The Places Where We Work

Scene from Workplace. Image via film announcement page on Hustwit's site.

Scene from Workplace. Image via film announcement page on Hustwit’s site.

Gary Hustwit is a New York based filmmaker known for his various documentaries on design, including Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized, and a forthcoming documentary on legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams (a project I backed on Kickstarter).

I really liked Helvetica, which told the story of typography through the lens of that ubiquitous font.  Objectified I have not seen, but I did see Urbanized and gave it a pretty tough review.

Hustwit’s current project is a film called Workspace about the design of the office. This is a bit of an unusual project. It was originally a corporate documentary, commissioned by the digital agency R/GA to document the process of designing and building its new New York headquarters in collaboration with the New York office of Foster+Partners.

R/GA started as a computer aided film making company in the 1970s and has worked on over 400 feature films. The company, still headed by co-founder Bob Greenberg, has changed its business model every nine years, morphing into a major global digital agency that’s part of IPG. But with Greenberg’s and R/GA’s heritage in film, they clearly still understand the power of film and what it can do for their own brand.

R/GA’s goal for the new office space was to blend the physical and digital in a way that highlights their professional expertise such that the office itself would become a part of their portfolio to use in selling themselves to clients. In that regard, commissioning the film was likely an unstated part of this strategy of showcasing their own marketing savvy.

Hustwit took the resulting project and updated it into a relatively short (77 minute) feature-length documentary for the Venice Architecture Biennale. He kept the R/GA office build as a spine, and added to it shorter segments about Gensler’s design for Etsy’s Brooklyn HQ and Studio O+A’s design for Yelp’s HQ in San Francisco, along with talking head segments from Nikil Saval, author of the book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

The result is a smaller scale and less ambitious effort than Helvetica or Urbanized, but perhaps because of that is largely successful. Helvetica succeeded in part because the use of that typeface provided a spine or anchor that helped give a sense of coherence to the whole, despise the vastly divergent topics discussed. Urbanized, by contrast, lacked such a central axis and so did not hold together nearly as well.

Because Workplace is primarily a documentary about R/GA’s office project, this allows the supplementary material on the history of office design and the other building projects to fall into place as natural complements that offer needed variety.

I saw the film with someone who spent several years overseeing construction projects. She didn’t feel the film really gave us insights into the design and construction process. There is something to this. Much of the up front segments are sort of general, conceptual discussions. The actual mechanics of the designs, creation of the construction documents, etc. are largely skipped over.

I saw this film at New York’s Architecture and Design Film Festival. Hustwit was there and talked to the audience briefly before and after. He talked about the challenges of filming a project like this, where there was 100 times as much footage shot as included in the final product. He had to choose what to show, and inevitably some aspects would get short changed. In this case he, probably wisely, chose to leave out a lot of technical and production work. But he does manage to give a least a mention of the various stages of this (client discussions, concepts and drawings, models, construction documents, permitting, furniture selection, timeline and budget considerations, etc).

On the whole it was an enjoyable, smaller scale work. What will become of it is unclear. I’m not certain if this will actually get distribution. The film is not even listed on IMDB. Is it the property of R/GA somehow? Hustwit’s web site suggests limited screenings plus a “global internet release,” so all I can say is keep an eye out for it.

Also at the screening were people from Gensler, Studio O+A, and R/GA. One question the moderator asked is something I think merits more study (or exposure to existing work). He said that the super-cool open office concept originated on the West Coast, then asked how the East Coast varieties differed. The most interesting response came from the woman from Gensler. She said that New York had a more vertical and neighborhood integrated concept of design, whereas the West Coast orientation was more horizontal. I gather that she had in mind projects like Apple’s HQ. That was an interesting framing, and I wouldn’t mind reading more that contrasted coastal styles in office space design, and how things might be changing in the Bay Area with the rise of city tech in San Francisco.

The film also highlighted some other interesting things.  R/GA, hardly a household name as a company, employs 950 people in New York. It’s one of many high value companies in NYC that many people have never heard of, but which collectively employ huge numbers of people. These are in industries that basically don’t exist in other cities, or which exist almost entirely to support the local market. These are the kinds of producer services that power the global city economy.

Another point is that R/GA CEO Greenberg appears to see Google as his competition, not just other ad agencies. In the film he was worried that Google would snap up the office space he hoped to rent. And in an appearance with Hustwit in Venice, he talked about his office space as part of his battle with Google (which he says plans to add 4,000 new NYC employees in the next couple years) for talent.

As a tech powered digital agency, it’s obvious that Google is a competitor for talent. But Greenberg is very right to be thinking about non-traditional competitors and the danger tech giants pose to established industries. He does not underestimate the ambition of Silicon Valley to take over everything.

R/GA’s new offices appear to be at 450 W. 33rd St.  This is on 10th Ave. not far from the new 7-train stop at Hudson Yards. While the location is walkable from Penn Station and the 7th and 8th Ave. subways, it would appear that the 7-train extension is already helping fuel more redevelopment in the area, including this building, whose owner undertook its own major renovation work.

What about the actual design of R/GA’s new offices, then? I haven’t been there, but from the film we can see that it’s a large, mostly open floor plan space, done in a high tech, mostly white scheme. Their goal was to showcase technology, and some of what they built has to be experienced to be judged (e.g., their bluetooth enabled app that provides context specific information depending on where you are). They hung a number of angled screens from the ceiling, giving it a sort of “mission control” feel, at least in the main entry area of it. R/GA is obviously pleased with it, since Bob Greenberg and others continue to participate in the promotion of the film. So from the ultimate perspective of client satisfaction, it appears to be a winner.

from Aaron M. Renn


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