Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” – Marx/Engels.


Labor is Life

Labor has become the all-consuming aspect. For John Locke, labor was the source of property, for Adam Smith it was the source of wealth. It was Karl Marx, where labor was defines as the source of all of man’s productivity and the expression of humanity. Labor is the supreme capacity of what man is capable of and thus the entity of man himself. Ludwig Hilberseimer identified in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1959 of the possibility of this reality. He argued that labor can exist without capitalism, but capital is not possible without labor. Thus labor is superior.

Through technology and management ideologies, labor was exposed to vast changes after the establishment of the industrial revolution into the communication and information revolutions. Frederick Taylor was a pioneer in developing the scientific management responsible for transforming many industries by exposing a management strategy to secure maximum prosperity for both the employer and employee. Ideas of management in labor created a division between white- and blue-collar workers of the time, those who were laborers (blue-collar) and those managing them (white-collar). Marx predicted that dividing labor into the individual occupations for smaller parts and each participant requires the minimum skill of the individual laborers, and that skilled labor in general would be eliminated. This is the beginning of understanding how insignificant the individual in the system will later become when the sum is more important than the individual parts.

As the advancement of technology and communication came into society, those who were once considered white-collar management became the laborer. Hannah Arendt had already predicted in her seminal text, The Human Condition, that the division of labor, the requirements of life, and of work, the creation of objects, will combine and two will become indistinguishable. Suddenly all of life is now dedicated and predicated on labor.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Labor is Consumption

As one of the largest producers of labor of his time, Henry Ford would recognize how interrelated labor and consumption was when he reduced his workers six-day, 48-hour workweek, a standard of his day, to the new standard of five-day, 40-hour work week. Little did he realize how this would trickle into the normal for every worker in the United States. The reduction wasn’t for the health benefit of his employees, but for the health benefit of the system. Ford made this evident when he commented, “Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”

The industrial revolution and processes of mass production replaced all ideas of workmanship and craft with acts of labor. No longer were the fruits of work to be used, but the fruits of labor to be consumed. Life depends on the results all labor to be consumed as quickly as the effort is made. Adam Smith identified a division in time, one where man creates the products of society, and one where he consumes it. He referred to all acts of unproductive labor as activities that are directly related to consumption. The consumption feeds the machine and in turn creates more production.

Arendt argues that we live in a laboring society because only by a continuation of labor can we create a society of abundance and thus consumption. The very act of labor has become itself consumption. Therefore our needs of creation and in turn our time commitments are perpetual. As this effort in time liability continues, a focus on the physical conditions and organization of labor begins to be rethought in new ways of extorting the capital of the human subject.

As machines and technology out pace its own history in development, the life of the laborer became more and more precarious. As this continued, the ideology of precariousness infiltrated every realm of society. These precarious economic and social conditions along with the continuing need for consumption generated a society who began to dispose objects as easily and readily as they consumed them. People began to dispose of not only objects of work, but other humans as well. People began to be interchangeable objects. Once again, through consumption, individuality and true self becomes washed away into a generalized society of interchangeable parts.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Labor is Social

The focus on the social realm becomes fundamental in our interest of architecture. In an economy and culture based upon consumption, which in turn drives production, architecture is organized around production itself and the act of production is left to nothing more than the organization of social relations. This has become especially evident, as ideas of physical production have been replaced with service-based economies where communication has become a fundamental aspect of daily life.

If Fordism capital was able to capture people’s bodies for profit, post-Fordism capital captures their soul. Mario Tronti identifies this process between production and social relations. “Capitalism identifies in its own way the unity between the process of producing goods and the process of producing value: the more it creates unity, the more it develops, and the more it develops, the more the forms of capitalist production invade every sphere of society and proliferate within the whole network of social relations.” Marx had already argued that, “capital is a collective product.” It can only be set into motion with united action access all members of society. “Capital is, therefore, not a personal, it is a social power.” Here we understand the exact understanding of identity of who is in control of the capital movement. It isn’t the individuals, but the system itself organized through individuals.

The laborers of IBM became well known for the iconic grey suits they were required to wear each day. Thomas J Watson Sr., CEO of IBM from 1914 through 1956, said, “to build a business you must first build men.” This bold move at creating an iconic identity for the company was actually a move at not only branding IBM, but raising a class-consciousness within their corporation. This gave the subject an automatic relation to his coworkers, even if he had only worked with them for a moment. William H. Whyte Jr.’s book, The Organization Man (1956) gave a stark understanding of reality of the post-war laborer. Whyte would portray the new subject as identifying his corporation as his family. This caused him to exchange his individualistic work ethic to a conforming collective one. The individuals in the post-Fordism society are completely stripped away of self-identity for favor of collectivism. Subjects are molded into perfect uniformity through their corporations and these same corporations become models for society. This could then be trickled down to home life; a modest house with a picket fence. All for the low cost of servitude and the surrendering of true self.

Frederick Taylor would argue that the hard work of the laborer was obtained only in absolute uniformity. Taylor understood class consciousness within laborers when describing systematic soldiering, a process where laborers would purposely work at a slower pace in an effort to appease their fellow laborers and create a unitary pace of work. During the late 1920s, a new idea of solidarity came to the workplace under the name of “Human Relations.” This demonstrated the importance that companies began to place on the idea of internal collectivism in the organization. Elton Mayo later initiated a series of experiments in the 1930s, which affirmed that factory workers were more productive when they were related to a social group within their coworkers.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Labor is Communication

Norbert Weiner, a mathematician at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed communication behavior though the lens of cybernetics and deduced that an organisms social potential is conceived in terms of the size and complexity of its internal circulatory and communication systems. If we are to understand labor as a series of social connections, we have to understand the role of the median used in organizing the social, communication.

In the post-Fordist world, communication has been transformed to a destabilizing and disruptive activity on the factory floor, to a requirement for social labor transaction and has thus a direct productive value. Technology has progressed the tools of work to what Christian Marazzi calls “linguistic machines”. Originated through the thoughts of English mathematician, Alan Turing around 1936, these linguistic machines created the original data banks by organizing data in a similar fashion as a Ford production line on a magnetic strip. This would be the foundation of today’s information technologies and have vast spatial implications on the development of architecture. From regimented distances of telephone jacks to spaces for mainframe computer systems, information technology via communication has created spatial implications.

While it is easy to argue the understanding of how these communication machines have improved the condition of the capital apparatus, extensive use of machinery and computers has further stripped away any individuality within the new white-collar class of laborers. Slowly the subject becomes nothing more than an appendage of the machine. Similar to the factory worker of the century prior, he has become nothing more than another cog in the system.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Peter Behrens, Mannesmann-Haus, 1912.

Labor is Real

The rise of labor via communication gave way to a new space for labor, that of speculative development. While trying to design labor space on a cellular modularity with unpredictable changes in use at a mass scale, Peter Behrens completed the first shell office building in 1912 in Düsseldorf, Germany. The project’s “architecture” was surrendered with the understanding that the future unknown tenant would use the space in unknown ways. These empty shell buildings would begin to question the aesthetic understandings of the external façade from the very beginning. Up until now, architects would fit out an interior of a building prior to a tenant’s occupation, allowing the architect to prescribe an exterior fitting to the interior tenant and doctrines set forth by Louis Sullivan’s ideologies of ornamentation. This all changed as buildings progressed. Expressive function was to give way to expressive function; only now the function was to nothing other than a void.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Raymond Hood, RCA Building, 1933.

Not only the ornamentation, but also the shaping of structures saw radical change in the development of technology. Marketability of deep windowless spaces dictated precise dimensions for high-rise shell buildings in the 1920s and 1930s. In the case of the RCA Building, designed by Raymond Hood, the ideal rentable depth of an office space was defined as 27-feet from the exterior wall. This is then externally reflected in the geometry of the exterior as the building sets back as it rises. As the core gets smaller when elevators drop off in use, the 27-foot depth remains constant. This access to proper daylight and natural air coupled with the common spaces of the Rockefeller Center complex were being marketed as a community, and is what Reinhold Martin would argue as converting a Taylorized society into one of modernity.


Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Lever House, 1952.

As the march towards optimization continued, curtain wall systems were developed in response to a new society. This was the beginning to the ensuing tasks of capital efforts at stripping away the individual within the parts of human labor and regulating all to a machined modular. These postwar curtain wall cities had little to do with the vitreous utopian fantasies of the 1920s. Efforts were made to create the thinnest wall possible regardless of climate. The commonality of the postwar curtain wall system created a direct visual representation of the internal organization of the tenants within. The system itself was a display transparency and honesty of the true nature of a corporation. The curtain wall system that would later become infamous in city skylines was first introduced in the office market in the 1952 headquarters of the Lever Brothers Corporation in New York. Designed by Gorden Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the Lever House showed an early effort at flattening out the skin of a building to a minimum threshold. SOM and others would go on to create many corporate buildings using similar methods of skinning until the skin was the only architecture that remained for the architect to design. It became almost symbolic of the subject, where differences between others are left only to the clothing, or in the case of IBM, not at all.

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chase Manhattan Headquarters, 1961.

The sizes of office plates began to see change in the face of building and communication technology previously discussed. The affect of communication machines can be seen as early as 1961 with the development of the Chase Manhattan Headquarters in New York City by SOM. Their program was one of the first to specifically call for a high rise building to be developed with a flexible module that could accommodate machines whose size and shape were changing so rapidly that their exact requirements could not be predicted. This resulted in creating simple geometries and rhythmic structure at a module distance to contain all potential elements.

This idea of modularity was infused in all of life. In Whyte’s The Organizational Man (1956), we see the new laborer in a world of the modular where secretaries, clerks and wives are all interchangeable. They are all now machined products of society, and as internally organized as an IBM punch card. The new modularity offered an infinite possibility of mutability and open-ended growth where the module of architecture is represented as a variable of content: desk, partition, light fixture, etc. These elements combined created the corporate identification and correlated with “pseudo-freedoms of self-realization within a flexible framework.”

Labor, Identity and Corporate Development | James Petty | pettydesign

Eero Saarinen, The General Motors Technical Center, 1956.

Saarinen would use this modularity in the design of the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan (1956). Modularity could be found not only within the individual buildings, but also within the campus itself. Where the sum of all the parts of twenty-five buildings across a 320-acre site coupled with specific use of modern materials and pools of water were designed to create a unity of environment. The infinite repetition of the curtain wall system for General Motors is considered a direct relation to the infinite variable desires of the corporate subject and the consumer’s planned obsolescence.

If the idea of capitalism is that the equilibrium of opposites will maintain the realm of reality, between production and consumption, desire and fulfillment, and at the most fundamental, capital and labor, then utopian/dystopian studios such as Archizoom wanted to break this cycle through the overtaking of a city by its workers. When the entire city is reduced to the factory, the factory itself will disappear. This is the fundamental result of their seminal project No-Stop City and what must be clearly understood from the work of Archizoom. They take the shell building and rotate it into the horizontal landscape. While a work of critique, it also become a reality for many corporations.

It was during this time that corporations began to take over the extents of the city, and specifically the already proliferating suburban sprawl. These new pastoral campuses made it even easier to connect directly with the new class of white-collar workers already consuming suburbia. This gave large corporations the possibility of large plots of land to build using newer construction technologies in air conditioning and lighting. These new campuses further stripped away ideas of the subject in an effort for better management of each module of laborer.

While working with IBM, Eero Saarinen concluded that the invention of florescent lighting and air conditioning had created vast changes in creating an artificial labor landscape that is no longer bound to the dimensions of air and light like that of the RCA Building. As in the predictions of Archizoom, the new place of work can be infinite and physically encapsulate the user’s entire experience. This also allowed for the possibility of contrast by placing these horizontal shells of office within a natural landscape. Emphasizing the total control and concentration of the interior with the relaxation of the exterior.

As the location of labor gradually shifted form the factory floor to the trading floor, little has actually changed for the individual. Production grew faster and more efficient. Subjects began to feel gratification through strategic moves of planned solidarity and consumption at the cost of modularity and staleness. Vanilla ice cream is still popular. This erasing of identity is not only evident in the management of labor, but in its organization of space. The geometry, materials, and ornamentation of postwar corporate office buildings all become signals of history in the organization of labor.

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Crowther, Samuel, “Henry Ford: Why I Favor Five Days’ Work with Six Days’ Pay,” World’s Work 52 (October 1926): 615.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marazzi, Christian, and Giuseppina Mecchia. 2011. Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Martin, Reinhold. 2003. The Organizational Complex Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
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About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.