In order to understand the form and function of the modern day office it is important to first establish a basic understanding of its origins and evolution. So, let’s rewind all the way back to Classical Antiquity. Trade was just beginning, forming a flow of capital. The word “officium,” (Latin for “service, duty, ceremony,” a contraction of “opificium:” “to make/do,” a derivative of ops, opis: “power, ability, resources”) came into being in order to define the occupations and locations of record keeping that developed to track trade and the flow of commerce. Thus emerged the first indoor workplaces, communal spaces where social hierarchies were in control: monasteries where scriptures were copied, city centers and halls where scribes recorded government proceedings and rulings, and trade spaces where commerce was conducted. In the High Middle Ages this led to the inception of medieval chanceries: writing offices that were responsible for the production of official documents.
Up until the early 1500s in the Western world, power and status were affiliated with the church. It was run by the educated, whose rulebook and main learning tool at the time was the Bible. As essentially the first international corporation, the church dominated control over money, power and literacy. Then, with Cosimo de Medici’s rise to power in Italy came the separation of the church, government/military and commerce. In order to consolidate and assert his administrative control of Florence’s various committees, agencies and guilds Cosimo ensured the construction of the Uffizi (“offices” in Italian). This building’s sole purpose was to house the daily administrative operations of his Florentine magistrates. It gave him a centralized house of power where he kept all his administrative and judiciary personnel and information at his fingertips.
It wasn’t until the early 1700s in England that the first purpose-built office space was constructed. The 1726 Ripley Building of the Royal Navy and the 1729 East India House continued the theme of physicalizing centralized administration. Their internal layouts were open floor plans for all the workers and one office from which the supervisor could observe them. This reflected the growing trends toward more companies affiliated with trade gaining capitalist power and operating as mini hierarchies under their roofs, focused on efficiency and productivity.
The concept of excess for profit and trade, which fueled capitalist motives, corresponded to society’s cultural advancements and practices of the time: rationalism, empiricism and scientific management. The expansion of these phenomena was assisted by the Enclosure Acts, which enforced privatization of land and transitioned rural areas from sustenance farming on common lands to a monoculture approach with a goal for profit.
Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s marked technological advances and cultural changes with the increase of banking, insurance, retail, petroleum, telegraphy, the steam engine and the spread of the railroad. The growth of technology and industry plus the privatization of land drew people to urban areas, searching for work; there was an increase in demand and supply of urban labor. This was a major change in the way people lived. Survival, which once meant working the land in one’s community, became factory work, where a supervisor was in control of the money needed for food and housing. Much of civilization transitioned from laboring outdoors with the elements to repetitive mechanical work indoors or clerical proceedings. There was a need for clerks to transact business on paper records, and offices were provided for them to create and house those transactions. The 1880s brought with them not only the invention of the telephone and the typewriter but also that of the elevator. This, combined with the use of steel as a reliable building material, allowed for the construction of taller buildings and more standardized office spaces.
Power was no longer an attribute assigned by God to a ruler or invested in a clergyman; it became a mark of progress and a characteristic of the factory supervisor and company manager. Gods of industry and the office began to irrevocably change work environments, societies and cultures.
“Escribano” by Jean Le Tavernier – . Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Escribano.jpg#/media/File:Escribano.jpg-