Monday, May 11, 2009

Larkin Building: business processes and the built environment

Newsweek recently published an intriguing article by Cathleen McGuigan that contrasts Frank Lloyd Wright's first and last major buildings: the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, which he began designing in 1902, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was finished in 1959.

The Larkin Building was demolished in 1950, and to this day preservationists, architectural historians, Wright buffs throughout the world, and civic-minded Buffalonians mourn its loss. As images (here, here, and here) of the building reveal, Wright masterfully extended his Prairie style, which he developed while designing private homes, to a mammoth commercial space. In keeping with the company's unusually open corporate philosophy, the building's interior was dominated by an airy, well-light atrium, and Larkin Company executive sat at desks situated on the ground floor; as a result, clerks and other workers stationed on the upper floors could readily observe their bosses at work.

However, from an archivist's or records manager's point of view, the most fascinating things about the Larkin Building is that its design consciously reflected the business processes of the Larkin Company, which made soap and other laundry and bath products and sold them via mail order. McGuigan emphasizes that Wright's design ensured that the building "worked like a machine": the masses of orders that arrived each day were sorted in the basement, taken to the uppermost floors, and then distributed -- in some instances by workers on roller skates -- to the army of clerks who worked on the lower floors.

Wright's workflow-specific design was both innovative and extremely influential, but I wonder whether it helped to precipitate the Larkin Building's demise. Re-engineering such facilities can be extremely challenging, and some corporations and communities -- particularly those experiencing long-term economic contraction -- may not have the resources needed to do so.

As one of the Wright experts McGuigan interviewed noted, many of the day-today tasks associated with processing mail or Internet orders can be performed by a single person using a desktop computer. Given that there is no longer a pressing need to accommodate the physical movement of paper records, it's possible to configure employee workstations to meet the space available -- and physically separate the workers who process orders from those who pack and ship the boxes containing the desired goods. Such infinite flexibility might ultimately produce some great architecture, but for the most part it's likely to produce a vast number of charmless cubicle farms. However, given the utilitarian nature of many 19th- and early 20th-century mail order facilities, the cube farm trend might not be as objectionable as it might first seem.

Wright himself apparently took the destruction of the Larkin Building in stride: Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a former student of Wright and the current director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, told McGuigan that Wright was deeply pleased that three contractors were needed to demolish the building.

Readers interested in the history of the Larkin Building, Buffalo's industrial past, or good Web 2.0 content should be sure to check out the second reader comment that appears at the end of the article. It politely and knowledgeably corrects a couple of factual errors that crept into McGuigan's article. (Why can't all reader comments be this well-written and well-informed?) It will also take you to submitter Chris Hawley's superb blog, The Hydraulics, which focuses on the history of Buffalo's oldest industrial area. The Hydraulics is a great source of information about Buffalo's industrial past -- and a great example of how to blog about local history.

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