Designers’ Manifesto

Days ago, reading an article about design, architecture and art, I found my self thinking about how workplaces affect cognitive capability as well as mood. I realized that I’ve never been so lucky, I bet I’m not the only one here, to work in a bright big-windowed office, truth be told, not even in a decent one. A few times I enjoyed the benefit of 2sqft small windows (you know that pleasurable prison cell effect) but most of the times no windows at all, giving me the comfortable idea of being trapped in a dungeon or -less romantically- the thrill of spending 8 hours a day in a cold war fallout shelter. So, this article I’ve been reading was the transcript of a school lecture given in some American design schools and, among a broad variety of subjects, focuses on creating the right environment for creative professionals to stimulate their brains. It says:

“..give your workmen the bright and noble surroundings that you can create. Stately and simple architecture [] do not put your designers in a barren whitewashed room and bid them to work in that depressing and colourless atmosphere, but give them beautiful surroundings..” 

Apparently it seems that in our era of cost-effectiveness, natural daylight has become a luxury reserved to penthouse owners rather than a physical need. Yes, but well-being shouldn’t be a privilege, plus research demonstrated with not a hint of doubt how employees exposed to daylight are healthier in both body and mind. Sadly, ugliness in commercial/industrial architecture has become such a standard that bare concrete gray walls are not rarely described as valuable minimalism. No they’re not! They’re just the quintessential expression of mental poverty and an artful way to save money. 

Gunma Music Center, photo by Takao Shiraishi

Think about this for a minute: have you ever thought why some 1900s red brick factories are turned into high-end apartments? Because they were conceived as places to live in, not mere workforce containers. 

Marathon Motor Works

One thing must be clear, I’m not claiming work conditions were better a century ago, nor I’m saying 21St century architecture doesn’t show brilliant examples, I’m pointing out that for several reasons -mainly cost- nowadays the average workplace, most of the times, not only cannot be considered of any architectural interest, but is a menace to both physical and mental health. 

The lecture has other interesting points on this topic 

“Do not think that the commercial spirit which is the basis of your life and cities here is opposed to art. Who built the beautiful cities of the world but commercial men and commercial men only?”  

This means that workers don’t have to resign to sadness, surrender to moles’ living conditions walking dark tunnels until retirement. Commercial spirit should be obviously pro savings but not necessarily against humanity.

“People often talk as if there was an opposition between what is beautiful and what is useful. There is no opposition to beauty except ugliness[]” 

It says clearly that the dichotomy is between beauty and ugliness not between beautiful and cost-effective. Take a look around, the world is abundant in cheap nice things and expensive awful ones, I’m giving you an example: running in Central Park NYC is free, the intake of oxygen is excellent and and the immune system improves. Running on a treadmill in a Manhattan fitness club is everything but cheap, oxygen and carbon dioxide balance is sometimes questionable and germs coming from stranger’s sweaty bodies.. well, you got it.

Central Park, photo by Davide Medina

Let’s put it this way, we all know running a business is a delicate balancing between cash coming in and going out and maximization of profit is such a yummy treat not to be pursued, but even the hungriest capital gourmand should understand not only that workers’ living conditions matter but also that happier and healthier people are far more productive. Creating a dystopian world governed only by financial gain, not taking into account that people can’t be packed inside a warehouse like machinery, won’t help. It will only make antidepressants makers richer, luckily, some illuminated entrepreneurs already got it and user/human friendliness will be given due consideration.

Oops, I almost forgot to cite the title of this design schools lecture:

Art and the handicraftsman, 1882, Oscar Wilde 

Yes, that’s correct, written in 1882 by Oscar Wilde.