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Pictured: Northeastern M.Arch Students with faculty members Bryan Shles (WRNS Studio) and Kristian Kloeckl, as well as with panelists Michael Yusem and Ben Breslau

In early April, the School of Architecture hosted a book launch and panel discussion of Workplace + Public Realm.

Workplace + Public Realm reflects the findings of a yearlong research studio led by Stanford University, Northeastern University, and WRNS Studio. The nature of work has always shaped the built environment, which has evolved significantly from agriculture-based townships to industrial cities connecting vast infrastructural networks to clerical cities of hierarchy and order. With the Information Age in full swing and automation positioned to further skew the workforce toward creative and strategic thinking, the market demand for innovation is reaching a tipping point. Knowledge work compels what WRNS Studio calls the “public mesh,” or the blurring of workplace and the public realm, with intriguing and complex implications for the built environment.

During the 2015/2016 academic year, the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, the Architectural Design Program at Stanford University, and WRNS Studio collaborated on a research studio called “Situated Work and Public Life.” The class investigated the impacts of changes in work and workplace upon the public realm and vice versa. The endeavor, which has culminated in the publication of Workplace + Public Realm, benefitted from the sponsorship of primary backer Jones Lang LaSalle, as well as Kilroy Realty, Knoll, Intuit, Equity Office, and CoreNet Global.

The students’ research points to two key benefits—flexibility and work/life integration—sought by today’s knowledge workers who expect meaningful interaction as well as autonomy over the processes of their work. While flexibility and work/life integration have been well covered in journalism, the students’ research, as organized in the book’s opening chapters, compels a deeper inquiry into the commonly held assumptions of both. For instance, workplace flexibility is not just a matter of making buildings adaptable for future uses; it’s also about supporting worker wellbeing by allowing for flexibility in when, where, and how work happens by situating work in close proximity to infrastructural networks like transit or other amenities like fitness. Likewise, the work/life dynamic shifts from balance to blur, as it can often be difficult to know in any given moment if someone is working or “doing life.” As most knowledge work can now be done anywhere, the workplace must evolve for relevance by offering experiences, tools, and spaces one could not find outside the office.

From an evolved understanding of the concepts of flexibility and work/life integration arises the need for a new kind of platform to better support them—the public mesh. The public mesh is an ecosystem, or network, of publicly accessed places mutually defined by public and private entities, which happens at different scales and through different territories of public and private ownership. WRNS Studio’s design partner, Bryan Shiles, who conceived of the class and co-taught it, points out that the public mesh is nascent—its more obvious nodes becoming evident in spaces, networks and infrastructures shared by workers and the public. In this “becoming” lies great opportunity to shape new spaces of engagement and access. The public mesh is still far from being worked out, as explored in chapters on security, jurisdictional dynamics, and territoriality and boundaries. The book is intended to catalyze further research on how both cities and suburbs might evolve in more human-centered, responsible ways—to the benefit of both private and public interests—as work and public life continue to merge.

Panelists at the event were:

  • Ben Breslau, Managing Director, JLL
  • Michael Yusem, Vice President of Strategic Design, Fidelity Real Estate Co.
  • George Thrush, Professor, School of Architecture, Northeastern University
  • Bryan Shiles, FAIA, Partner, WRNS Studio
  • Kristian Kloeckl, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Art + Design, School of Architecture, Northeastern University