Offices origins

The office building program initially went against the certainties of the profession. While the Anglo-Saxons immediately accepted its monotony and its relative neutrality, French architects were more gradual in their uptake, though without ever making the office a real theme of doctrinal or theoretical investigation. In the time of remote working, this is a look back at the origins of the office.

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Air France administrative building, 1958-1960 Rues de l'Espagne and Henri-Farman, 94310 Orly Édouard Albert, architect; Jean-Louis Sarf, engineer Coll.Centre Pompidou-Kandinsky Library-DR

Soline Nivet

october 2, 2021
25 min.
Gradually coming into play in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the office program would initially catch our men in the profession off guard as it challenged their certitudes. And while the English-speaking world would accept its monotony and relative neutrality from the outset, French architects were slow to take up the office, never really making of it a subject of theoretical or doctrinal research.
Correlated with a given project’s financial considerations, concern for a plan’s effectiveness and adaptive capacity would seem at first glance to have pushed the issue outside the realm of architecture. Yet while office building architecture is indeed subject to a number of outside parameters (workplace regulations and rights, management techniques, communication technology, economy, etc.), it has also spurred an evolution in construction and form that has ultimately reconfigured our daily environment as well as the urban outline.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Emergence of the administrative function

Hôtel du ministre des Affaires étrangères, 1855 37, Quai d’Orsay, 75007 Paris. Jacques Lacornée, architecte. © Roger Henrard / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
As administrative activity intensified and became rationalized in eighteenth- century France, it would first find quarters in the hôtels particuliers[1] of Paris that constituted a considerable real estate bank at the time. Bought up by the king, these right bank residences of aristocrats were converted into “hôtels de fonction” that would prefigure future ministries.[2] Inside once private dwellings rechristened Office of Accounting, of Tobacco, of Mail or of Currency, bedrooms were turned into “offices”, living rooms into “agencies” and galleries into “assembly halls”. By installation and compartmentation, the hierarchical distribution of large and small apartments gave way to a uniform division of space that Claude Nicolas Ledoux would systemize in his unfinished Ferme et Caisse d’Escompte project on Rue de Grenelle in 1783. Then, in the first half of the nineteenth century, several buildings specifically intended for public administration were erected following the example of Jacques Lacornée’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay. Despite the standardization of facilities and the tasks executed therein,[3] the exterior architecture of these buildings still projected the monumentality expected of public edifices. And on the inside, distribution and designation of the director’s quarters remained subject to the conventions of aristocratic architecture (cabinet, antechambers, small and large salons) while office wings became increasingly commonplace.

Siège du Crédit Lyonnais, 1883 19 boulevard des Italiens, 75002 Paris. William Bouwens van der Boijen, architecte. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet Siège du Crédit Lyonnais, 1883 19 boulevard des Italiens, 75002 Paris. William Bouwens van der Boijen, architecte. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
The Haussmannian transformations of the second half of the nineteenth century would go hand in hand with the business sphere’s crucial dissociation from private life. But while men were now attending to affairs outside their homes,[4] there were still no buildings purely devoted to business activities; these were simply seen to in other apartments. In the Opera and Bourse quarters, whole buildings would gradually be diverted from their initial purpose.
With the service sector hardly yet existing, only railroad companies and deposit banks[5] were erecting buildings for themselves. At the turn of the century, banks like Crédit Lyonnais (William Bouwens van der Boijen, and then Victor Laloux, Boulevard des Italiens, 1878) and the Comptoir d’Escompte (Édouard-Jules Corroyer, Rue Bergère, 1882) set up their head offices on the Grands Boulevards. Occupying strategic corner locations, their façades fell in line with the urban standards of 1884 and 1902 and, often hiding their metal structures behind stone fronts, they looked little different from the other Parisian buildings.
Behind the Opera, in 1905, the Société Générale took over a whole block with eight luxury buildings barred from demolition.The architect Jacques Hermant availed himself of the technical options in metal and concrete to carry out a massive “façadist”[6] operation there: while maintaining their exterior appearance, the buildings were gutted and expanded with several underground levels. As regards interior adjustments (completed in 1911), he drew inspiration from methods and facilities seen in the United States: safe-deposit rooms, revolving doors, marble and bronze decor.

Siège de la Société Générale, 1912 29 boulevard Haussmann, 75009 Paris. Jacques Hermant, architecte. © Charles Lansiaux / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
In America, the emergence of the administrative and financial function combined with the invention of the elevator and the deregulation of limits on height to almost automatically produce a new architectural and building type: the high-rise office building... to which France would at first have seemed to be resistant, tying this new program down with composition, layout, and domestic façade regulations.
Well-versed in the arts of distribution and composition, French architects of the early twentieth century were likely not yet inclined to consider as Louis Sullivan did the office building as simply “the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, and the builder.”[7] Indeed, his article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, published in 1896, described it as a type taking “its place with all other architectural types”, a three-part vertical construction combining “an indefinite number of stories of offices piled tier upon tier, one tier just like another tier”[8] clasped between a commercial, public ground floor and an attic filled with technical installations.

Garanty Building, 1895 Church and Pearl Streets, Buffalo (NY, USA). Dankmar Adler et Louis Sullivan, architectes. © Wayne Andrews / Esto
In this article, whose celebrated line “Form ever follows function” would become the slogan of modern functionalism, Sullivan noted a certain distancing from the plan in the work of architects in Chicago, New York and Detroit. Usually limited to rectangles set in a regular framework of metal posts with, at the core, a battery of elevators, the office in these American plans was “similar to a cell in honey comb, merely a compartment, nothing more.”
When the theoretician Julien Guadet was teaching his class “Necessities in Office Architecture”[9] at the École des Beaux-Arts a few years later, he would further accent the hierarchization of space and purpose to produce a kind of French art of the plan.[10] However, he only applied this to management’s offices while his concept of the other floors was in line with Sullivan’s. A single three meter frame being the basis for the ensemble of the offices, the architectural issue, according to Guadet, was now how to deal with the repetitiousness of façades of such monotony that, “reluctant to take on this program directly, we almost always find ourselves crafting ruses to meet its demands.”[11]

Larkin Building, 1904 (démoli en 1950) Buffalo, (NY, USA). Franck Lloyd Wright, architecte. © DR Larkin Building, 1904 (démoli en 1950) Buffalo, (NY, USA). Franck Lloyd Wright, architecte. © DR
It was precisely this “monotony” that would be mobilized in the name of abstraction by the 1920s European avant-garde. Bereft of both base and peak, the skyscrapers of Hilberseimer, Van Esteren, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s theoretical projects now seemed free of any compositional logic, while the interior distribution of these pure prisms was left to the viewer’s imagination.[12]
In 1925, while setting down the details of his Plan Voisin for housing in Paris, Le Corbusier left out those of his cruciform office towers, preferring instead to note the “feeling” of strength that they bring: “These office workplaces thus feel to us like look-out posts overseeing an ordered world. In fact, it’s in these skyscrapers that the brains of the City – the brains of the whole country – are contained. They represent the command and development work on which general activities are based. Everything is concentrated there: devices for eliminating time and space – telephones, cables, radios; banks, commercial operations, factory decision-making; financial, technological and business concerns.”[13]
Freed from typological constraints, the value of these skyscrapers would now only be measured against their site and surface area. As with Sullivan thirty[14] years before – “It is not my purpose to discuss the social conditions” – Le Corbusier wasn’t investing this new program with any particular doctrine... except perhaps to the extent that it reflected the capitalist vision then dominating the era.

The 1930s

Specific building construction

Immeuble de la First National City Bank, 1929-1931 52-60 avenue des Champs-Élysées, 75008 Paris. André Arfvidson, architecte. L'Architecte, 1932. © DR
In 1932, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui applauded a “revolution in office technology” which it saw based above all upon the construction of buildings with specific functions. “Modern offices are so different from the old ones in their form, agglomeration and superposition that we can well wonder if such a transformation might not end in the complete extinction of those buildings that were not specially built for this use.”[15]
Against the old, dark, cluttered rooms replete with homelike decor meant to reveal the personality of the occupant,[16] the review opposed the functional virtues of the modern office: “In a building with a large lobby, a spacious stairway and several elevators, the offices are disposed regularly along long galleries; next door, we have the utility rooms featuring a pantry and water closets. The offices are of uniform size – about four by six meters – intensely lit by huge windows and by electricity, furnace-heated, painted, smooth, neat and clean. The doors are made of varnished wood, the floors of Masonite or linoleum, the whole put together for comfort and hygiene.”[17]
This description applied perfectly to the buildings raised on the west side of Paris by Henri Sauvage (Rue des Mathurins, 1921), Louis Faure-Dujarric (Rue d’Astorg, 1929, and Rue de Lille, 1935) and Urbain Cassan (Avenue Percier, 1928), whose stories repeated on street and courtyard an “office type” of about four by six meters. Seeking optimal natural light, modern architects designed windows “two meters by two [with] a rather high bottom pane, around one meter, and reaching around fifteen centimeters below the ceiling.”[18] Sometimes the office was subdivided in order to create a little office without direct daylight and “separated from the other one by a balustrade, the boss close to the window and his secretary close to the door until the day when, by hard work or luck, the latter rises to a better position with more responsibilities.”[19] Put into practice by Sauvage and Faure-Dujarric in the 1920s, this alcove would vanish from plans during the following decade when distribution of the regular floors ceased to indicate hierarchical divisions.

On a more general level, hierarchization functioned vertically: the highest floors, set back and therefore favored with terraces, were reserved for management, whereas on the ground floors, courtyards were roofed in order to create large halls to be lined in some cases with rows of typists and their noisy machines.
While allowing that “façades are too much an affair of their creator’s personal taste for specific rules”,[20] L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui would feature nothing but “modern” projects in the 1930s. At the same time, a series of corner and whole-block buildings in the spirit of those built before the war were being developed, the architects of these edifices expressing a certain metropolitan monumentality[21] in accordance with motifs that were industrial (Adolphe Bocage, 8–10 Rue du Renard, 1919), classic (André Arfvidson, 52–60 Avenue des Champs-Élysées, 1931), colossal (Charles Letrosne and Joseph Marrast, 16 Boulevard des Italiens, 1932) Art Deco (Raymond Février, 21 Rue de Châteaudun, 1933), or American style (Shell, Lucien Bechmann and Roger Chatenay, 40–44 Rue Washington), yet still bowed to the height limits of 1902 zoning laws.
All styles considered, the grid frame governing the design of façades (three to four meters) differed little at first from that of residential buildings. But L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui noted that the space of “only 1.5 meters” between the mullions of the Palacio (Marcel Hennequet, 11 Rue Tronchet, 1933) “facilitates the shifting of walls between offices.”[22] In 1932, for the same reasons, Henri Bard and Julien Flegenheimer adopted this 1.5 meter gap at 48–50 Boulevard des Batignolles, underlining it with large mullions in the façade plan. Two years later, and once again with concern for flexibility with regard to interior walls, Urbain Cassan tightened this frame to one meter for the head office of the Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité (19 Rue de Vienne), thereby neutralizing the façade by means of a modular grid that would see widespread use following the war. 

The 1950s

Management aligns with functionalism

Immeuble administratif Air France, 1958-1960 Rues de l’Espagne et Henri-Farman, 94310 Orly. Édouard Albert, architecte / Jean-Louis Sarf, ingénieur Coll. © Centre Pompidou Bibliothèque Kandinsky
In the 1950s, every theory of management was singing the praises of the organizational chart for administration. This outline, mapping out the circuit of information and decisions while reproducing the hierarchical pyramid, was adopted without distinction by the functionalist architects who took it as an absolute model for distribution: “The plan should be compact and organized around its centers, meaning its ‘department heads’. Distribution should be modeled on the organizational chart, fluctuating over time while defining the relative positions of personnel and departments... Recent organizational principles like ‘Staff and Line’ describe an operating procedure that should logically be reproduced in the space provided by the construction. On top, the ‘senior management’ is small in number, working in quiet, well equipped but free to move around. The various departments link to vertical axes of passage, and the personnel of each department is spread out over each floor.”[23]

Immeuble administratif Air France, 1958-1960 Rues de l’Espagne et Henri-Farman, 94310 Orly. Édouard Albert, architecte / Jean-Louis Sarf, ingénieur Coll. © Centre Pompidou-Bibliothèque Kandinsky Immeuble administratif Air France, 1958-1960 Rues de l’Espagne et Henri-Farman, 94310 Orly. Édouard Albert, architecte / Jean-Louis Sarf, ingénieur Coll. © Centre Pompidou-Bibliothèque Kandinsky
The relative positions of employees, managers and directors are therefore expressed in the apportionment of spaces but also in the surface area allocated to an individual. Drawn up by modern architects in the 1920s in order to develop programs for housing projects, the idea of a “minimum cell” was now being applied to offices. The size of the minimum cell would now vary in proportion to its occupant’s level of responsibilities, and the ensemble of offices factorized from a core bay. The “half-cell” of the lowest-ranking employee was only 1.5 meters wide.
Architects championed this frame-based logic as an argument for later economies: compact and void of superfluous space, their plans were supposed to be able to adapt themselves to future evolutions in the organizational chart thanks to the new, moveable partitions. “All constructive dispositions should allow for adaptive flexibility in order to economize space... This maximum compactness should be maintained with time regardless of the evolution of the organizational chart governing distribution. The grid plan was therefore inevitable and its conception nothing new: it had already been put forward by Guadet in Paris and Sullivan in Chicago in 1880.”[24] In 1959, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui lauded this “new method using moveable partitions in grid frames,” thanks to which “the layout of an administrative department, public or private, hardly varies anymore in the world.”[25] The majority of designers would adopt this method unquestionably, applying it accordingly to plan types and “international style” façades compatible with the standardized catalogs of panels and fittings.
Édouard Albert was perhaps alone in making this system the basis of a genuine exploration both formal and constructive. For the Épargne de France (85 Rue Jouffroy-D’Abbans, 1955) and the Orly Airport administrative building (1960), he developed metal structures made up of thin tubes disposed in tight modules (1.22 and 1.40 meters respectively) to buttress the façade on its bare exterior.

Caisse centrale de réassurance, 1955-1958 37, rue de la Victoire, 75009 Paris. Jean Balladur et Benjamin Lebeigle, architectes Coll. © Pavillon de l’Arsenal Coll. Centre Pompidou MNAM-CCI, diffusion RMN
Others, in the spirit of Jean Balladur who enlarged the unit to 1.75 meters so as to “size the tracé régulateur – measure-ruler – of his façades to fit Modulor proportions”,[26] would treat this “art of the module” as a work in plastic abstraction along the lines of Mies van der Rohe’s American projects. In November of 1956, a group of forty or so architects and fifteen engineers “specialized in aluminum” (and therefore likely to be close to Jean Prouvé) were invited to the United States by L’Aluminium Français to see the latest American accomplishments in office buildings. Between visits to the world’s biggest metal section manufacturers and a meeting with Mies van der Rohe himself, this trip would leave a lasting impression on its participants. In a report published the following year, Raymond Lopez would call the Lever House (SOM, New York, 1952) the “best building in the world”,[27] and go into raptures about the 20,000 m2 wall span of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building then being completed and shortly starring on 1958 French architectural review covers. Impressed by the sophisticated detail of “this architecture all in transparence”, French architects noted the time and the means now enabling their American colleagues to produce their façades in a fruitful partnership with engineers from the industrial sector. They also observed with envy “the happy land where commercial competitors looks to the splendor of buildings to advertise” and saw corporate commissions as “something akin to the patronage of the great families of the Italian Renaissance.”[28] And finally, they retained the lesson of Mies van der Rohe who taught students proportional harmony via abstract “line and surface” compositions.

The American influence was particularly apparent in the metal structures and curtain walls of the Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (Jean Balladur, 37 Rue de la Victoire, 1956) and the Caisse Centrale d’Allocations Familiales (Raymond Lopez, 18–26 Rue Viala, 1959). Their metal sections and coated window panels were drawn up and made to measure by major manufacturers like Saint-Gobain who that same year entrusted the project for its new headquarters in Neuilly to André Aubert and Pierre Bonnin. While curtain walls and metal panels came into general use for façades, concrete remained the dominant material for structures, and the 1950s and 1960s would leave Paris with several fine achievements combining the two techniques – the Fédération Nationale du Bâtiment (Raymond Lopez, with Jean Prouvé, 7 Rue La Pérouse, 1951), for example, and the Agence France-Presse (Robert Camelot, 11 Place de la Bourse, 1955). On the inside, insistence on absolute freedom with regard to walling influenced not just plan and façade design, but also that of any furnishings. Now manufactured in series, moveable partitions had to be interchangeable with closets and doors, which meant limiting the number of elements – themselves necessarily reduced to several types – applicable to the ensemble of interior arrangements. This notion would find favor with a whole generation of architects, influenced as they were by Le Corbusier’s idea, developed since the 1920s, of standard furnishings:[29] designing handsome elements of partition furnishing (hanging closets, box furniture, etc.), they came to realize that they had actually “paved the way for catalog goods”[30] that would gradually dispossess architects of furniture design.

The Trente Glorieuses

Geographical redeployment and new urban forms

While pre-war constructions were concentrated in well-off neighborhoods of Paris intra muros, programs of the 1950s went to outer arrondissements as well as towns in the western and southern suburbs. Company headquarters and administrative offices would look to Neuilly, Clamart, Orly and Fontenayaux- Roses for the space lacking in Paris to raise their four façade buildings in the form of bars and blocks free from the fragmentary complexity of the capital. Access (by rail or by road) concerns were becoming particularly acute in business districts of the big city. As for French architects, their trips to the United States had shown them the importance of the “power that commissions and, more crudely, pays”,[31] to the perception of a building’s global figure as a guarantee of economic strength. In the spirit of their elders from the 1920s, they invoked business districts dominated by skyscrapers as a means of liberating Paris from its sclerosis.[32]
Already foreshadowed by Raymond Lopez and Michel Holley in their 1955 exploratory study “L’espace parisien”, and ratified by the urban renewal plan of 1961,[33] urban renovations of the Trente Glorieuses would be characterized by significant consolidation of lands and a lifting of the ceiling on building heights. Office programs could now be realized as isolated entities – towers and bars built on slab foundations, housing a shopping center in the case of the highest structures (the Maine-Montparnasse tower, Eugène Beaudouin, Urbain Cassan, Louis Hoym de Marien, Roger Saubot, Place Raoul-Dautry, 1972) or a company’s internal affairs and maintenance departments for more modest buildings (the Rothschild bank, Max Abramovitz and Pierre Dufau, 21 Rue Lafitte, 1969).
To the west, in 1956, Robert Camelot, Bernard Zehrfuss and Jean de Mailly proposed a series of big office buildings along Avenue de Neuilly, thus extending the royal way. By 1958, this idea had evolved into one for a new business district made up of high towers concentrated on a vast slab and surrounded by a belt freeway.
To this end, at La Défense, design of the first tower was entrusted to Jean de Mailly and Jacques Depussé who were assisted by Jean Prouvé for the engineering. Strutted and organized around a central core of concrete housing vertical circulations and windowless spaces, the Initiale tower (1966) was endowed with an exterior steel structure freeing its immense decks from support elements and suspending an elegant, round-cornered curtain wall. The technical and regulative complexity of the edifice led the company commissioning it to enlist a “mandated builder”, thus initiating the delegation of project management that would then become common practice.

The 1970s

Management by goals and open plan offices

In the 1960s, and then the 1970s, a new category of service sector employees and salaried directors emerged, easing out the old, patrimonial bourgeoisie and taking the place of one-time family businesses. The malaise felt by these “executives” in the face of bureaucratic gigantism and their wish to be involved in decision-making then led to a change in management methods. Less pyramidal chains of command, decentralization of departments, meritocracy and management by goals as opposed to immediate return characterized this new management intent on enhancing the value of human relations. The company was seen as a work flow – a system of communication within which optimizing fluidity was a key priority.
In the name of this new fluidity, two German consultants – the Schnelle brothers – advanced the idea of the “open plan office” at the end of the 1950s, a proposition replacing individual rooms with vast open spaces in order to optimize the circulation of information and documents.
As open plan offices became more widespread, architects found themselves progressively dispossessed of certain functions by newcomers: the spatial organization of departments was now entrusted to space planners and the decor to interior architects who would then draw from modular furniture catalogs featuring goods by Knoll, Herman Miller, Marcatré and Steelcase.
In 1973, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui[34] detailed without any particular scruples this new design procedure calling first for the layout of interior arrangements that architects would then be simply expected to envelope with their façades.[35] In reaction to this typological degradation and the abandonment of the plan, architects like the Dutchman Herman Hertzberger, who realized in Apeldoorn an important office building program for the Centraal Beheer in 1974, pursued other paths. Formed as a horizontal layer, his Apeldoorn project deployed a cellular organization where each “hard-built” work station was linked to a system of specific connections.[36] By defining his Centraal Beheer as “a workplace where everyone feels at home” and “a home for a thousand people”, Hertzberger purposely called up – while all the while updating – the domestic angle that had been pushed to the side by the functionalists since the 1920s.
Other architects, like Norman Foster in Great Britain, looked to technology for ways to revitalize office building architecture. The advent of the computer, the ever more widespread installation of air-conditioning along with electrical and telephonic links to each work station led high-tech architects, in the spirit of questions first raised by Reyner Banham, to reexamine the relationship between building structure and service shafts. In 1971, for the IBM building in Cosham, Norman Foster developed a flexible structure based on a square module measuring 8 meters a side and made up of lattice work beams and hollow columns doubling as sheathing for electrical and telephone lines.[37] In doing so, he was addressing the then emerging problematics of the “intelligent building” and the distinction between hard and soft that would dominate the coming decade.

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Less inclined towards typological and technological experimentation, France would see a certain homogenization in tertiary sector architecture in the 1960s and 1970s with buildings differentiated from each other by little more than their façade motifs.
The development, in two phases, of the EDF site in Issy-les-Moulineaux by the Atelier de Montrouge well represented the evolutions taking place, even though the quality of its design and execution placed it well above average works of the era. The first tower, built in 1962, was fronted with a curtain wall set back and suspended from a metal structure. The second, erected in 1976 (now demolished), was two times higher and disposed as per a cruciform plan. Its façade of prefabricated, stainless steel panels gave it the “bees’ nest” look characteristic of the period following the first oil crisis in 1973.
Glass curtain walls gave way to architectonic cement and the cast aluminum panels (André Biro and Jean-Jacques Fernier, 40 Rue René-Boulanger, 1972) with which curvy or angular designs produced a pleasing kinetic effect (Noël Le Maresquier and Pierre-Paul Heckly, 39 Quai André-Citroën, 1972) or dull grid patterns of joints, depending on the talent of their creators. Several teams would nevertheless continue to explore the plastic possibilities of metal structures (Havas, Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1972) or the curtain wall by following the lead of Jacques de Brauer with his magnificent façade in pleated glass (86 Rue Regnault, 1976).

The 1980s

Uncertainty and forecasting

The 1980s saw both rejection of models from the past and uncertainty about coming evolutions. In 1981, Techniques & Architecture deplored the spread of open plan offices and the extreme banality of their interior space: “It would be hard not to notice the profound dichotomy separating building construction from interior layout... Office space has become a borderless, formless surface-entity developed as per diagrams and organigrammes, the whole wrapped in a skin that can only be distinguished by reference to assorted architectural trends.”[38]
The various alternative experiments undertaken over the previous decade inspired little imitation in France, neither in the topological tracks of Hertzberger, nor in those – more constructive – of the English high-tech architects who would continue developing their models from London (Richard Rogers, Lloyds, 1986) to Hong Kong (Norman Foster, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, 1986).
Perhaps François Deslaugiers was the only one in France attempting, with his Centre des Impôts (Nemours, 1980), to reconcile flexibility with architecture by rethinking the independence of all that composed a building: structures, membranes and fluids. He would not be joined on this road, nor would he be awarded the commissions that would have allowed him to pursue this investigations.
While research departments continued to examine “intelligent buildings” and energy economy, the advent of “new technologies” was at the heart of concerns of the time: the Musée des Arts Décoratifs[39] and the Centre Pompidou[40] both devoted exhibitions to this question which was also the subject of two Programme Architecture Nouvelle (PAN) concours (1985 and 1988).[41]
In 1985, the “Prospective 2005” symposium organized by the Commissariat au Plan and the CNRS[42] examined the main issues arising from advances in technology and, more specifically, from changes in the office equipment. While specialists agreed that every office worker would have their own multifunctional, computer-equipped station by 1996 (as opposed to one out of eight in 1985), opinions varied as to what kind of material they’d be using in 2005. Would each one continue with a single multifunctional station, or rather two or three hyperspecialized posts? This last hypothesis considered the most likely, a minimum 20% enlargement of work station space was envisaged along with some serious reconsideration of workplace ergonomics. In the 1980s, uncertainties went beyond the question of working environments to touch on more structural issues – working conditions: how many hours a week will we spend in offices once individual computers are 100,000 times more powerful? Will the transmission of information in digital form forever eliminate the line between home and office?

Architectural programs of the 1980s essentially distinguished themselves from those of preceding decades by their logic with regard to location. While manufacturing sites continued to relocate to the outer suburbs, the industrial edifices of the nineteenth century were being newly valued, and thus conferring value. Companies were choosing to headquarter in them and entrusting the renovations to architects already renown for designing public project cultural programs: Renzo Piano for Schlumberger (Montrouge, 1983), and Reichen & Robert to transform the Menier chocolate factory into the head office of Nestlé France (Noisiel, 1988–96).[43]
On a more modest scale, media and advertising concerns began to occupy the workshops (Actuel, Canal, 1981), garages (Libération, Canal, 1987) and villas (Atya, Franck Hammoutène, 1986) of the urban fabric. Entrusted to young architects, these reconversions and extensions played, for the companies commissioning them, into the elaboration of an off-beat image co-opting codes from the previous decade’s counterculture. As for government commissions, office programs were at the heart of several important urban projects in the Mitterrand years. The competitions for Bercy and La Défense – 150,000 m2 for the Ministry of Finances (Paul Chemetov and Borja Huidobro, 1989) and 123,000 m2 for the Grande Arche (Otto von Spreckelsen, 1989) – as well as the 120,000 m2 Collines project (Jean-Pierre Buffi, 1991) mobilized architects from all over the world in 1983 and 1986. The size and symbolic importance of these programs led candidates into the realm of the monumental whose codes and forms they sought to renew, though this may have been to the detriment of typological research with an eye to future consequences.
Not to be outdone, the Ville de Paris would also turn to commercial real estate to develop sectors in the midst of restructuring: the 60,000 m2 Ponant building (Olivier-Clément Cacoub, 1989), for example, and the 50,000 m2 concrete slab roofing of the Montparnasse station (Jean Willerval, 1991). Faithful to the École des Beaux-Arts tradition, these architects were marrying the commonplace architecture of atriums and mirror glass with grandes compositions worthy of the capital.
This desire to “go site” with new office programs also played out with certain companies wishing to integrate the architecture of their head office with more global corporate strategies. This was most notably the case with Bouygues when it hired Kevin Roche for its 30 hectare Challenger site in the new town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. More generally, the completion of major infrastructure and transportation works enabled such new towns to insist on their accessibility – by freeway or the RER line – to the developers and investors that would, as of 1986, be developing vast “blank” service sector ensembles in Marne-la-Vallée, Saint-Quentin, and Cergy-Pontoise.

The 1990s

Invention in a time of crisis

By the second half of the 1980s, the effects of globalization had been translated into an acceleration in the rhythm of economic cycles wherein prosperous times alternate with crisis years. While the situation was particularly robust between 1986 and 1990, real estate began to founder in 1990 and would sink lower as the crisis became more acute with the first Golf War in 1991. The dynamism of the previous phase having produced a significant rise both in surface area sold and the size of single units (often more than 5,000 m2),[44] developers found themselves at the dawn of the 1990s with more offices to sell than buyers. While the notion of “service industry wastelands” was first broached, the Ministry of Housing began researching the possibility of converting these millions of square meters of empty space into housing.[45]
A first report on the typological, technical and regulatory constraints that such a project would face was solicited in 1993 from the architect Bernard Reichen. An in-depth study on “the future of empty offices”[46] by Jacques Darmon then announced that the vacant stock (five million square meters in 1995) could take twenty to thirty years to be absorbed and proposed the conversion of 500,000 m2 of Parisian office space into apartments. Aside from purely regulatory issues, such a transformation raised the question of compatibility between modules of the two programs and their different thicknesses. Several architects would take up the challenge and, in operations promoted by the RIVP (Real Estate Authority of the Ville de Paris), take on office buildings of every era. For Reichen and Robert, it was the eighteenthcentury hôtel particulier (30 Rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière, 1995); for Yves Lion, the offices of the Compagnie Française de Pétrole from 1954 (22 Rue Boileau, 1996), and for Patrick Colombier and Danièle Damon, a 1970s metal structure building (133 Rue du Chevaleret, 1995).
Another result of the crisis was that certain developers and investors were falling back on prestigious intra muros addresses to create value. Interpreting an article of Paris’s 1989 Plan d’Occupation des Sols to allow for de facto planning density, they threw themselves into major façadist operations wherein a building’s front was maintained in order to claim the whole of its surfaces without having to pay any surcharges. Projects headed by Jean-Jacques Ory (Swiss Life, 86 Boulevard Haussmann) and Anthony Béchu (Îlot Édouard-VII, 1997) kept nothing of the Haussmannian block but its exteriors while completely restructuring interiors. These rather spectacular building sites put into play some high-level technical skills, maintaining façades in the void on the one hand, and then building underpinnings on the other. While the world of French architecture and urbanism would have mixed reactions to this method – some denouncing an image of the city taxidermized[47] – its practitioners would go on to export it all the way to Asia and the Far East.

Jean Nouvel
Still in the 1990s, several isolated office buildings of much lesser volume than those of the preceding decade would manage a perceptive approach to the particularities of limited terrains of complex geometry, constructions such as the Jean Nouvel’s Dalkia building on the Île Saint-Germain (1992). Other architects went to the “neutral” office program to advance other positions with regard to the city, its zoning regulations (Le Monde, du Besset-Lyon, 15 Rue Falguière, 1990; Philippe Gazeau, 16–18 Quai de la Loire, 1999) or its relation to the suburbs (Yves Lion, 11–19 Avenue de la Porte-d’Italie, 1993).

After 1997

New issues...

In 1997, as the real estate business entered a new cycle, the computer revolution had been consummated: every company was equipped with individual computer work stations and connected to the Internet. The same year, the first international treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions was signed in Kyoto, foreshadowing a new period of research: a building’s energy tally and the performance of its envelope were now central to the concerns of both architecture and technological inquiry.
Managerial strategies were also evolving, now calling for “management by project” while emphasizing the “personal fulfillment” of executives, the key words being creativity, adaptability and flexibility.
In its offices on Avenue George-V, Andersen Consulting (today Accenture) invented the virtual office. Considering that its consultants spent 80% of their work time with clients and now worked with network-connected laptop computers, the firm opted for elimination of the very idea of a work station. 
Its executives would find themselves in a different spot from one day to another and this, in a transparent building conceived of as a vast meeting room.[48]
Heralded in the press as the beginning of the definitive decline of the office building, this principle of the flex office, which saves even more space but forces everyone to work constantly under the gaze of everyone else, will spread rapidly in the following decades. 

In the book "Work in process" published by the Pavillon de l'Arsenal in 2012.

Soline Nivet
Soline Nivet is an architect DPLG, doctor and authorized to supervise research in architecture. Professor and researcher at ENSA Paris-Malaquais (ACS laboratory - UMR Ausser, Cnrs 3329), she defends a deliberately transversal position, between theory and practice, research and profession, history and current affairs, because such are the territories of architecture today. Exhibition curator and architecture critic, she is also the author of documentaries and radio creations for Arte and France Culture, as well as of several books and numerous articles on the recent transformations of the Parisian metropolis.

1. Or town houses... See Natacha Coquery “Patrimoine privé, patrimoine public: la reconversion de l’hôtel aristocratique parisien en bureaux au XVIIIe siècle”, in Daniel J. Grange and Dominique Poulot (ed.), L’Esprit des lieux. Le patrimoine et la cité, Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1997 p. 377–90.
2. Natacha Coquery,“De l’hôtel aristocratique aux ministères: habitat, mouvement, espace à Paris au XVIIIe siècle”, doctoral thesis, Université Paris 1, January 1995.
3. Described in minute detail by Honoré de Balzac in La Comédie humaine, vol. VII: Études de mœurs: Scènes de la vie parisienne [1844], Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 1977, p. 954–56. Let us note that, in that same decade, Herman Melville would describe the repetitive task of a Wall Street office copyist in Bartleby, the Scrivener. In Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, New York: Putnam’s Magazine,1853.
5. See Bernard Marrey, “Banques et bureaux”, in Le Fer à Paris. Architectures, Paris: Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Picard, 1989, p. 64–65.
6. This term, referring to the practice of maintaining façades while gutting the interior of residential buildings being transformed into office buildings, would find widespread usage in the 1990s.
7. Louis Sullivan, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine, n°. 57, March 1896, p. 403–09.
8. Ibid.
9. Julien Guadet, Éléments et théorie de l’architecture, vol. III, Paris: Aulanier, 1901.
10. On this subject, see Jacques Lucan, Composition, Non-composition – Architecture and Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Lausanne: EPFL Press, 2012.
11. Julien Guadet, Éléments et théorie..., op. cit., p. 398.
12. See Soline Nivet,“Formes habitables”, in Olivier Namias and Ingrid Taillandier (ed.), L’Invention de la tour européenne, Paris: Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Picard, 2009, p. 205.
13. Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, Paris: Crès, 1925; new edition, Paris: Vincent, Fréal et Cie, 1966, p. 177
14. Louis Sullivan, The Tall Office Building..., op. cit.
15. L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui,n°. 3, April 1932.
16. “[...] a chimney, windows, knick-knacks, paintings on the wall...”, in ibid.
17. Idem.18. Idem.
19. Idem.
20. Idem.
21. See Éric Lapierre, Guide d’architecture, Paris 1900–2008, Paris: Pavillon de l’Arsenal, 2008.
22. L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, n°. 8, September 1933, p. 64.
René-A. Coulon and Paul Genes,“L’architecture des ensembles administratifs”, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, n° . 82, February-March 1959.
25. Idem.
26. “Tout était prétexte à recherches, entretien avec Jean Balladur”,Le Moniteur Architecture n° AMC, n . 32-33, June-July1992.
27. Raymond Lopez, “USA. La leçon de Mies van der Rohe”, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, no. 70, January 1957.
29. Le Corbusier, “Besoins types, meubles types“, , in L’Art décoratif aujourd’hui, Paris: Crès, 1925.
30.“Tout était prétexte à recherches, entretien avec Jean Balladur“, art. cit.
31. Raymond Lopez, « USA. La leçon de Mies van der Rohe », art. cit.
32. « À l’échelle de l’urbanisme », in René-A. Coulon et Paul Genes, « L’architecture des ensembles administratifs », art. cit.
33. See Olivier Namias, “Essor de l’urbanisme vertical à Paris, 1945–1976”, in Olivier Namias and Ingrid Taillandier (ed.), L’Invention de la tour européenne, op. cit. For details of the debate over height regulations in Paris, see Jean Castex and Rémi Rouyer, Les Tours à Paris, bilan et prospectives, Paris: Apur, 2003.
34. “Étude et aménagement des bureaux-paysages”, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, no. 165, January 1973.
35. The rise of “space planners” in the United States is also related to a project management model finding ever increasing acceptance in France today. Produced by promoters and financed by investors, office buildings are no longer “ordered” by the companies that occupy them. Instead, they call upon space planners to adapt a building’s neutral spaces (or “blank offices”) to the specific needs of their organization.
36. This approach, which transferred urban elements – streets, squares, doorways – to building interiors, was in line with propositions developed in 1953 by the Team X architects attempting to offset the morphological simplifications resulting from modern urbanism. It would be implemented in France at the beginning of the 1970s, but mostly for housing and school programs.
37. See L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, no. 165, January 1973.
38 “Architectures de bureaux, un bilan et des tendances”, Techniques & Architecture, no. 337, September 1981.
39. L’Empire du bureau : 1900-2000, musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1984.
40. Lieux ? de travail, Galerie du CCI, Centre Pompidou, Paris, éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1986.
41. Pan Bureau, 1985 et 1988, Ministère de l’Équipement, du Logement, de l’Aménagement du Territoire et des Transports.
42. Colloquim 27–28 November 1985, resulting from seven research missions: evolution of work, computer science, materials, communications, biotechnology, cultural resources, consumption.
43. Twenty years later, the same agencies, respectively, would be called upon to install the head office of Virgin-EMI in the former RATP bus depot (118–124 Rue du Mont-Cenis, Paris, 2005) and that of the BNP-Paribas in a one-time flour mill (Pantin, 2009).
44. See Jacques Bonnet, “L’évolution du marché des bureaux en France et à l’étranger”, Géocarrefour, vol. 78/4, 2003, on line 21 August 2007 (http://
45. See Philippe Dehan, “Transformer des bureaux en logements”, AMC, no. 66, November 1995.
46. Jacques Darmon, Rapport du groupe de travail sur l’avenir du parc de bureaux vacants, report to the Minister of Housing, Paris: Ministère du Logement, 1994.
47. On this subject, see “Façades et façadisme, entretien avec François Loyer”, Architecture Intérieure Créé, no. 289, 1999; Francis Rambert, “Façades ou façadisme?”, d’Architectures, no. 91, March 1999.
48. See Florentin Collomp, “La vie quotidienne des sans-bureau-fixe”, L’Expansion, 22 February 1996.