In Praise of Old Workspaces

Living up to the high bar set by one’s predecessors.

Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege to live and work in a variety of different aesthetic environments, from the Brutalist hulks of post-Soviet Russia and the Collegiate Gothic towers of Yale University to the sleek glass offices of contemporary Washington, D.C. Throughout these journeys, I’ve often noted that the management advice columns on LinkedIn, Forbes, Quartz, and others reflect a shared contemporary impulse: namely, the tendency to sterilize, sanitize, and homogenize our lived academic and professional environments. In so doing, I submit that a singularly important property of old workspaces is lost: the evocation of responsibility in light of the past work of others.

This evocation begins first with a powerful internal sense of humility. For example, an important part of academic legal writing is the preemption check – the “literature review” in which the unique claims of one’s piece are distinguished in light of decades of past scholarship. In performing this, for all the much-ballyhooed advantages of online research, no full substitute yet exists for the massive resources of the built library environment.

When the vast sweep of human knowledge can be safely hidden from view behind the veil of cyberspace, with Google as the mediator, it becomes easy to overvalue one’s own accomplishments and ingenuity.

The researcher halfheartedly Googling his topic experiences no moment of pure awe comparable to walking into a vast labyrinth of bookshelves. That moment of awe is more than a fleeting aesthetic impulse. It is a deep, concrete, physical reminder of one’s responsibility to live up to the high bar set by one’s predecessors. And thus, a reminder of the relative smallness of one’s own place in the grand tapestry of human thought.

The outgrowth of this sense of humility, however, need not be a sort of intellectual paralysis. To walk the same halls where national figureheads once walked, and to sit at desks once populated by minds far greater than mine, is to be driven to be more like those giants of the past. Being reminded of one’s place in time is simultaneously humbling and inspiring. And yet, that inspiration risks being lost in the endless cycle of aesthetic flux and rotation and modernization.

Second, that act of direct encounter with the work of others is a reminder that one does not labor in isolation – despite the oppositional tendencies of modern workspace designers. One might object that design trends toward intra-classroom or intra-office collaboration – cubicle farms, rows of “pods,” open floor plans – disprove the argument above. But to the contrary, such trends reinforce it: in these highly tailored, highly engineered spaces, one exists and works outside of any context beyond the immediate. In the push for greater modernity, aesthetically unsexy reminders of heritage and responsibility are jettisoned if deemed inconvenient.

It makes one wonder whether such trends correlate with the decline in employee loyalty and retention rates, and perhaps it is time for intelligent business and nonprofit leaders to more seriously consider the negative effects of constantly re-modeling and homogenizing the workplace. To own and embrace the quirks of one’s aesthetic environment – archaic though it may be – is to adopt a deliberately countercultural mentality. Yet such a mentality preserves the fundamental connections to the past that exist within one’s built environment, and grounds one’s efforts and thoughts accordingly. Moreover, it creates a direct experiential connection between the triumphs of the past and the aspirations of the present.

I have been told that our university is in the process of modernizing its student commons, thanks to a recent multimillion-dollar gift from a hedge fund tycoon. So be it: the desire to reform and recreate in the image of one’s own era is undoubtedly a powerful one. But I, for my part, will stick to the dustier corners of the library, among the old books yellowed from disuse.

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