Book Review

A-Typical Plan: Projects and Essays on Identity, Flexibility and Atmosphere in the Office

By Jeannette Kuo
Park Books
202pp; £39

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Jeannette Kuo’s book A-Typical Plan: Projects and Essays on Identity, Flexibility and Atmosphere in the Office is an analysis of the evolution and architectural complexity in the design of the office typology from the 1880s to 2012.

Kuo’s book on the condition of office design and why it requires study is best summarised in her opening salvo: What is the nature of work today? How can architecture inspire and enable new exchanges in the workplace? Can architecture make work pleasurable? Can architecture also anticipate new possibilities and definitions of work?

The book makes a bold attempt to address these issues succinctly in 202 pages with 20 case studies by the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Smithsons, Richard Rogers, MVRDV and Toyo Ito, to argue her cause. The selected projects are illustrated with sections, floorplans and photographs focusing mainly on the interior environment of the office typology.

Kuo attacks the repetition and sameness of the blighted office buildings in the second half of the 20th century, but her method of illustration, often thumbnail style plans and sections does nothing to engage the reader as the format is the same exercise in repetition and sameness she admonishes.

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Larkin Building (1904-06) Frank Lloyd Wright

In addition to the 20 case studies, the book’s nine essays, an interview, and a comic strip Stewart Lee would be proud of shed light on various aspects of the office building throughout its history.

The book culminates with the work of students at Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne’s (EPFL) school of architecture, showing how such research is transformed into new projects. An essay by Freek Persyn entitled “Office +; Climate-sensitive workspace” is the highlight of the publication.

The book was named as one of 2013’s Most Beautiful Swiss Books at the Swiss Design Awards, and rightly so. Much like its attempt at concise conversation, the presentation and layout is clean, clear, simple and well illustrated to make accessible a sector that not all architects and designers might have an understanding of.

But often rewarding beauty acknowledges a lack of substance, and while the book is engaging, it feels contrived, its raison d’etre is simply to be anti-Koolhaas. Kuo freely admits the book was spurred into life to address Rem Koolhaas’ “Typical Plan” essay.

Given the plethora of books available on residential typologies, it is refreshing that a book begins to examine the design of office spaces where many of us find ourselves spending the best part of our lives.

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Geller Big Font: style over substance or an exercise in key selection?

The book is ultimately a piece of research; it doesn’t answer all the questions it brings up but creates more. It does begin to broaden the conversation on how we design office space for a new world, with new climatic and lifestyle challenges we face, and one should commend Kuo for this. If future conversations are to take place, they should focus on the core issues of office design and this might yield more positive outcomes.

The superfluous architectural stance of pro-Koolhaas or pro-Kuo is the thing that restricts true flexibility in the conversation. But then, when has ego ever affected an architect’s judgment?

words by david rushe

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