after the millennium

"Architecture is life,
or at least life itself
taking form... the
truest record of life
as it was lived in the
world yesterday, as
it is lived today or
will ever be lived."
- Frank Lloyd Wright

if i had any doubt that an interior space could evoke emotion, i need only to look to memory for evidence. experience and observation support the argument. accounting for the impact of a specific space on a particular individual may be another thing altogether. Nonetheless, i think that ideas can be cast and apprehended in forms, ideas that are felt as well as understood, thug enriching the meaning we find in objects, buildings and spaces, what does this suggest for design of the 21st century workplace? i'll begin with a memory.

Not long ago, I had an appointment to meet with an architect at a well-known firm in downtown Los Angeles. I arrived at the appointed hour and stepped from the elevator into a space filled with light, one that seemed to soar upward past the open staircase and a mezzanine with offices stacked around a central atrium. I had to wait a few minutes, but I was happy to live in that generous space for a while. It felt like a place where ideas could grow towards the light. It was vibrating with activity and yet, it also felt calm.

I liked being there. Did others share that feeling? What about the bearded junior associates trekking up the staircase? Or, the young woman I met with? Clearly, they had come of age and into the workforce at an earlier time than my own. In a sense, these young people were native to a culture unfamiliar to me, separated across time as Los Angeles and Kolkata are separated geographically. Certainly, office design had changed even in the last decade. And this one was clearly a post-Millennium office, although I saw no hover boards zooming through the reception area, no dogs snuffling around desks or “ironic” wallpaper.

How different are we? Surely, Baby Boomers and Millennials share more than biology and morphology. Or, is the mindset of the Millennial generation unlike any other in history? Do these young men and women have different attitudes and aptitudes, ideals and anxieties? It may be important to find out. After all, people age 20-37 are now most of the people in North America and in the workplace.* These are the people that design can engage, inspire and empower—or not.

There seem to be hundreds of articles in print and online that describe the current crop of young adults as entitled, lazy and lacking in discipline. At work, “spoon fed” Millennials expect to be rewarded without having earned the prize. They are highly social, but unable to form lasting relationships. They have no attention span; distracted by Snapchats with co-workers and friends. Such generalities do seem to apply. What we know, empirically, is that Millennials are the most ethnically diverse of any generation and are on track to become the best educated. They are less likely to be married than young adults in previous generations and are less attached to political parties or religions. And of course, we know they like artisan coffee, indie music and bean bags.

* Note; Millennials are a significantly smaller percentage of the population in Europe and, if research by Pew is accurate, they are happier with their lives than American Millennials.

Recently, Simon Sinek, a British/American author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant published an online video that has been viewed by 6 million people on YouTube. The subject? “Millennials in the Workplace.” Sinek agrees that Millennials do pose a challenge to management, and to themselves. The source of the problem, according to Sinek, is three-fold: parenting, technology (which engenders impatience) and the work environment.

To quote Sinek, “The generation that is called the Millennials…too many of them grew up subject to failed parenting strategies where they were told that they were special…they can have anything they want in life, just because they want it.” When these young men and women are “thrust into the real world,” they discover how unworkable that self-definition is. The reality results in disappointment, a loss of self worth and a deficit of motivation.

Sinek next points out that young adults are not only fluent in the use of technology, they are also addicted to it—dependent upon a dopamine kick that hardwires the brain to seek continual affirmation from texts, tweets and re-tweets. While plenty of Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers also find it difficult to put aside their cell phones during a business meeting, perhaps only a twenty-something “executive social editor,” as described in an article in The New York Times, would “…[prefer] the theater of tweeting back and forth with the editor she sits next to rather than speaking face to face.” The editor works at Mic, a news source web site, and left her previous job because “we had to mail things. And no one really took my opinion into consideration.”

Technology has another effect on behavior thanks to an ever-ready supply of streaming news and movies, shopping websites, apps and media libraries like iTunes that are available 24/7. The “kids” get used to, and expect, instant gratification. Sinek continues, “And so Millennials are wonderful, idealistic, hardworking [and] smart kids who’ve just graduated school and are in their entry-level jobs and when asked, ‘how’s it going?’ they say, ‘I think I’m going to quit.’ They feel that they aren’t making an impact. “To which we say, ‘You’ve only been here eight months...’” Lacking experience in delayed gratification, these young people don’t know how to deal with the fact that “things that really, really matter, like love or job fulfillment…confidence, a skill set…” take time. Sinek isn’t the only writer to note the reluctance to pay one’s dues.

One writer put it this way: “If a generation had a mantra, “my way, right away, why pay?” would fit Millennials perfectly.”

Sinek’s next assertion takes us back to the office environment—not only the physical space, but also corporate culture, which, according to Sinek, is not geared to helping young human beings succeed. “We care more about the year than the lifetime,” says Sinek. “We are putting them [Millennials] in corporate environments that are not helping them build confidence…that aren’t helping them learn the skills of cooperation…that aren’t helping them overcome the challenges of a digital world and find more balance.”

In a sense, Sinek seems to suggest that companies act like good parents, aware of skills that are lacking, ready to offer guidance and feedback in order to build confidence and willing to listen to questions and challenges. Mentoring is essential. The “kids” will figure out the software.

 

"Good design is
thorough down
to the last detail"
- Dieter Rams

Sinek also suggests that business leaders need to set ground rules like a ban on cell phones in the conference room or at a business dinner, “None. Zero.” And don’t just turn it upside down. Put it away. Leave it in a drawer. Why? “When you don’t have the phone, you just check out the world. And that’s where ideas happen. The constant, constant, constant engagement is not where you have innovation and ideas. Ideas happen when our minds wander…[But] we’re taking away all those little moments.”

In those moments, people might talk to each other—and not only to toss around ideas or solve a problem. People might talk about their families, their passions and plans, building a stronger sense of connection and camaraderie.

At the end of his lecture, Sinek sums up, “The point is, we now,,,have a responsibility to make up the shortfall. And help this amazing, idealistic, fantastic generation build their confidence, learn patience, learn the social skills, find a better balance between life and technology…because quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”

We also have an opportunity—and maybe a responsibility—to offer a physical environment that informs, inspires and engages, one that encourages creativity and connection, one that supports both performance and well being. From my own point of view, I think that a workplace very much like the one described earlier, which happens to be Gensler’s  LA office, is exactly that kind of space. And it works for the three or even four generations who work there.

Architecture and design must be attuned to the tastes, habits, abilities and susceptibilities of the persons who occupy a workspace, not forgetting the obvious fact that the person—whatever his or her age—is a human being with a human body. To see Millennials as sharing a nature with ourselves – Baby Boomers or however we identify that self—is, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz, said, “the merest decency.” As is designing a space that is clearly meant for a human being to use and addressing the well-being of any and all persons by what we bring into the world through design. If that sounds ambiguous, perhaps it is; or, as George Nelson put it, “The humane environment is not a slogan, it is a mystery, which can only be penetrated by humane people.”

Sitting in that sunlit space in the midst of the teeming life of downtown Los Angeles, gave me time to think about how ideas become visible and tactile and how an office might “mean” different thing to different people. Oddly, that very modern and elegant space reminded me of my grandfather’s barn—the verticality of the space or the way light poured in from a door at the summit of the gabled roof. Maybe it was the similar way that smaller spaces—offices or stalls—cantilevered around the central open area and the clarity of function that belongs equally to the hay barn.

However one accounts for the similarities and differences between barns and offices, that memory suggests to me a continuity that exists across time and space in human endeavor and which persists from generation to generation. And I think that if we credit Millennials with intelligence and worth, they will begin to respond intelligently with much that is of value.

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The True Measure Of A Space Is
How It Makes Us Feel