|At Work With, Economy and Testbedstudio, North Pavillion, 2010 (source)
||Slap Bracelets (source)
In the post-Fordist era of the late 1960s, the mode of production and the idea of work radically changed. Henry Ford’s automotive factories, in which strictly controlled assembly lines ensured the speed and quality of production had, until then, served as the primary example of large-scale capitalist production. In this model, work was defined by the physical space of the factory and the activities taking place within it. To leave the space of the factory meant to leave work and to enter the private sphere, to take part in leisurely pursuits.
With post-Fordism, or Flexibilism as it is also sometimes termed, work no longer has any physical borders. Instead it has moved into our homes, into our smart phones, and as Franco Bifo Berardi would argue, into our psyches. Post-Fordism and the flexibilization of the market, more than any other factor, must therefore be considered as the catalyst for the deregulation of space.
In contemporary labor forms, the mental and physical borders between private and work life have collapsed. With this, follows a blurring of the distinction between spaces made for work and private life. As we check emails and cook dinner at the same time, the kitchen table shifts between functioning as a chopping board and an office desk. To “go to work” in the morning can nowadays simply mean a move from the bed to the sofa.
At Work With, a project at last year’s Venice Biennial of Architecture, questioned the idea of exhibiting architectural practice as an event. Created by two Swedish architectural platforms—Economy and Testbedstudio—within the framework of the Nordic Pavilion, young architecture practices were invited to inhabit the pavilion for a week, using it as their office. By using the space to practice and discuss, architecture was represented here as labor. Although one could criticize the project for merely imitating the flexibilization of the market which precisely emphasizes process and practice, its attempt to question architecture through the notion of work is an appropriate entry point.
Today work pervasively accompanies us everywhere: the local cafe, the kitchen and the walk to the bus stop. Even the most intimate and private spaces, such as the bed and the bathroom, have been injected with the potential for productive labor to take place there. In order to rethink space it is necessary to consider it through the notion of work – how and where it takes place today.
Before digital interfaces could facilitate the exchange of colorful, emotional ephemera—ie. Tumblr—post-postmodern innocents communicated to each other in a complex language of linear color gradients, Lisa Frank, and slap bracelets, among other things. Long since eulogized by VH1, the slap bracelet in particular remains instructive from a material point of view. Developed by a Wisconsin shop-teacher in the 1980s, the bracelets were made of supple steel that could be straightened; introducing external force would cause the tension in the bistable spring band to snap and return to rest, in the shape of a coil.
Negotiating two predetermined positions, the slap bracelet’s flexibility can be read as supremely aesthetic – its plasticity as such had a singular application for wear. Without the ability to adapt, the bracelet has been marooned in pop-cultural time, and poses a particular question of value in design. (Later re-inventions of the steel band tend to ignore its kitsch lineage.)
If even the most self-evident flexible band grows problematic on closer inspection, the difficulties of flexibility which persist in architectonic spaces are innumerable.
The modernist notion of flexibility, for example—as expressed in the Rietveld Schröder house—is strictly formal and thus limited on those terms. That is to say, Mrs. Schröder never shifted the sliding wall partitions from their as-built positions throughout her residency there. On the level of the private house, the exercise in flexibility attempted to provide organizational alternatives for the living space, which were for its commissioner apparently gratuitous.
More recently, the retrofitting of so-called ‘historic’ (not necessarily modern) architecture has suggested another sort of flexibility with regard to the use of space over time: the St. Pancras Marriott at King’s Cross, London transformed the old train station into a luxury hotel, complete with ticket counter-cum-cocktail bar. Rather than a sliding partition there is a neoliberal slippage in clientele – causing one to consider the external forces at work in urban development schemes that shift from more or less serving a public to servicing the private sector. Whether this tension ‘rests’ in a deregulated market remains to be seen.
So what might ‘true’ flexibility in architecture imply? Perhaps it is a quality too furtive to be measured, because it can be too flexibly defined. In any case, there is something about the slap bracelet’s characteristic, sometimes violent change of phase which neatly indicated the limit of its flexibility (whilst undermining the proverbial wrist-slap) that contains a clever argument for Marx Brothers-style structural transparency – revealing itself to be a trick. On the scale of the built environment, it is worth considering whether there is a sort of architecture with the tenacity to announce its own formal, tectonic or aesthetic limitations, despite bending ambitiously to achieve the totality of a strictly-imposed design.