination of an ongoing process of intensification and acceleration that only today we start to perceive in its full extent.

The emergence of a new, pervasive form of capitalism, able to organise and govern society at large, can neither be attributed to one single political ideology, nor to a specific cultural shift. However, the development of new technologies 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. Norbert Wiener, one of the early protagonists of this new thought model, defined cybernetics as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. From its outset transdisciplinary, cybernetics was an intriguing way of thinking. Especially in its formative years it attracted the political left. Its hypothesis promised a new form of governance that could overcome despotic and hierarchic authority and finally free humans from labour through the introduction of digital machines, today widely known as computers. Soon, cybernetic thought, obsessed with information flow in machinic (machine-like) and biological systems, permeated and influenced numerous disciplines, from physics to homeopathy and of course also architecture, and soon even entered mainstream discourse.

The popular application of cybernetics intensified and accelerated the capitalist circulation of value by shifting the focus from the production of material goods to the processing of information. Surplus value is created precisely through the quantification of information flows, which are abstracted into labour processes. Cybernetics considered the human brain synonymous to the digital calculator, and this analogy became the pragmatic denominator, which would affect labour in a profound way. Both the brain and the digital machine process information. And both are programmed or coded, and hence are re-programmable and re-codeable. This equation paved the way for the idea of full-automation, suggesting that all human work, including knowledge work, could be replaced by machines. This perspective was seen as potentially emancipatory, as it would ultimately end labour understood as drudgery, and allow the entire human workforce to be dismissed into an everlasting spare time (that at this very moment in Europe was secured by the social liberal welfare state). Architecture was not immune from the influence of this discourse, and perhaps the clearest early spatial and organisational embodiment of cybernetics can be found in the so-called ‘Bürolandschaft’ (office landscape) designs. Bürolandschaft can be seen as a blueprint of how contemporary labour is organised and constituted.

The design of Bürolandschaft was developed by a transdisciplinary group, the so-called Quickborner Team (QT), in late 1950s Germany. The aim of Bürolandschaft design was to accelerate information flow within an organisation to guarantee the most efficient decision-making processes geared to an enterprise’s goal. The explicit ambition was to gradually automate administrative labour. Bürolandschaft does not represent a rupture with previous labour organisation, but, rather, the evolution of already established forms of scientific management. Its organisation is merely a spatial re-arrangement by means of set-theory, allowing to group mathematically clearly defined humans and machines into finite sets, identifying co-working groups. Bürolandschaft was based on a flattening of hierarchies; human labour force and digital machines (at that time still punch-card machines) were placed on an abstract horizontal plane. Traditional signifiers of a disciplinary regime – the boss who assigns tasks, as well as the foreman observing all labour processes – disappear. Instead, a reciprocal dependency between all human labourers and digital machines is established through highly formalised and quantified work processes aligning with the given logic of coding of digital machines, instituting an early form of control society. A side-effect of such a labour organisation is the becoming immanent of a given goal; as no one gives explicit commands, it becomes more difficult to question or revolt against them.

Digital machines are implemented into labour processes in a pragmatic way. All possible and conceivable information-based work processes are assessed through a purely quantitative analysis – that is, by counting. Simple, repetitive information processes are at once allocated to digital machines; the rest, for the time being, until digital machines are not capable to process more complex information, to human labourers. In doing so, employees become symbolically upgraded, being addressed as specialists, creatives or scientists, with the implicit imperative to actively get involved in decision-making processes. Yet while such specialists, creatives and scientists represent a risk for the organisation, probably deciding against a given goal, human labourers are placed into teams, who need to decide on a given problem through a formalised procedure based on consensus. The effect of such rhetoric and teamwork is the incorporation of dissent, and to preclude any possible extreme decision complicating a given goal.

Spread from AA File #76

Bürolandschaft design is an apparent paradox – it is permanently temporary and transient. Its seemingly chaotic layout, easily misinterpreted as anarchic, is meticulously calculated to produce ‘subjective spaces’ for the employees. Its layout is designed to be constantly and easily re-arranged in relation to an ever-changing circulation of information, to input and feedback from the outside, as well as to the technology with which data are processed. Bürolandschaft design, with its gaffer tape decor, moveable partitions, furniture, as well as its potted plants, foreshadows what Rem Koolhaas termed ‘junkspace’ in 2002. Opening in 1960, the very first office landscape ‘Buch und Ton’ for Bertelsmann’s mail order business is a clear example of this condition. Initially realised as temporary test space on the top floor of a disused warehouse, it was in use for about 10 years. Half a soccer field big, air-conditioned and artificially lit, it is a perfectly closed environment. With a soundscape produced by the punch-card machines, distributed in the space – equalling the noise level of driving a VW beetle built in 1950 at a speed of 50km/h – the space itself has more the quality of a barracks or a camp than a decent and human environment for knowledge work.

It is telling that QT as far back as the early 1960s anticipated the future redundancy of office space. As soon as all labour processes could be automated there would be no need for such a typology. Contemporary server farms in which algorithms and bots have taken over administrative information-based labour processes, and the human workforce has been reduced to ancillary services to digital machines – for example, exchanging hardware, or cleaning – might be the contemporary precedent for a space envisioned already in postwar years. Like these server farms, office landscapes were designed as information-processing hubs. They were conceived to be cohesive nodes linked to a wider network in order to exploit the very network. Some of the more successful Bürolandschaft examples served as business models that are precursors of today’s new economy. Most prominently, office landscapes were designed for mail-order businesses such as the above-mentioned Buch und Ton for Bertelsmann, but also the Bürolandschaft for the consumers’ co-operative GEG-Versand. These business models would already in the 1960s bypass, subvert and kick-start to render redundant small businesses that were at the core of pre-war urban economy.

Bürolandschaft is just one example explicating the intensification and acceleration of capitalism since the Second World War. The history of workspace paired with the advancement of technology ever since suggests the dissolution of the strictly marked enclosure that still was needed in Bürolandschaft to ensure the control of information-flow. The workspace gradually opened up and spilled out into the city. A good example of the gradual dissolution of workspace enclosure is Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer (1967-72). While its inner organisation complied with office-landscape logic, Hertzberger designed an office building with a multiplicity of entrances and exits, as well as incorporating a public street traversing the building, consciously blurring inside and outside of the administrative building. In this sense the workspace started to spill out into the city, the whole city ultimately became a workspace, the whole society became a factory. An observation that complies with Mario Tronti’s concept of the ‘Factory of Society’ that I understand as the most powerful analogy of labour’s organisation in relation to architecture.

Precisely when it comes to architecture do we need to acknowledge that today’s modes and means of production require different spatial figurations for work and for life. Yet while it is true that atypical employment relations, such as self-entrepreneurship, as well as alternative lifestyles beyond the bourgeois small family have grown – at least statistically – these alternative forms of life are marginal and not yet representative of Western metropolitan societies. Wage labour and traditional family relations have been slowly disappearing for at least the last three to four decades, yet the lived reality of the masses with its social norms and expectations has not yet changed. Self-entrepreneurship, as well as the shiny figure of the freelance worker as artist, very much in the focus of contemporary critical as well as popular discourse, is and will stay a minority phenomenon of a privileged group as it only guarantees a stable economy for a tiny section of society. Furthermore, up until now, the disintegration of the nuclear family has led to a society of singles rather than propelling social experiments.

I argue that the technological and social advancements that our societies have been experiencing since the Second World War have, rather, been weakening the agency of workers and the masses, rendering them ever more dependent on capital and its technology. Yet understanding the current capitalist world order as an artificial construct, as a man-made environment that, as I have been suggesting above, is presented to us as a second nature, could help us deconstruct it. Such an understanding opens up to the discipline of architecture and its interventions in the built environment. In this sense architecture is not merely mirroring existing life-forms, but is prompted to provide proposals for eligible new life-forms. Architecture needs to think about aesthetic, spatial and organisational forms for existing, however not yet realisable desires. Such a proposal would need to be aesthetically and culturally advanced, yet clearly marked as socio-political, and not merely propelling and reinforcing a capitalist order of societies.

  • Literature:

  • Christian Marazzi, Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.
    Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009.
    Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958].
    Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State Form, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. (pages: I only have the German version at hand: Part I: Communism as Critique – in the paragraph right before subtitle „Subject“)