The resistible rise of the office building

Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.

By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.

So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

10 thoughts on “The resistible rise of the office building”

  1. Interesting post. I think that Covid has diminished the importance of office buildings. Varying degrees of lockdown had the buildings ranging from completely empty to sporadically occupied. Now there are many back in offices but I know someone who works for IBM and they have been told they will not be going back to the office until there is an effective and safe vaccine. So their office stands empty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing on this subject, not one I had thought much about. I suspect one of the appeals of ancient markets was they were also places to socialize. Most people do not like to be isolated, and this too is an aspect of office life. Also, innovation is not always the product of an isolated individual; it is often the work of collaborative thought which I suspect is helped by casual comments not as likely to occur at a distance. But the only constant is change and this too will change.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Until the late 20th century, offices were far from being great places to work in. Charles Lamb wrote about them, as did P.G. Wodehouse in Psmith in the City. Your point about innovation being a social activity is a good one, but when you read the thoughts of architects of the 1930s and 1940s whose designs influenced office buildings, you find that they think in terms of organizational efficiency instead. Everything else, socialization, innovation, and everything human, is retrofitted into these inhuman design philosophies.

      Liked by 1 person

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