There’s a misguided trend in looking to architecture to explain why some groups of people are creative and others are not. A well designed workplace may be beneficial, but it’s not an essential factor. The long history of innovation, in the centuries before electricity and elevators, shows how much creative work can be done without regard to workspace design.
Put simply: a good team will help each other be productive in a cave. A bad team will make each other miserable in the fanciest building in the world.
Yet articles in the New Yorker, New York Times and Fast Company point to office design, suggesting the environment has primacy over determining which groups of people will be creative and which ones won’t. MIT’s famous building 20, is frequently referenced and studied, with some architects assuming if they emulate its elements they’ll see similar results. Where this line of thinking fails is its lack of accounting for most breakthroughs in the history of the world.
A huge percentage of them took place in environments that fail most of the standards for “creative workplaces” or “dynamic work environments”. Take as significant examples:
- The Manhattan Project (cheap military housing in the desert)
- The Apollo 11 moon landing (ordinary offices/cubicles)
- Any company that started in a garage (Google, Apple, HP, Amazon, Disney)
- Any band that started in a garage (Nirvana, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater)
- The Wright brothers (bike shop)
- The Internet and the Web (ordinary academic research labs)
Look at the timeline of the greatest inventions throughout history. Or the greatest paintings. Most of them were made before electricity, before air conditioning, before a hundred comforts and conveniences we take for granted in all of our offices. Cherry picking recent breakthroughs and wrapping a theory around them is confirmation bias. Innovation and invention have been going on for millennia and any theory must include the past as well as the present.
Some articles point to the stimulating effects of some buildings, as the design forces people to mingle and interact in positive ways. I agree this can be an asset. But there is no rule that says this kind of stimulation can only happen at work. Many creative people throughout history found this kind of stimulation primarily at cafes, pubs, neighborhoods, libraries or parks.
Of course had these people been in better architected work environments they might have had even better results. And any leader of any organization should want to provide the best possible environment for their workers. But the primary reason great work happened had little to do with the special characteristics of workplaces. They achieved great work in very ordinary and unremarkable environments.
Architecture is important and can definitely influence culture and behavior, it’s just not a primary factor. The talents of the people you’re working with are how well you relate to each other trumps everything.
[minor edits: 3-16-15]