Open Plan Offices – a Brief History

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If you work in an office environment then the chances are that it takes the form of an ‘open plan office space’ where workers are generally all working together with no internal walls or separate offices. This has in fact become pretty much the norm and has been for quite some time. This change in the office environment harks back to the mid to late 19th century when architects had started to use cast-iron girders to open up larger open spaces within a building, helping to create the open plan office, albeit a style that bears little resemblance to that which we are all now familiar with.

In the 19th century Industrialists were keen to replicate the factory type model where rows of desks were created in straight lines all facing the same way, a classroom with no teacher. Managers, depending upon their status and rank would occupy their own private offices although the corner office with dual aspect ( windows on both sides ) was always the exclusive domain of Senior Managers. This rather antiquated system was reflective of the Military style thinking that was often applied to business at the time, being predominantly top-down in nature. This office layout remained unchallenged until the mid 20th century, in what was “fundamentally a reaction against Nazism”.


In the spring of 1962, a fourth-year British architectural student was tasked with creating a new office layout. After some time spent researching different and new designs Frank Duffy found a small article in a trade magazine about a new workplace design that had taken hold in Germany, a photograph provided further clues as to the extent of these changes.

“The arrangement of the desks was somehow organic,” Duffy recalls. “And there were other features that were striking. There were lots of plants around the place and a carpet.”

The concept, devised by the consultants Quickborner, was called Burolandschaft and is more familiar with the style and environment in which many of us work today. We’ll look at this in more detail later in the week and how it has impacted on the working environments so many of us experience today.

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