Trading spaces: the evolving academic office in Britain



Offices are a central part of academic life. I can attest to this statement because here I sit at home in my “office” writing this blog. I am cocooned by comforting piles of books and papers just as I have been for more years than I want to recall.

My home office is my research office: I suppose I ought to call it a study. It’s where I do most of my “real” work. I always make sure that I position my desk so that I cannot see out of the room. That way, there are no distractions. But other academics have other dispositions: Some want a view, some want favorite paintings, some want a means of escape like a garden near to hand. And so on.

I have an office at the university, but that is my meetings office—it is my lots and lots of meetings office. I don’t do research there: I would never be able to concentrate for long enough without being disturbed.

Newspapers, such as The Guardian or The New York Times, have run series on writer’s rooms which have included photographs of the rooms of academics like Richard Sennett, Jonathan Bate, Richard Dawkins, and Marina Warner. All of the photographs show protected and corralled space, idiosyncratically decorated with souvenirs and mementos and certainly not as barely functional as Wittgenstein’s famous rooms at Cambridge. Equally books are starting to appear which consider the interaction between writers and their writing rooms, such as Diana Fuss’s magnificent The Sense of an Interior: Four Rooms and the Writers That Shaped Them or Adam Sharr’s fascinating Heidegger’s Hut.

But in these days of laptop and iPad culture, when so many books can be found in the cloud, writing habits are changing. There are people who sit and compose in cafes and the like, although how they do it is still a mystery to me. The old sense of a necessary interior to compose seems to be changing.

Yet offices are a key part of many academics’ identity—they are where they feel most at home.

Other consequences follow. For example, the sense of ownership that academics have of their work offices is often something quite amazing to behold. Most people can retail stories of the fierce turf wars fought when there is any hint that Professor X might have to move to a smaller office than Professor Y.

Still, the times are changing, however slowly. In these days of standardized space ratios, it has become harder to justify what can seem, by the rules of today, an extravagant use of space. Indeed, many university administration buildings are already open plan. Some are moving to “hot desking.” In the sciences, buildings now alternate wet and dry space, and are designed to produce cooperation. And the humanities and social sciences are beginning to follow. Many new humanities and social-science buildings contain smaller offices supplemented by a suite of seminar rooms and punctuated by spaces meant to promote collaboration.

In other words, the old quasi-monastic ways are gradually being replaced, as practices of reading and writing slowly but surely change their character.