Feel-Good Labour?


25 July 2017

Go past a yoga class occupying the lobby and the cloudy sky wallpaper at the entrance, and you find yourself in a space that invites creative interaction. You can get productive, book out the “Brainstorming Area” and its blackboards, use Post-it notes and designer furniture to get ideas flowing, or benefit from the free Wi-Fi to make Skype calls in one of the private booths. Bright-red bean bags and an Xbox console offer more leisurely experiences, while potted plants signal a welcoming domesticity. Free tea and coffee are available, with mugs adorned with slogans to “monetise yourself” or have a “feel-good moment” hanging off one of several OSB boards that demarcate the space.

This is the Stanley Picker Creators Academy (SPCA), a project installed in autumn 2016 at the Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University by designer Onkar Kular, the 2014 recipient of the Stanley Picker Design Fellowship. The SPCA was a gallery-based “hybrid co-working and educational space”, informed by the recent rise of what Kular terms “new types of creative working environments”. In the UK, these include the London-based Impact Hub, Second Home and Makerversity, as well as outposts of Silicon Valley ventures such as WeWork, Google Campus and the YouTube Creators Academy. These sites are co-working spaces: shared urban workplaces for nomadic creative entrepreneurs, freelancers and start-ups, attracted by rentable desks and work areas, lively communities and decent Wi-Fi.

SPCA is a consideration of this young but booming workspace typology. Originating in the 1990s, the first official co-working space was established in 2005 in San Francisco. A movement soon followed, based on values the SPCA describes as “collaboration, sharing and community”. Following the 2007-08 economic crash (one fallout of which included cheap empty offices) the number of spaces exploded. According to the 2017 Global Co-working Survey, there will be nearly 14,000 co-working spaces worldwide by the end of this year, housing up to 1.2 million co-workers.

This new type of workspace is caught up with the transition to digitised knowledge economies in the 21st century. Their protagonists include what the sociologist Richard Florida termed in 2004 the “creative classes”, whose work cultures are incompatible with the rigid, assembly line offices of earlier industrial ages. Creative workers can work anywhere they can find Wi-Fi, a liberating nomadism undermined by loneliness and low productivity. Co-working spaces offer a palliative “third place”, to use the sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 phrase, somewhere between the home and the office where you can be part of a like-minded community.

Designed in collaboration with the architect Inigo Minns, the SPCA is a simulacrum of an archetypal co-working space. The installation was designed following visits to sites including London’s Silicon Roundabout, where Second Home, The Cube and Google Campus are based. Minns and Kular found a fairly consistent design vocabulary: bright colours for logos and interiors, eclectic combinations of mid-century and contemporary furnishings, cheerful signage, and spatial layouts that encourage flexibility and movement (key for chance encounters with potential collaborators). Industrial materials including exposed brickwork and OSB boards abound, while gaming areas, telephone boxes and shipping containers emphasise play and subversion. The predilection for plants is most conspicuous in Second Home, designed by Spanish architects Selgas Cano, which contains a thousand indoor plants as well as internal green spaces. This is a combination of biophilia, in which nature is offered as an antidote to too much technology, and “a way to make employees feel like they’re leaving when they’re not”, says Kular.

As Kular’s comments suggest, the highly coded SPCA isn’t a pastiche of co-working spaces, but a critical parody. For all their focus on fun and creativity, these are spaces ultimately geared towards the generation of financial capital, often for economic elites rather than the communities in which they are located, and blur the lines between work and leisure, often at the cost of the latter. Kular designed the SPCA to consider how co-working spaces might generate other kinds of capital, and increase the accessibility of these spaces. Co-working spaces may promote an inclusive rhetoric, but they have the same issues of low diversity as the creative industries more generally. This critical ambition was present in the SPCA’s talks programme, another feature of co-working spaces that Kular repurposed. Speakers included the architect Jack Self and the Precarious Workers Brigade, whose arguments around exploitation and precarity are particularly pertinent in the creative industries.

The need for criticism arguably extends to the design of co-working spaces: with their post-industrial chic, colourful eclecticism, totems of infantile fun and free artisanal beverages, co-working spaces offer an increasingly homogeneous and mediocre take on what creative spaces can look like. They are what the writer Kyle Chayka decried in 2016 as “AirSpace”, an identikit visual language that saturates cafés and co-working spaces in cities from San Francisco to Seoul. But while the Global Co-working Survey predicts that the number of co-workers is set to increase, rises in the number of spaces are tapering off. The market seems to be consolidating to a smaller number of providers with more and bigger spaces, such as WeWork, which launched in 2010 and now has more than 150 spaces in nearly 40 cities from Bangalore to Berlin. Significantly, these providers are already extending into other areas: WeWork, The Collective and Second Home are all branching into co-living, further symptoms of the blurring boundaries between work and life. Concurrently, backlashes against globalisation threaten the internationalism and free movement of travel on which co-working depends. It waits to be seen if co-working spaces represent one of the first chapters in 21st-century work culture, or the last gasp of the values on which 20th-century neoliberalist architecture and design were built.