Book Review: OfficeUS Manual

OfficeUS Manual edited by Eva Franch, Ana Miljački, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, Jacob Reidel and Ashley Schafer, published by Lars Müller Publishers, 2017. Paperback, 288 pages. (Amazon)

In my first job in an architecture office right out of school, one of the first things I was given – before I even had my own desk – was an employee handbook. A photocopied, spiral-bound booklet, the handbook delved into the details of what was expected from me as an employee: in terms of attire, sick days, performance, smoking (none, a new rule at the time), timesheets, billing, CAD standards, and so on and so on. The manual increased over time as the 50-person firm I joined more than doubled in a short amount of time. Over that time it functioned as a means of indoctrinating new employees and providing old employees with updates. I never imagined it to be more than a dry guide to office life, something that every office has. In the hands of the Storefront for Art and Architecture and others office manuals like this one offer fascinating glimpses into the architecture profession in the United States.

[Spread from OfficeUS Manual showing office plans]

OfficeUS Manual is the third book produced out of Storefront's curation (with MIT and Praxis) of the US Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. That year, Rem Koolhaas was director of the Biennale, and he unified the normally divergent national pavilions under one theme: "Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014." Storefront focused on the imperial ambitions of US firms, tracing 100 years of American firms building overseas. I'm not familiar with OfficeUS Agenda, the exhibition's catalog, but OfficeUS Atlas, which I reviewed in 2015, is a hefty book with archived publications and profiles of the many firms working overseas. OfficeUS Manual delves into the inner-workings of some of these firms through that often overlooked document, the employee handbook.

[Spread from OfficeUS Manual showing CAD conventions]

Compared to Atlas, Manual is much more fun – at least for architects. Sure, the various clippings from the office manuals of Bertrand Goldberg, Richard Neutra, Venturi and Rauch, Höweler + Yoon, [redacted], and many others are accompanied by new, often academic essays (most of them short); but the focus is on the clippings from manuals, grouped into 71 topics. Overtime: "Although it is in everyone's best interest to complete work during regular business hours, the nature of the profession of architecture sometimes makes this impossible." Procrastination: "Any architectural office in a major western city keeps a parrot in the drafting room ... [screaming] at the employees below: 'WORK! WORK! WORK!'" Office Attire and Decorum: "Each member of the studio will be issued Office Slippers." Correspondence: "'Slang' should not be used in any written form of correspondence including email."

I could go on with the examples, but it should be clear that half the fun is relating the selected quotes to one's own experiences, be it from a similar time or many decades ago. But with only 288 pages and much of the real estate taken up by the new essays and stills from a specially commissioned film (Amie Siegel's The Architects) that peeks into architecture offices, I can only empathize with the work of the editors. Wading through thousands of pages in manuals to find the most incisive, controversial, and often humorous lines to put into the book – that is not a task I would wish on my enemies. So kudos to the editors for their work and finding a way to present and make sense of an important but overlooked element of architectural production.