Freedom in a world of walls

Freedom in a world of walls
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First Published: Thu, Aug 28 2008. 02 24 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Aug 28 2008. 02 24 AM IST
We all recognize a well-dressed office when we see one, but how do we judge an office landscape? Look around your office and consider: Are you free to wander out to a corner landing for a quiet moment? Are there spaces to have casual conversations without having to get into a meeting room? Do huge stacks of storage interrupt a journey across the office? Is the “open office” so vast that whispers can be heard across the room? Or are private offices so enclosed that bosses are completely cut off from the trenches?
The three-dimensional landscape of the office map is shaped by walls, partitions and open spaces, all of which have a huge impact on our conduct at work. Apart from their individual functions, these design elements play a critical role in balancing the often conflicting needs of organizations and individuals.
Me vs them
Individuals seek privacy and independence to work without disturbance. Organizations need collaboration and an ongoing exchange of ideas and information. The “open office”, with its mass of workstations divided by partitions, is becoming the preferred solution (although not the only one by any means) to finding a balance between transparency and anonymity. Pools or groups of workstations are divided functionally and spatially by walls. As office designer Judy Graf Klein notes in ‘The Office Book’, “Free-standing walls reconcile the desire for spaciousness with the need for a sense of enclosure…free-standing walls define space and territory.”
Glass partitions around a workstation are a simple and effective device for creating transparency between knowledge workers and their seniors while maintaining individual privacy—as seen in this Indian office (pictured above) designed by C.R. Narayan Rao for a US telecom company.
Slice and dice
Pay attention to the visual geometry of the space. The correct treatment of vertical and horizontal planes can create a smooth sense of movement as one walks through the office—as in this office of a service company (pictured left). Graphic patterns on the glass and the proportionate use of colour on the walls by Mandviwala Qutub and Associates helped connect spaces throughout the office. The glass cube of the meeting room was made to jut out, breaking through the plane to interact with curved walls across the corridor.
Bored by boardrooms?
Meeting spaces can often be carved out of nowhere, and from almost nothing. Rajiv Shroff and Associates were asked to redesign a heritage site for a travel services company. The designers intelligently recycled discarded materials, using a cast-iron railing to create a semi-private discussion space on one side of an open office (pictured above).
Pause for a moment
Legendary architect Balkrishna Doshi says in his essay ‘Give Time a Break’: “ architecture (the pause) is the unassigned, loosely superimposed space… The spaces may not have tangible, measurable, or material value, but they have a permanent, immeasurable and experiential value because they contain the possibilities of spontaneity… The introduction of the pause, the ‘gap’, the unexpected, ambiguous link...through its momentary sense of repose in time, and reorientation of space, counteracts stressful activity and replenishes lost energy and the spirit.”
Companies increasingly recognize the value of open spaces in improving circulation and transparency among employees. For architect Pinkish Shah, the “voids” or empty spaces between buildings are invisible magnets, holding together separate entities. One thoughtfully placed staircase (pictured above) can connect three different buildings, and also serve as a space for individual contemplation.
With office space at a premium, emptiness can seem a luxury. Yet, even a generous corridor can enable better communication with both peers and seniors. So, if your office is just a cube farm lined with cabins, consider using walls, partitions and open spaces to add breathing space.
Aparna Piramal Raje is director, BP Ergo, a firm manufacturing office furniture. Radhika Desai is a Mumbai-based interior architect. Write to us at
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First Published: Thu, Aug 28 2008. 02 24 AM IST