A Walk with Frank Duffy

Frank Duffy is a British architect, noted for his research and design work on the changing nature of the modern office. He is the author of Work and the City, one of five books in Black Dog’s Edge Futures series that explores the impact of global climate change on various aspects of social life, including education, transportation, community and Duffy’s own realm of expertise: the nature – and spaces – of work. Duffy’s command of this topic is rare, honed in the thirty-six years since he co-founded DEGW, an architectural firm whose emphasis on social-scientifically informed space-planning practices, organizational consultancy and post-occupancy evaluation makes it singular in the field.

In the book, Duffy argues against contemporary cities’ irrationally low use of their existing office space. In so doing, he echoes in unexpected ways Robin Chase’s call to maximize our use of excess capacity in transportation. And he foreshadows Laura Forlano’s future-facing analysis of new intentional communities springing up in self-organized work environments.

On a recent visit to New York, Duffy took Rosalie Genevro, executive director of the Architectural League, on a walk around Lower Manhattan, to reflect on our office stock and what it means in the context of our changing city.

Read an excerpt of their conversation below, followed by an audio-slideshow of their walk. —C.S.

Rosalie Genevro: Do you see any glimmer of hope in our recent and current financial meltdown?

Frank Duffy:
I think the crisis might stimulate a beneficial thought process, in two principal ways. The first is related to the question of sustainability, which I think is going to work its way through the whole system. And the second of course is information technology, which is changing the nature of organizations. The building isn’t a useful unit of analysis anymore, because organizations are always bigger or smaller and constantly changing. At least half of them operate in a virtual world, in a placeless world. The crisis is going to demonstrate that there’s too much space. And a lot of people are going to be frightened by that. Hopefully that fright will lead to some beneficial realizations.

It may be a very painful transition – it seems to me that we already have a lot of empty space that won’t be absorbed because it won’t be needed.

You also make the argument in Work and the City that even in terms of existing space that is occupied, we use it at an irrationally low level – it is just not inhabited much of the time.  Even for people whose interest is in making money from the built environment, that argument doesn’t seem to have penetrated.


“Buildings aren’t made out of glass, concrete and stone: they’re made out of time, layers of time.”

FD: Actually, I think it will penetrate eventually.  I thought, twenty years ago when I spend a lot of time encouraging development, that facilities managers would bring some intelligence into the system; but instead of thinking about the supply chain, they were much more interested in their own deliverables rather than longer-term use value. The vertical silos that exist within these very large corporations pose another very important problem. We need to weave together, keeping the end-user’s point of view in mind, the organizational silos within which, say, human resources departments look after human resources departments and information technology staff interact only with information technology staff. In that context, it is very difficult to create organizations that are agile.

That being said, there are many things about the American office that are extremely intelligent that Europeans didn’t necessarily pick up on until much later. Americans were less interested in the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk and supported the skills of people like interior designers, space planners, decorators and others whose scope – within the building – was to meet the short-term needs of five- or ten-year tenants. That system was invented here. It’s a wonderful system. And it’s a perfect example of not getting everything “right in a night” but leaving scope for change and adaptation. That’s the principle that I’m trying to articulate in this conversation. Not all design decisions have the same longevity. Buildings aren’t made out of glass and concrete and stone: they’re made out of time, layers of time.

One of the things I like about New York is the juxtaposition of the old and new in the way that the blocks have been developed. That is a component of the recipe for success of long-term urban fabric: it is capable of being modified internally and externally as social and technological change develops. Older stock has been moved out of exclusive office use into other purposes, older buildings turned into apartments for example.

If we are to build fewer new buildings, how do we decide what’s worth building?

FD: Well, I think you can test that. You can think through the process of working on a floor plate or building section, thinking about what its use-potential is.  If I were a building owner these days, that’s something I’d be interested in: the future potential of existing structures, whether they’ll have to be extensively modified to cope with change or not.

I am very much involved with the Olympics at the moment in London.  The so-called “legacy” and “transitional” phases of the Olympic sites are very important.  We’re trying to do a think-over of a way of designing things that can mutate and develop into other things over time.  One of the curses of architecture is its instantaneity.  The definite statements of each individual building do not necessarily cumulatively add up to something that has got the idea of change built into it.  But urbanism should include that idea, and older cities have had that capacity to accommodate change. The mono-functionality that you see from here very clearly is vulnerable.

Another theme is that the design and use of interstitial spaces – made in the context of the knowledge economy – is becoming more important than the buildings themselves or what happens inside them. So, designing for the full spectrum of uses over a large area, having a mix of uses and then having the principle of change built into that so it can develop and mutate and move from one kind of use to another. These are the fundamental secrets of urbanism.


“The building isn’t a useful unit of analysis anymore.”

RG: How can you design for that? That has always seemed to be the accreted nature of cities. The most interesting places tend not to be the work of one hand, of one designer.

Or one financier. It’s always been difficult, but I think we’ve made it worse by the way in which buildings are financed, procured and developed. Cumulatively, over the course of the twentieth century, this has made each building more and more specific and separate in itself rather than something that adds to a more complex urban fabric.

Certainly, from an architectural and user point of view, I’d think about what different building forms can accommodate, and how ambiguity, choice and potential can be built into design over a long period. Thinking about the buildings themselves in a much more sophisticated way. But also thinking about the nature of the interstitial spaces – who owns them, who manages them, who loves them, who takes advantage of them. That’s something that we have not given enough thought to.

RG: Thinking about the interstitial spaces as providing for serendipity or accommodating the unexpected is very hard to do as a designer.

FD: Well I don’t see why it needs to be so. It’s all about scenarios, thinking through what could happen, and what is fixed.

RG: What’s the appropriate role of the public and public decision-making bodies in all of this?

FD: The city and citizens are two levels.  The city should always fight for the long-term.  The individuals always try to find ways of penetrating the system to make sure that it meets their changing needs.  There are feedback channels that should be built into much more of the urban fabric.

The fascinating paradox of the power of technology and its ability to allow people to choose when and where to work, is that it actually makes more poignant and more important the city-like things that are good at bringing people together. The more we disperse, the more we need to congregate. I think the true nature of a city is discourse, especially in a knowledge economy. It’s about places – serendipitous encounters. That’s another design principle to be brought into urbanism. Places that are valuable because they are unprogrammed and open-ended and allow accidents to happen.

For a long time there was a correlation between the patterns of work and the shape of the building. What’s happening now is that patterns of work are changing faster than the shape of the buildings. And we have models of buildings that are inherently vulnerable because they are not good at accommodating groups, they are not permeable, they make assumptions about levels of occupancy that are untenable and easily refuted. They can’t be changed into anything else.

They’re brittle – they snap, they can only do one trick.

I became aware of this in the 60s and 70s in the regeneration of the decayed industrial cities of the UK – Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham. In order to bring great stretches of the Liverpool docks back into beneficial use, we had to realize that the older buildings – because they were robust and adaptable – could be used for a wide range of purposes apart from what was originally designed. They could be used as art galleries, workshops or hotels, for example.

What’s the lesson there? The lesson is about making a building tough enough to accommodate change, to have enough volume, to have columns in the right places, attractive ceiling heights, a relationship to the sky and the outside that is tolerable. These were considered to be obsolete and useless, but they were brought back to life. So I think the difference is that these newer office buildings are so flimsy – so value-engineered – that they have only a very limited range of utility.

The reinvention of place, the pleasure of place, the use of place for talk, commerce, etc. That’s terrific. To be freed from the “8-hour day.”  These are, in human terms, recent inventions, no older than 200 years. People thought of and used time in a very different way before that.  And we’ll invent something new ourselves. This discussion about the nature of buildings is only a subset of a much broader discourse about the nature of life in what I hope will be a much better world. I don’t think the twentieth century’s my favorite century actually. I think there were one or two things wrong with it.


Interview conducted by Rosalie Genevro. Edited and condensed. Photos by Cassim Shepard.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.