What does the NBC comedy The Office tell us about architecture?
The answer, as it turns out, is quite a bit. More on this after the break.
To begin, let’s assess the differences between the American Office and the British Office (for non-Office aficianados, the American Office is based on a British show of the same name starring Ricky Gervais). Both present a sharply cynical view of modern society through the lens of a documentary crew following life at a dying paper company. Both make use of callous, exaggerated-stereotype characters both for laughs and to lend a certain sharpness to their tones. The major difference is that in the British version, the modern world is a terrible place where outdated companies die and lower-level employees wallow in their useless, bureaucratic existences, and in the American version, the modern world is a terrible place where outdated companies die and lower-level employees wallow in their useless, bureaucratic existences — but somehow even in those sad circumstances, they have lives, and we care about them and we see through their immediate obnoxiousness to real people struggling with the modern world.
(None of this is to say that the American Office is always a good show. So far this season it has been frankly quite bad, with Steve Carell gone. What I’m really talking about here is The Office at its best.)
So basically the American Office (hereafter just referred to as The Office) presents to us the ultimate struggle of modernism: the relationship between the individual and the masses. And The Office is inherently optimistic: it doesn’t give us fairytale stories of perfect success; but for all their flaws, its characters do find meaning in their lives, even if only at certain moments.
As I have made clear many times on this blog, I strongly believe that architecture should do this exact same thing: directly address the real issues of modern life in a positive manner, both through form and through function.
Rather than do the easier thing — to ignore the problems suburbs present, or simply write them off as ‘ugly’ (and suburbs are just one example) — architecture should find the meaning that they do have and build off of that to improve them. This is exactly what The Office does, except through the telling off a story rather than through the built environment.
Modern life is here to stay, everyone. I suggest people learn to live with it, and maybe even learn to make it meaningful. The characters in The Office do, as do the best contemporary architects.