Saturday 1 October 2011

Just connect

As the Magdalen Street celebration takes place today on what looks like being the hottest October day on record, I wonder what else it takes to get people out - of cars, homes, offices - and talking and celebrating together?

Rachel's blog piece on Thursday spoke powerfully about what makes community and what enables connection, and conversely what produces the opposite - isolation and disconnection.

What struck me today was that this trend toward isolation extends itself to our places of work and office environments. Whilst offices, like homes, appear to have become more sophisticated places, this same sophistication can have subtle effects of human disconnection, with sometimes bizarre manifestations.

I do some work for Norfolk County Council, who, in it's wisdom, recently moved our particular office base from a lovely converted Georgian House, to a shiny new open plan job on the Broadland Business Park. Yesterday was my first foray into the new base. Once onto the labyrinth of the site itself, I immediately felt a sensation of being out of place riding my bicycle between vast swathes of car parks and aircraft hangers masquerading as offices. My body sensation was similar to my reaction to being in supermarkets..... but that one needs to wait for another blog! Actually asking the way to a building that had more numbers to it than a name produced blank responses. "Never heard of it mate" was the most common - this from an employee of a neighbouring building that turned out to be about 300 metres away from my destination.

Once found, and inside - having punched in security codes and swiped a card through various doors ( much reminding me of scenes from Starship Enterprise) - I searched for a vacant hotdesk amongst whole lines of computer terminals with the occasional head to be seen protruding above the partitions. At the desk, I felt strangely cocooned, even though there were actually many people spread around me. So welcome to the new office, I thought. Whilst everything looked shiny and functional, actually there were some bizarre results of technological interface. I discovered, for instance, that when return phone calls came in, the person answering the phone who was on the opposite 'wing' of the building to where I was located, could not route the call to my desk - because there was no way of telling where I was sitting. This resulted in the occasional sprint by the person taking the call to find me.... she commented that the new office was getting her quite fit.

The contrast to the old office could not have been starker. Here we had exactly the same group of people, moved to another office environment, albeit combined with many other staff, who then appeared to change behaviour around and within the environment.

So back to Magdalen Street. Refreshingly free of supermarkets and the big 'multiples' - so far - it certainly encourages lots of human interaction, on the street, in the small shops, and around the bus stops. It seems to have resisted the trend toward functionality, retained it's historic quarter, yet introduced the new through the appearance of more cafes and small businesses.

We have good cause to celebrate it as a place of community and creativity, and the organising group deserve great credit in bringing out the best in locality and authentic community-building in this year's celebration. I don't quite know how they managed to create the weather to go with it.... but it makes for a promising start to the day.


  1. What a clear and accessible description of the (very real) effect different environments exert on us, Chris. It certainly struck a chord with me.

    I really enjoyed my time at the Magdalen Street Celebration today - great hearing Andy Kirkham and Jasper Taylor at Anteros, Klezmerized in Anglia Square - and the Norwich Taiko Centre was awesome!

    Looking forward to reading you on kinetic responses to supermarkets.

    All the best, Mark

  2. Thanks for this very direct insight! I also thought the Magdalen Street Celebration had great energy, like Camden.

    I'm very interested in the office bit though. I'm a big fan of "The Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander et al. In pattern 82: Office Connections, the authors correlate between physical proximity in offices and human interactions, and find that if departments are too far apart, workers will avoid making those trips, damaging the cohesion between the team.

    Patterns relating to offices are not really included in The Pattern Language (it tends to focus on residential building when it gets into detail), but are equally important in the creation of great spaces to live (another pattern which IS included is 42: Work Community).

    It amazes me that these modern offices are still designed on a social model of the 1960s, even when their environmental credentials are high. It makes them socially unsustainable. How can a place be sustainable if its not a nice place to be, and does not make you want to look after it?