NeoCon has started, so there are 50,000 additional people in the Merchandise Mart today, all of whom are here to bump into me. It's such a madhouse that the office of the building is buying my entire company boxed lunches. Yesterday, I was hardly halfway through my lemon chicken sandwich before the green avenging angel came by to snatch up the box for recycling. I hope today she lets me at least remove the food before she takes my box away.
In the design world, it hardly seems worth mentioning, green is in. However, sustainability isn't the only politically-influenced practice in architecture and design. NeoCon is an office furniture exposition, and office space is structured more by power relations than by ergonomics or even efficiency. The office I work in is pretty typical: offices along the outer walls, monopolizing the light and air, with a vast sea of cubicles herded into the middle. At the end of the year we're moving to another floor in the Merchandise Mart. Current plans call for an open floor plan according to the latest trend in office design. The two salient features of the open floor design are cubicles with low walls and a limited number of offices set along the inside walls, opening the windows up to the worker drones. Everyone is supposed to be more accessible. Creativity and productivity will be enhanced. Workers will spontaneously gather to share information or solve problems, or break out into song.
Or so the theory goes. In actual practice, office doors are even more likely to be closed, and the low cubicle walls won't muffle any noise, so cube dwellers will toil in a sunny din. If you want a quiet talk with your spouse or your bookie, you have to go outside with your cellphone. With the last shreds of privacy stripped away, the panopticon is even more efficient.
Mies van der Rohe once complained that it was almost easier to build a building than a chair. The easiest approach is just to do exactly what wealth and power wants. The Merchandise Mart, the largest private office building in the world, is devoted to satisfying the tastes of people who paid more than $2 million for their homes--that's about 550 households in the Chicago area. Most of the showrooms in the Mart are accessible only to interior designers and their clients. Contrast this exclusivity with a mother with two small children trying to negotiate the public transit system, with its confusing signs, awkward bus entrances, narrow train aisles, and turnstyles seemingly designed specifically to whack a six-year-old in the face.
Satisfying the person who pays the fees makes good business sense, but it's also a good way to evade responsibility for one's work. Design shapes the world in which we live, and designers' choices always reflect a set of values that are never politically neutral. The notion that poor design doesn't have any consequences ended forever with Florida's butterfly ballot.