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Archive for Sunday, October 26, 2003

Architecture can infuse workplace with dignity

October 26, 2003

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The word "koyaanisqatsi" comes from the Hopi language. It means "life out of balance" -- a crazy life, one that calls for another way of living.

An early 1980s movie used the word as a title. The movie is full of crowded urban scenes shot in fast-motion, as if the camera were on amphetamines.

It's a good visual representation of how our hectic, multitasking lives feel today, some 20 years after the film was made. The movie came to mind because of a recent conversation with Peter Pran.

Pran is a Kansas University distinguished professor of architecture. Among his projects: an international airport for Saudi Arabia, a headquarters for a company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and a psychiatric institute in New York. But it's his design of the corporate headquarters of Telenor -- Norway's biggest telecommunications company, with 7,000 employees -- that made me think of the movie Koyaanisqatsi.

Pran aims in that building's design to restore to human beings something that, in the movie, has been lost.

"My goal," he said, "is for people to be in a working environment that gives them 100 percent dignity."

Consider the desks with which the building is outfitted. They confer a sense of equality because they are almost uniformly alike. Even the chief executive officer agreed this was a good idea.

In the June issue of Metropolis magazine, an article about the 2.75 million-square-foot headquarters completed last year quoted the CEO: "I left a big office with a desk and a visiting table. Now I have the same desk as all the rest of the employees."

Employee dignity is reinforced in other ways, too. The workers don't have fixed desks. Equipped with laptops and cell phones, they can set up anywhere it's comfortable for them to work, including restaurants, lobbies, stairways -- even a nearby beach.

"Your office is where you are," Pran said.

This arrangement leads to chance encounters that otherwise might not happen, so business that might require longer meetings gets transacted in briefer exchanges.

A feeling of openness at Telenor is reinforced physically. Nearly all the dividing walls are glass. Only a few meeting rooms are enclosed.

That feature makes me a little twitchy. I told Pran that writers often prefer caves, not glass houses, to work in. Pran said such a person might go into one of the meeting rooms or put up some kind of sound barrier.

At 67, Pran is peaking in terms of reputation and critical acclaim.

Columbia University professor and architecture critic Kenneth Frampton has written, for example: "Peter Pran's architecture intends a modernity that's liberative in all aspects."

The film Koyaanisqatsi shows how badly we need liberation -- from hurry and crowding and consumerism.

The Telenor design is also about liberation: on one hand from material burden -- it's a paperless office -- and on the other from such psychic burdens as envying another's desk or office.

Working in a good space can change us, Pran believes.

"If an unhappy person worked in a beautiful, fantastic, modern space, would that change him as a person?" he asked. "That's probably asking a lot from architecture -- yet I believe that if people work in dignified spaces, they become better people."

Pran's ideas, so hopeful and so humane, are the kind that create a yearning for change. I hope our culture will become a soil in which they can root and grow.

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