In 1960, an open-plan office—a temporary test space for mail-order processing—was inaugurated on a converted top floor of a warehouse at the corporate campus of Bertelsmann. The air-conditioned office space for the Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton was roughly half the size of a soccer field: 128 feet wide and 220 feet long, with a height of nearly 10 feet. It was lit by open, white fluorescent lamps (specifically, “white deluxe”). Its key characteristic was its visually loose, even chaotic arrangement of furniture, equipment, punch card automats, and desks that soon became a blueprint for postwar office design for administrative organizations, widely known as “Bürolandschaft” (office landscape). Soon after it was first developed in Germany, Bürolandschaft appeared in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1970s, when the British architect and workplace specialist Francis Duffy introduced it into the English-speaking world.[1]

Currently we are witnessing a revival of contemporary interpretations and variations of office landscaping: be it SANAA’s literal landscape for the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, France (2010); Frank Gehry’s Facebook open-plan office in Menlo Park, California (2015); OMA’s Axel Springer campus design in Berlin currently under construction; or Johnston Marklee’s forthcoming Dropbox headquarters in San Francisco—to name just a few of the most prominent examples. In order to understand this new wave of Bürolandschaft-like projects, it is of importance to grasp the innovative and emancipatory character of the typology at the time that it emerged.

Design, Cybernetics, and a New Society

Significantly, the Bürolandschaft was developed not by architects or designers, but by the organizational consultants and brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle. Together with a transdisciplinary group of artists, engineers, mathematicians, and information scientists, they were known as the Quickborner Team.[2] At the end of the 1950s, they had established a profile as a consultancy for innovative concepts in office organization and spatial design based on cybernetic principles. They devised the office landscape as a state-of-the-art workspace typology that optimized the flow of information within an administrative organization. Parallel to this, the Schnelle brothers opened a publishing house, Verlag Quickborn. During the 1960s, it became the most important publisher in postwar Germany with regard to cybernetics, information aesthetics, and organization theory, distributing seminal texts and research not only from West Germany and the United States but also from the other side of the Iron Curtain. 

Starting in 1956, the Schnelle brothers and their team developed a design and planning method called Organisationskybernetik (cybernetics of organization), which aspired to free all workers from tedious work through full automation by gradually implementing calculating machines, and ultimately to dismiss coworkers into the everlasting spare time of the social-liberal welfare state.

Organisationskybernetik was inspired by cybernetics and systems theory. Its initial conception was influenced by the German philosopher Max Bense and the young German sociologist and systems theoretician Niklas Luhmann, with whom the Schnelle brothers had been in contact and would organize workshops in their company headquarters north of Hamburg. Organisationskybernetik was developed as a holistic design methodology that aimed to overcome—in line with Max Bense’s “existential rationalism”[3]—the separation of the humanities and the natural sciences by applying cybernetic principles.

Another significant aspect for understanding the high ambition of Organisationskybernetik was Luhmann’s early concept of a “theory of society.”[4] Luhmann’s grand theory claims that autonomous, functional spheres like law, art, religion, and politics interact through communication in society. In the manuscript’s introduction, finalized in the mid-1960s, Luhmann emphasizes the contradictory nature of what he calls the “traditional concept of society”: at once all-inclusive while also demanding demarcations between the state and the community, Luhmann affirms this concept’s contradictory nature and argues that exactly these logic inconsistencies are a structural requirement of society.[5] For the young Luhmann, society must be constituted with its contradictions and its paradoxes, in order to allow “falsification” and hence enable progress through dissenting opinions and viewpoints. 

It is exactly the contradictory nature of society that marks an important aspect of Bürolandschaft: its design is pragmatically geared toward and incorporates dissenting opinions as knowledge feedback within the organization. Coworkers’ distinct and often contradictory thoughts and skill sets were seen as valued assets, and thus they were integrated into the design of the offices themselves—through involving of personnel in participatory decision-making processes, for example. These differences were understood as beneficial to decision-making processes and the development of calculable and codable work processes and routines.

Hence, the Bürolandschaft was not organized like a factory in which there was a clearly discernible hierarchy in which workers and their machines were lined up with military precision in rows, executing orders and being observed and disciplined from a central point. On the contrary, it was designed as a “working society,” with as “flat” a hierarchy as possible. It consisted of large-scale calculating machines, as well as small teams with no supervisor or group leader. Alternatively, when a boss was positioned as part of a group, each member had the obligation to participate in consensual decision making. 

While calculating machines (at that time punch-card machines) gradually took over repetitive work activities, employees within the organization were addressed as specialists, scientists, or creative professionals, since they had to deal with complex, not yet automated decision-making processes. Every employee was encouraged to be proactive and responsible with regard to clearly formalized work procedures in order to meet the organization’s goals. So, while the design of the office space itself was conceived by the Quickborner Team as a flexible, adaptable, temporary, and soon-to-be-obsolete instrument, the work procedures and regulations became tighter and formalized. In other words, control no longer happened through the hardware of architecture but through the software of social relations, through the calculated flow of information within the organization. 

Hence, the focus of the Quickborner Team’s design work was to optimize communication through cybernetic means. In order to map information and optimize it, they would develop a series of analytic tools to survey and assess a given organization and the flow of information, using a kind of “participant observation” technique. For days and weeks, members of the team would be immersed in a workplace and, instead of directly mapping qualitative instances (human interactions and social dynamics), would count each and every instance of communication within it. The path of an information-carrier (e.g., a letter) and the resulting oral correspondence was traced—from the porter via a series of secretaries through to the “decision-maker,”[6] from the ground floor up to the third floor, and from room to room. Also, verbal and informal communications, such as telephone calls or visits to colleagues, were recorded over a period of 10 working days, mapping who had contact with whom and when and how often.[7] By doing so, the Quickborner Team also learned that waiting at a copy machine or having a coffee was not at all unproductive but potentially moments of high productivity. While waiting and doing nothing, employees would start exchanging knowledge about problems and their solutions. It is no wonder that extensive and luxurious breakrooms became an important asset of Bürolandschaft. 

These observations were translated into a series of diagrams and charts, allowing the Quickborner Team to identify work processes that could be taken over by calculating machines or, if more nuanced than a machine could handle, be formalized for group decisions, enabling the Quickborner Team to finally process the diagrams and charts into precise catalogs of requirements for the design and the organization of the office space. The catalogs covered the design and organization of furniture, the climatic and environmental features of the interior (e.g., air-conditioning, lighting, color choice), and the representative characteristics of the space, aiming to optimize the information flow of an organization through mathematically calculated arrangements. As Eberhard Schnelle puts it: “The discovery of similar patterns or structures in many concrete tasks puts the organizer in a position to compare socio-technical systems and to develop methods of improving the performance of these systems.”[8]

Abstractly speaking, the design method of Organisationskybernetik results in an enclosed space, which is marked as a horizontal plane that is preferably extensive, accessible, and barrier-free. This is expressed through an interior that is regulated by artificial climate, with specific acoustic and lighting design—and, more physically, through an organization of movable elements, such as tables, chairs, room dividers, and plants, with personnel and automatons ordered in various constellations. In practice, the Quickborner Team defines a precise catalog of requirements, which controls the arrangement and configuration of the interior space through the interrelations of its elements. The furniture is arranged according to decisions made by work groups and assigned teams. Entrance and circulation routes are marked by plants and never invade the working units. Even sight lines are calculated so that each worker is able to survey only a certain part of the space. Furthermore, the average noise level, produced by punch-card machines equally distributed throughout the office, was comparable to that of a 1960 VW Beetle driving at 60 kilometers per hour and was rationalized because it prevented people from listening in on other people’s phone calls or conversations. 

This design did not prescribe a visually strict arrangement of work spaces but instead resembled a sweeping landscape of “subjective space[s],” as it was called in the Schnelle brothers’ description of their first-ever Bürolandschaft, Buch und Ton at the Bertelsmann campus: “A transparent and generous effect is produced through the furniture design. The irregular rhythm of the arrangement and its chromacity structure the perception of the space: it is only the close-up range that is perceived, so that each workplace produces a subjective place that creates intimacy. Moveable room dividers and plants provide visual protection, as well—they delineate circulation routes and group work areas.”[9]

Organisationskybernetik was applied first at the scale of companies’ administrative departments; some of the most significant of these projects in Germany include the mail-order business of Bertelsmann, the textile sales company NINO in Nordhorn (1961), the lighting company OSRAM GmbH in Munich (1963), the open-plan office building for Orenstein & Koppel in Dortmund (1965), the Ford Plant in Cologne (1966), and the campus for the Grosseinkaufsgesellschaft Deutscher Consumvereine in Kamen (1966). In the mid-1960s, the Quickborner Team expanded to the United States and Venezuela. Later, they applied their design methodology to the organization and design of the Federal Chancellery of Germany in Bonn (Planning phase: 1969–1973) and the interior of Hans Scharoun’s National Library in Berlin (Planning phase: 1970–1973) , in addition to developing studies to renew Germany’s health care system (starting from 1968). 

Bürolandschaft’s Legacy

With the popularization of Bürolandschaft, most significantly through Francis Duffy and Quickborn Team member Alfons Wankum’s 1969 book Office Landscaping: A New Approach to Office Planning, Layout Planning in the Landscaped Office, its visually chaotic appearance was promoted while its ideological base was frequently repressed. The historical significance of Bürolandschaft is contingent on the societal and economic framing of postwar Germany as a social-liberal welfare state. If we look at contemporary manifestations, however, the current state of the globalized finance economy has significant implications for workplace organization, specifically in relation to a changed economic and political context, as well as governance and the emergence of the enterprising self.[10] It is also necessary to consider the general evolution of office design at large—which, already by the early 1970s, incorporated a critique of Bürolandschaft’s vast interior organization—and today’s advanced information technology in relation to the concept of cybernetics at the dawn of post-Fordism in the 1950s.

In the 1950s, the aspiration of the Quickborner Team to incorporate dissent as a form of a positive feedback loop into an organization; to establish small and autonomous, yet interdependent teams within the organization; and to address employees as accountable and creative specialists, must be seen as part of an emancipatory moment in the history of workplace architecture. At the same time, it must also be understood as the radical introduction of a new kind of governance that today is a fully developed norm.

Bürolandschaft aimed to be holistic in the sense of creating a human workplace, in which the outside of the office—the social-liberal welfare state—was still in place. A corporation could be seen as a container embedded within a larger container, the nation-state and its welfare system, both interacting with and dependent on each other. At that time, it was not cynical to pursue the idea of sending workers off into everlasting leisure. After all, leisure society, a 20-hour work week, and a good life through automation were (at least according popular discourse) within reach in the postwar European social-liberal economy. Bürolandschaft’s new form of governance—with its introduction of teamwork, participation, leisure facilities, and social control through formalized work procedures—followed the popular promise of cybernetics to overcome outdated, despotic, top-down governmental structures.

Some of today’s most significant examples of open offices seem to be nothing more than immensely scaled and extravagant  interpretations of the Bürolandschaft. While in Buch and Ton, 270 employees would administer the mail-order business of Bertelsmann, there are currently 2,800 employees at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus working in one large room. The similarities in vocabulary used by Gehry to describe this project is strikingly similar to that of the Quickborner Team half a century ago: the “remarkably human environment” is “flexible to respond to the ever-changing nature of [Facebook’s] business.”[11] It also has been said to facilitate cooperation and transparency, and is intentionally not a fancy building. Of course, the 2015 California version of Bürolandschaft is garnished with artworks by local artists and makes use of the vast roof as a meandering landscape for workers to stroll around. From the imagery published on social media, one gets the impression that it is a theme park for leisure activities—sprawling and undivided—disguising its actual function as a knowledge factory that aims to capture the creative energy of its workers (and the world over). Similarly, the beautiful architecture of SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center—a literal translation of the metaphor of the office landscape into an actual sloping building—also distracts from its underlying organization as an edu-factory. Today’s knowledge workers have to pay in order to be able to work and learn in this space, and each idea generated there is being captured by the organization/university. 

Yet, only 10 years after Buch und Ton opened did the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger openly criticize the flat organization of furniture and the relentless horizontal plane of the Bürolandschaft. Applying similar organizational principles, Hertzberger designed a three-dimensional structure for his Centraal Beheer office building in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands (1972). Today, such aspiration might be found in OMA’s design for the Axel Springer Campus in Berlin. While affirming the given program of formal and informal workspaces, OMA envisions a condensed urban factory that opens toward the city and aims to be more than just a temporary, flexible space for people to produce and be creative in.

What has disappeared from contemporary discourse about labor and office space, it seems, is the way today’s advanced technology is normatively ordering and organizing work and hence (office) space and architecture. Moreover, a more wide-reaching discourse about the potential that technology can have to meaningfully reorder and reorganize our work lives and the way we could work and live together is missing. While 1960s Europe experienced a tabula rasa moment, in which corporations, open to experiments and people like the Quickborner Team, were able to break with conventions and what was known, today’s business world seems only to be interested in repeating best practices.



  • [1] For example, in his widely influential article “Bürolandschaft Revisited,” Francis Duffy constructs a genealogy of the office landscape, which refers exclusively to the British and US tradition of open-plan offices and in which he presents himself as an office landscape theoretician. See Francis Duffy, “Bürolandschaft Revisited,” Architects’ Journal (1975): 665–75.

  • [2] Only later did architect Ottmar Gottschalk joined Quickborner Team. The architects involved in realizing Buch und Ton merely implemented the Quickborner Team’s precise manuals. 

  • [3] See, for example: Max Bense, Einführung in die informationstheoretische Ästhetik (Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1969).

  • [4] See Niklas Luhmann, Systemtheorie der Gesellschaft (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017). This text was only recently published from his archives.

  • [5] Ibid. 

  • [6] See, for example, Wolfgang Schnelle, Hierarchische Ordnung im Büro, Rang- und Gruppenprobleme in Verwaltungen (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, ca. 1962).

  • [7] See, for example, Ottmar Gottschalk and Hans J. Lorenzen, “Eine neue Form von Bürogebäuden,” Kommunikation 2, no. 4 (1966): 159–80.

  • [8] Eberhard Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” Kommunikation 1 (1965): 2; my translation.

  • [9] Quickborner Team, Beschreibung der Bürolandschaft des Hauses Bertelsmann in der Firma Kommisionshaus Buch und Ton (Hamburg: Quickborner Team, no year stated, approx. 1961); my translation.

  • [10] See Ulrich Bröckling, The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject, trans. Steven Black (London: SAGE Publications, 2015).

  • [11] Frank Gehry in Amy Frearson, "Facebook Moves into California Campus Designed by Frank Gehry,” dezeen, March 31, 2015,