From Home to Factory to Office… and back?
The spatial history of the workplace, Part 1
Work has always had a dramatic impact on urban space; as cities expand and mutate where industry does, public transport extends, and factories or office blocks become a prominent feature on the skylines of areas not previously used to their presence. But in terms of where we work, we have come full circle. From the home-based workshop, via the local factory and the commutable office, much of the country’s population has, location-wise, been returned wholesale to the days of our forebears by the Covid-19 pandemic. Given how workplaces have shaped the city over the previous millennia, will this return to homeworking have an impact on the way our cities look and feel in the future?
With the workplace as we know it facing an existential crisis, in this first part of a series of two articles, we take a brief look at how urban workplaces and their locations have transformed both in themselves and the physical city spaces that they inhabit. In the next we will ponder what the return to mass homeworking may do to the urban environment and the workspaces that populate it.
It was calculated in 2019 that Londoners have an average commute of 81 minutes – one of the longest in the world. But it’s not always been this way. Dating back to the dawn of mankind, practically all of humanity has traditionally worked from home, with the boundaries between the domestic and professional that are so apparent today, entirely blurred.
‘Telecommuting’, as it’s known in the corporate world, was once the norm, with the homestead functioning as workshop, showroom and shop, as well as accommodation, kitchen and leisure space. Treswell’s maps of London published before the Great Fire show these domestic shops and workspaces in detail. As a result of this homeworking practice, houses were constructed near to natural resources, at a size that facilitated the occupants’ profession and often the keeping of livestock. Markets developed around these hubs of homespun industry so that goods could be exchanged.
Treswell’s map of Cowe Lane, theworkhome.com
Families laboured together in specific trades, hence the passing down of labour-related surnames: Cooper, Clark, Potter, Smith, Thatcher, Turner etc. Teachers, clergy, and others who didn’t sell produce for a living still lived where they worked or worked where they lived. Even those few who did work beyond their semi-public front yard would rarely have left their local community – as the Marchetti Constant states, few jobs would have been more than a 30-minute walk away. Beyond soldiers travelling off to battle, the idea of working regularly outside your locality would have been considered rather unusual.
It stayed this way for a long time, but as industrialisation powered up in the mid-1700s, factory buildings began to dominate the urban landscape. In London, these were generally situated, like the home workshops before them, near to the city’s famous markets that had grown over the centuries, along the increasingly useful waterways, or near large concentrations of people desperate for work. Britain soon became known as ‘the workshop of the world’, and urban centres expanded amenities to support the new industries. Cheap housing controlled by slum landlords was soon being built or converted in areas surrounding the industrial hubs, with the poorest areas generally those downwind of the coal smoke produced by the new works.
While the houses provided much of the city’s industrial workforce with a home near to their job, they also continued to provide production spaces for those who didn’t toil in the factories. Having people’s livelihoods contained within the four walls of their home subsequently kept much of the vulnerable out of the exceedingly dangerous factory environment. This was not to last.
The pollution caused by the countless new factories was hugely damaging to the living conditions of thousands of Londoners in the 19th century
The Industrial Revolution soon slapped London with the moniker ‘The Big Smoke’ and, helped by a number of failed pollution abatement acts, rendered the houses in the vicinity of the factories practically unliveable. Deadly gasses seeped through cheap walls and draughty doorways, blackening windows so that those inside could barely tell night from day. The diseases caused by such appalling conditions, recorded by Engels and Booth and popularised by Arthur Morrison and Gustave Doré, meant that such slums had death rates far exceeding the city averages. Those who could afford to moved further from the factories and to the suburbs, but huge numbers of the city’s poorest were forced to remain in the urban slums.
Slum Housing in the Old Nichol, horridhackney.com
The deadly environment precipitated by the mingling of factories and slums was too much to bear for some reformers and vast swathes of the city were earmarked for demolition. These clearances were opposed by the likes of ruthless agitator Octavia Hill on the grounds that, while the conditions were truly grim, better management, regulation and systematic renovation could have been the way forward.
Yet the clearances went ahead, and the makeshift homework environments were swept away and replaced by more hygienic housing blocks such as the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green. Often referred to as the world’s first council estate, the Boundary sits on the former site of the Old Nichol, one of London’s most notorious rookeries in an area long associated with the home weaving trade.
The Boundary Estate, built in 1900
These newly built homes were far cleaner and safer, but many lost their professions as artisan homework was made impossible by the reconfiguration of living space into vertical blocks, and by new tenancy agreements which forbade the practice. Like those who had moved out to the suburbs (where homeworking was also frowned upon), the transition from home-working to factory labour meant families in these new inner-city homes came to embody the rigid family roles they had for a large part managed to avoid, whereby the male breadwinner took work in local industry while the mother raised the children.
The factory workplace had not only transformed the city space in itself, but also had knock-on effects on the wider environments of the home and the labour that took place inside it, as well as the urban infrastructure developed to accommodate the increased population and to transport workers to the modern workplace. Local craft all but became a thing of the past, and by the beginning of the 20th century work and home were almost entirely separated in both urban and suburban areas, meaning that for the first-time urban space was divided wholesale between the domestic and the industrial.
Today there are few urban interventions that represent the age we live than the gleaming glass skyscraper full to bursting with offices and co-working space, but they emerged as something more modest and functional. In the form of private rooms for reading and writing – scriptoria – often connected to a state or educational institution, and later purpose-built clerks’ departments, the work office had existed for many millennia. However, it was the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution that created the conditions for the office building as we know it today.
Alongside manufacturing came administration, and often the factory’s admin bureau was located either in or right beside the factory itself. But as soon as the factory had all but eclipsed the home as the centre of work, the office too began to emerge as a large-scale site of employment.
Office and factory were able to physically part ways with the invention of the telegraph machine. New, more efficient means of transporting goods, particularly trains, were also developed, and the factories along with their grime were able to move out of the urban centre to less densely populated areas, going part way improving the problems of urban pollution and regional unemployment. Now, not only was work and home separated, but industrial and administrative work were also severed geographically, and the stage was set for the quite literal rise of the city centre office.
Increasing revenue for rail, retail, insurance, banking, shipping, petroleum and other modern industries required an increasing workforce to handle the administrative work. The offices built to accommodate such a team were big and open, but, given architectural constraints only a couple of storeys tall. This meant they took up a great deal of valuable inner-city land. Resembling a library, the Telegraph Instruments Office of the former GPO is an example of one of these vast spaces – one can only imagine the racket of all the tapping machines echoing through the cavernous hall.
The Telegraph Instrument Office, image copyright iStockphoto
Height restrictions introduced in 1894 generally banned any building in London from exceeding 30m as that was the height from which one could be safely rescued by the fire brigade, though these were relaxed as the new century began. Innovation in steel frames and ventilation allowed office buildings to reach upwards as ground space dwindled and land prices soared in the early 20th century.
The 11-storey, 43m Adelaide House was built on the banks of the Thames in 1920-25 as the first steel-framed office tower in the city, complete with an 18-hole mini golf course on the roof. This was soon followed by the 48m, 15-storey 55 Broadway in 1929, constructed as the headquarters for the Electric Underground Railway, and the imposing Senate House completed in 1937 as the administrative centre for the University of London, which stands at 64m and 19 floors.
Senate House, 1937
Over the following decades, inner-city industry became a thing of the past, with the majority of London’s factories and power stations destroyed by the Blitz or banished far to the outskirts. This outwards urban expansion worried the government so much so that, in one of the largest physical urban interventions in the city’s history, the Green Belt was developed during the 40s and 50s as a barrier to this sprawl. The Great Smog hit in 1952 and many industries were eradicated from the city with the help of the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968; their factories rebuilt in satellite towns to make way for urban renewal, or just abandoned altogether.
It was from hereon that the office building as we know it was born. Spurred by the post-war scientific revolution, London saw the construction of the Shell Centre in 1962, followed shortly by the Millbank Tower in 1963, which finally eclipsed St Paul’s Cathedral as the city’s tallest after 350 years! The truly futuristic Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) soon joined them in 1964, with the NatWest Tower and One Canada Square (Canary Wharf) adding to the iconic list in 1980 and 1991 respectively. Thousands of office blocks were built over the period of 30 years, initially concentrating around the financial and political centre near Westminster, before, like the factories preceding them, spreading further and further out.
The Millbank Tower, 1963
Up until 1961 half the jobs in London had been in manufacturing, but unsurprisingly these positions declined rapidly from thereon, with over 600,000 manufacturing jobs leaving the capital between 1971 and 1996. Many factory buildings that remain today were left derelict for decades before being converted into flats or offices (like The Busworks, where Walulel is based) by enterprising developers looking to repurpose the large, well located, and often architecturally impressive spaces.
The former Victorian trolleybus factory that now houses Busworks, a large office complex in which Walulel is based
No longer is it flatcapped manual labourers leaving these redbrick edifices at the end of the day, but trendy young professionals off to sample the canalside entertainments of Hackney Wick or the nightlife of Tottenham Hale. Indeed, as our WaInsight data shows, only around 2% of Londoners continue to work in manufacturing, in buildings far from the city centre. As we’ve seen, factories have long since lost the centre ground to the countless offices that today define the city.
However, the working environment has changed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and homeworking is once again the order of the day. In the next article we will question the implications this will have for many of London’s workers, and whether this move is a step back in time or a chance to define the future of work.