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Disruptor Series: The Schnelle Brothers

We explore how these German siblings turned office design on its head, radically altering how we connect with the workplace.


3 min read

Halifax Building Society HQ, 1974

Words: Dominic Lutyens

In 1958, brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle set up a consultancy group called Quickborner, based near Hamburg, Germany that radically shook-up workplace design and culture. Former assistants at their father’s furniture company, they devised an office-design concept called Bürolandschaft that turned conventional office design in Europe on its head. It replaced the orthodoxy of a rigid, one-size-fits-all layout of regimented desks, grids of aisles and a strict office hierarchy with a more human-centred approach, characterised by open-plan layouts featuring organic pathways.

The old regime was founded on influential, dehumanising Taylorist principles, introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the US in the 19th century to increase efficiency in offices and factories by breaking down production into specialised, repetitive tasks. Also known as scientific management, Taylorism was widely applauded in the early 20th century by modernist architects and designers, such as Le Corbusier and, briefly, Charlotte Perriand, who were in thrall to the machine-age aesthetic and mass-production.

Bürolandchaft’s origins in Germany are surprising, given the brutality of its Nazi past. So what precipitated the postwar shift to more human-focused office design? “There was a backlash after World War II against the pre-war hierarchy and a desire for more openness and social interaction in the workplace,” says Dr Nigel Oseland, an environmental psychologist, workplace strategist and author of Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office (published by Routledge). ‘The workplace zoo’ is Oseland’s term for “high-density, overcrowded workspaces with fewer partitions and facilities”.

“The Bürolandschaft principle used irregular, organic layouts to create a more egalitarian space,” he says. “It featured small clusters of desks separated by plants and curved screens offering some privacy. An informal room providing time for leisure and coffee breaks was also included.” Bürolandschaft’s values dovetailed with the Wirtschaftswunder, Germany’s postwar economic miracle – another major agent of social change – since the latter also fostered collaboration and inclusivity.

The idea was enthusiastically adopted in other European countries, notably in Sweden and the UK – as well as in the US. An early exponent of Bürolandschaft in Britain was Dr Frank Duffy, architect and co-founder of DEWG, best known for office design, according to Mark Simpson, chair of design and head of workplace at multidisciplinary design studio Building Design Partnership (BDP) – established in 1961. Bürolandschaft was also advocated by BDP founder George Greenfell-Baines, who implemented it in its studio in Preston, Lancashire; it greatly influenced BDP’s project, the Halifax Building Society HQ, of 1975.

In the US, Robert Propst, head of research at furniture company Herman Miller, endorsed the concept but put his own spin on it. His 1964 iteration of it, called Action Office, many of whose elements were designed by George Nelson, gave employees more privacy and scope to personalise their work area. “It featured head and shoulder-height panels to divide up the space. These were also used in our Halifax project,” says Simpson. Herman Miller also created a more commercial version, Action Office II, which saw cubicles introduced to maximise efficient use of spaces, a system Propst abhorred. By the mid-1970s, Bürolandschaft began to peter out for economic reasons. “The 1970s oil crisis killed it as it was getting expensive to heat and light spaces,” says Oseland.

“Offices were soon being designed to much higher densities than the traditional ratio of one person per 10 sq m,” says Simpson. “A pre-pandemic benchmark of one person per 8 sq m was not unusual and floors were packed with serried rows of smaller desk sizes. We’d gone full circle, back to Taylorist office layouts.”

Yet we may well be returning to the golden age of Bürolandschaft, Simpson argues: “After the pandemic, who wants to sit cheek by jowl with someone? But people were talking about sustainability, wellbeing and biophilia pre-pandemic and this has influenced office design. Post-pandemic there’s more emphasis on the wellbeing of occupants and on the environment. Employees expect cleaner, greener, healthier spaces and developers have to provide them. Lots of offices now incorporate external terraces where people can breathe fresh air.”

It’s an issue extensively discussed in Oseland’s book, too: “We need to shift away from designs constrained by a space and cost focus to ones that enable inhabitants to flourish and thrive rather than simply survive.”

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