Scourge of the open plan

  • Geoff
Architecturally and sociologically, the “open plan” was a “wow” moment in 1980s design. The idea was that creativity would flourish without walls or doors to contain the energy of workers in offices. Office workers could see each other at work; and their space wasn’t private as it had been in previous eras. Even among management, board meetings were held behind glass walls rather than in private so workers could see their directors talking to each other. Similarly, domestically, kitchens spilled into the rest of the living spaces with a mere counter separating them.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 26, 2020

But rather than a stimulus for creative energy, the open plan ended up being seen as a place where leadership and hierarchy was lost and creative energy was dissipated in interruptions between colleagues. The balance was completely compromised in this design fashion, in which everyone or every space was seen as somehow equal, and the personalities of different workers were erased.

There is a strange analogy between this, political discourse, and the coronavirus pandemic. The globalisation world movement, advocated passionately by its adherents in the middle of the twentieth century, feeds into our understanding of relationships and spaces in the world. Open-plan thinking, taken to extremes, argues for erasure of borders in the belief that all good things will flow from this.

The momentum of the movement gathered steam in the late 1980s. The Berlin Wall was breached, the Soviet Union collapsed, and barriers between East and West broke down.

The creation of the European Union heralded a new globalisation mentality which expanded across the continent, taking in more countries.

This matched perfectly with another, simultaneous revolution, which took the world by storm: communication technology. In the first decade of this century, the internet reached almost every corner of the world.

What will the outcome be of the coronavirus pandemic for South Africa? Although this country has joined the globalisation club, we are still at the bottom of Africa. Will the pandemic have a positive effect in strengthening our sense of who we are, helping us to embrace that identity and be creative with it?

Many South Africans, particularly white people, have long seen themselves as part of the European and global cultural community. But they also developed their own strong identity in the face of the isolation of South Africa from the world community of nations. In the 1990s, apartheid ended and South Africa was welcomed into the community of nations. Like a breath of fresh air, the doors opened. Wealthier South Africans joined the elite club of global citizens. In the past decade, the global village became the global mega-city.

Then came the rise of the big ethno-nationalists: Trump in the United States, Johnson in the United Kingdom, and even Netanyahu in Israel, to mention a few, and the rejection of the global-citizen ideal. Walls that were torn down are being built again, metaphorically and physically.

In the war between open and closed borders, in the wake of our current lockdown, where will South Africa stand?


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