BDG architecture + design

Trust & Transparency

Words by Grant Gibson, Illustration by Miguel Montaner

Over 10 years ago, BDG designed a feature stand for the inaugural workplace exhibition. The stand was designed to provoke thought and discussion around the themes of TRUST and ALIENATION in the workplace which, as workplace designers, we were facing as challenges to developing new ways of working. Now, over a decade on, new ways of working has evolved significantly and gathered a multitude of new names and descriptors along the way but the core issues that all management teams have to deal with to create real change in their organisation remain the same - ‘TRUST AND ALIENATION’. Grant Gibson’s column below argues that it’s not just management style that influences trust but that both interior and exterior design can also play a part. It’s about balance in all things - too much transparency can be as devastating as too little.

Several years ago I wrote a piece for a bleeding edge Dutch architecture magazine where I celebrated the then tenth anniversary of the Stirling Prize by spending a week travelling around the country to previous winners and seeing how they stacked up. It was a fascinating trip charting a brief moment in British history of (often) lottery-funded architectural splurging. The perfectly decent but hardly iconic Centenary Building by Stephen Hodder for the University of Salford won in the Prize’s first year for instance, but by 2004 the gong had gone to the Foster and Partner’s designed 30 St Mary Axe, 229 


better known of course as The Gherkin. Along the way there were surprises: magnificent though the old steel works are, should Wilkinson Eyre’s Magna Centre in Rotherham really have beaten The Eden Centre to the prize in 2001? And there were flaws: on a sunny day it’s impossible to sit in the front few rows of the Lord’s Media Centre without being fried as the sunshine pours through the unshaded window. 

Notions of lightness and transparency had cropped up in a number of the buildings I’d visited – from Fosters’ American Air Museum at Duxford to Will Alsop’s new take on the traditional library in Peckham – none more so than the celebrated Laban Centre in Deptford, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. In many respects there’s nothing wrong with the thinking behind this of course. By its nature transparency is more democratic, it’s why, after all, George Snowden has heroic status among the liberal left. The idea of Laban’s design was that the dancers and administrators could see and be seen all around the building, rather than being hidden away in separate studios or offices. This meant in turn that communication would improve, ideas could be shared and hierarchy flattened. Only I wasn’t convinced. As I wandered around on my tour I noticed that my presence was having a surprisingly disruptive effect. As anyone who has ever done amateur dramatics will testify, the rehearsal period is an intensely private time, where experimentation takes place, relationships are forged and mistakes are made. However, the building’s design neglected this, exposing the dancers when they were at their most vulnerable. I was intruding.

It left me with a deep mistrust of this drive for transparency that is currently so common in the contemporary workplace. In the same way that out of town supermarkets destroyed the corner shop before repopulating the same sites with their own ‘Metro’ style versions, so management and designers have conspired to rip out cellular offices by going open plan only to create new pieces of furniture that provide employees with the sense of privacy they once took for granted. Over the years breaking down the walls of the office has been made to sound like an egalitarian act when it is nothing of the sort. Having the company’s executives sit among their staff is, at its most rudimental level, supposed to prove they are all in the same boat but the effect is usually illusory. (Suffice to say that since it became prevalent social mobility in the nation has dropped and the gap between the rich and poor has widened to an unbridgeable chasm). Instead all too often it’s about tightening control rather than promoting creativity. Having been involved in a couple of office re-designs during my career, it seems to me opening the floor plan has the effect of inhibiting, like at Laban, rather than freeing the staff. Technology plays its part too. I am happy to accept that in some jobs the shared diary is necessary for safety reasons, however, it can also be used to keep a tighter rein on employees. (It’s one of the reasons I still carry an old fashioned paper version around with me.) 

It seems to me that trust is the most empowering emotion in the workplace. Once you feel trusted by your manager and colleagues you are more likely to be more productive, to freely volunteer to put in longer hours, and to enjoy the job you do. However, many of office design’s innovations are based around the economics of fitting more people into less space, and a more subtle form of Taylorism, dressed up as something all together more democratic. They are the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, inspired by the desire to control rather than promote trust.