the office

The Open-Plan Office Was an ­Auditory Disaster

New air-conditioned Lever House on Park Avenue in 1952. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Offices, particularly the open plans touted for their creative collisions, were designed to foster interaction. Designers and promoters of the open plan compared it to “a busy restaurant or lively cocktail party,” writes Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler in her recent book, Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office, “where the general ambient noise of the space masked the individual conversations such that one could reasonably have a fairly private conversation despite being surrounded by people.” But as Robert Propst, the Herman Miller designer known as “the father of the cubicle” soon found out, most workplaces required a little more masking, and so the plans intended to spark our creativity also spawned a new set of designs to fix the noise.

In 1976, the Acoustic Conditioner was born. Each spherical conditioner, set atop a slender stalk, could be clipped to the top of a padded Action Office partition and was intended to “condition” the atmosphere for workers within a 12-foot diameter while looking like a George Lucas reject.

Most companies focused on more unobtrusive office-wide technology, hiding machines behind acoustic ceiling tiles (yes, those ugly dropped ceilings have a purpose) and upgrading low-tech noise dampeners like carpets and curtains and cubicle walls. Weyerhaeuser, whose 1971 ecoheadquarters outside Seattle has been called “the original green building,” used plants as interior screens and sound baffles — just like the bars and restaurants of the era.

Since then, techniques to keep the noise down have continuously swung between personal tech and holistic hushing. By the 1990s, “hoteling,” the idea that workers would alight at the office only a few days a week, reigned supreme, and tent-inspired structures proliferated. Clive Wilkinson, whose firm designed offices for Google and TBWA\Chiat\Day, provided ad agency Mother with a London location that was all concrete surfaces below and sound-absorbing Marimekko light fixtures above. Ayse Birsel’s 1997 Resolve system for Herman Miller included accessories for personalization, as well as sound-dampening via sail-shaped rolling screens. “People modify their behavior,” HM’s Rick Duffy told Fast Company. “They lower their voices because they can see that other people are trying to work.”

Today’s primary noise-canceling technology shares a smooth white aesthetic with the original Acoustic Conditioner as well as nomadism with the 1990s: the earbud, piping white noise or podcasts or the Spotify playlist of your choice directly into your ears. New intra-office communication platforms like Slack cut down on outloud conversations, but a Google search reveals plenty of advice on how to “reduce noise in Slack.”

Densification of offices has also propelled one of the stranger waves of “innovation” in recent memory: the room. Zenbooth and Thinktanks and, yes, ROOM offer glass-walled enclosures that look like ye olde mid-century private office but with online sign-ups for time slots. Herman Miller was there first, too: The same year it introduced the Action Office, it also offered the ”Super Room” for “totally assured acoustical and visual privacy.” When I visited the Thinktanks website, a pop-up asked, “How can I help you find the best Quiet Space for you?” All I could think was, I’ve already got it, right here at home.

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The Open-Plan Office Was an Auditory Disaster