The cathedral complex

Alan Clawley calls for buildings to serve their purpose.

Organisations of all shapes and sizes still seem to hanker for their own corporate headquarters building in the most prestigious address they can afford despite changing practices that look like making the traditional city centre office obsolete. There are deep motivations at work other than the obvious ones of pure financial gain or competitive advantage. Organisations raise or occupy edifices to signify their power and glory or their style. Their office has to express their values and look good in its promotional brochures and websites whether their employees like working in it or not.

Choosing a corporate headquarters can be like deciding what clothes you want to wear to impress a rival. It’s a matter of self-image and the need to stand out from the crowd. The office is an advertisement. It may be about looking progressive, ‘modern’ or exciting. I call it the Cathedral Complex because it reminds me of the mediaeval church building ever higher and bigger ‘cathedrals’ to glorify God. Corporate bosses build to glorify themselves. The culmination of their obsession is London’s Shard which from Highbury even looks like the spire of a giant cathedral

Nikil Saval, author of Cubed, a secret history of the workplace (2014) recalls that for over a century, the dominant model of office development has been ‘speculation’. Offices get built not for specific purposes but to satisfy imagined future demand. This resulted in the spectacular skylines that people admire, from Vancouver to New York and from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai at a terrible cost: human, environmental, and otherwise. He notes that development schemes, whether grand or minimal, rarely survive financial crashes, and the 2008 crisis left a lot of office carcasses lying around.

Mediaeval cathedrals and old churches are beautiful but are now mostly empty shells, museums of a once powerful religion that now depend on tourism or the housing of cultural and secular events for their upkeep. The church in my picture, Holy Trinity Camp Hill, was built 1823 and is Listed, but since it was declared redundant in 1970 it has served as a community arts centre and a shelter for homeless men. Today it is empty again and up for sale as a development opportunity. Whoever foresaw that happening when it was first seen in all its splendour?

Francis Duffy, author of Work and the City (2008) suggests that the supply chain needs to be completely re-ordered so that ‘use’ becomes the primary criterion for creating offices, not speculation. He cites the phenomenon of ‘co-working’ as evidence of a new attitude to toward building use. Indy Hall in Philadelphia, consisted of cheap IKEA furniture that was easy to put together and just as easy to dismantle and throw out. The space was outfitted with well-indented couches and slightly rickety bookshelves, a full kitchen with freshly washed dishes drying next to the sink, and a fridge full of home-made beer.

It would be an unusual corporate boss that decided to go against the flow and commission that kind of office. The search for the ‘cutting edge’ and the urge for continuous expansion reflects the dominant paradigm of capitalism. But it’s safe to predict that one day the last remaining skyscraper office will be listed and likewise visited by tourists – former office drones recalling their lives in their landscaped open plan interiors. In the meantime it seems we must indulge the expensive whims of the captains of business and government in order to appease their own gods.

One thought on “The cathedral complex

  1. And how about those country churches: part of an historical theme park which teaches us, with their empty chancels and transepts, just how secular our island now is. But important lessons are in their stones: their tombs to those who died for Empire, statues for military heroes who killed for glory and plaques pinned to the walls of civil servants who died from disease in part of the world we should never been in

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