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Putting power in its place: The centrality of edgelands

by Alison Hirst and Michael Humphreys

Do you know how buildings work? You almost certainly do. A new building, bright and light and airy, designed for a modern era, is a much pleasanter place than an older one, dark and poky with steep narrow stairs and wiring boxed in along the ceiling. But what seems relatively obvious has subtle implications: design can play an instrumental role in controlling not just workplaces but workforces too.

This relationship between humans and objects – not just buildings but also the associated ‘non-human actors’ of the wider environment – is the subject of a new research paper by Durham University Business School’s Michael Humphreys and Alison Hirst of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Their comparison of two local authority premises – a new administrative and managerial centre and an older building used as a paper repository – demonstrates some of the issues associated with building design and use of space. 

A Tale of Two Buildings

A large body of work already exists on the social use and organisation of space and the so-called Actor-Network Theory (ANT) which looks at the ways in which humans enter into relationships with non-humans (for example, a driver approaching a speed bump might react to it with irritation). Hirst and Humphreys used a combination of detailed and intensive interviews and participant observation to study the attitudes of workers in their two distinct environments but with a common employer.

The new centre, which housed managers and others considered to have a strategic importance to the running of the organisation, was centrally-located and easily-accessed: extensive use of glass made its inner workings visible and its open design facilitated contact between those who worked there. The outer unit, by contrast, was old, poorly-located (on the edge of town and close to a sewage works) and characterised by small and poorly-lit (often windowless) office space. 

Separation, Space and Relationships

The language of the study is uncompromising: the authors found that the shifting of paper from the sparkling new office to the older, poorer facility was treated a form of purification and that this was reflected in the feelings of those who worked there. The perception of excitement among the strategic mangers in the new building was countered by black humour and a poor perception of their situation by those in the older, more distant repository.

Of course a study of just two buildings cannot be representative: the authors acknowledge as much and point to the need for further research (and it’s worth noting that the repository itself was subsequently closed). But what it does do is illustrate not only that design can have positive impacts but that it can have a dark side too, affecting not just individuals but the way they respond to others. “Managers with the authority to decide where they and other staff are located, exercise significant power because the places in which employees work do something to them,” the authors conclude.