Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

by Nikil Saval
(Doubleday, $27)
So much for the curative powers of the cubicle, said Katie Engelhart in Maclean’s. As Nikil Saval reveals in his “zippy whirl” through two centuries of office design and culture, the partial pens that now hold at least 60 percent of American workers were created to promote periodic physical activity and idea-inspiring conversation. At least those were two stated goals of the “Action Office,” a prototype of today’s low-slung mazes that was designed by art professor Robert Propst and unveiled in 1964. Today, 93 percent of cubicle-dwellers would prefer a different arrangement, which should come as no surprise. Cubed is above all a history of what Saval calls “office utopianism”—the perpetually renewed, perpetually disappointed belief that a well-designed workplace will somehow transform employees into contented, maximally efficient superstars. (click below to read more)

“Saval deserves a lifetime of Advil” for his efforts, said Jerry Stahl in Bookforum. The author, who’s an editor at the literary magazine n+1, sifted through reams of arcane business texts to gather raw material for his study, then managed to spin those “dry-as-toast” texts into “genuine entertainment.” Fortunately, corporate voices aren’t the only ones we hear: Saval quotes an 1856 magazine article in which Walt Whitman derided office workers as “a round-shouldered generation of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest.” From there, we’re on to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—each foreshadowing how today’s workplace encourages employees to live in constant fear of dismissal. Indeed, “the genius of Cubed is that Saval recognizes the mood of barely controlled panic that suffuses most American offices.”
Saval can seem a bit too hard to please, said Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times. Even a “cathedral of an office” that Frank Lloyd Wright created for a mail-order business in Buffalo earns dark grumblings from the author about social control. What’s more, Saval’s lack of experience as a corporate employee “makes him a stranger to the many pleasures of working in a big office,” including the gossip and calming routine. Cubed, in its “best moments,” does allow that there are upsides to office work, said Tomas Hachard in Slate.com. As the boundary between work and home life blurs, Saval wisely laments its demise. But don’t seek answers here about what work might look like in the near future. Saval doesn’t make predictions. He’s instead given us a history that suggests that if happiness is our goal, the workplace might simply be the wrong place to seek it.
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