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Notes on Working from Anywhere

Jonathan Olivares

Architectural Association School of Architecture, London

In October of 2016, I closed the physical office I had worked from for ten years. The desire for increased flexibility, surprise, and freedom in my own routine, and for a lighter footprint – free of too many work tools – drove the decision. The New York Times article “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work” by Adam Davidson provided all the justification I needed: just as films are produced by project teams assembled for each film, I could build and partake in project teams built around the specific needs of single projects. Rather than reporting to – and toiling my time away in – an office of my own design, I could work from anywhere.

In the last two years, my only work tools have been a backpack, my laptop, notebooks, pencils, a pair of sound-cancelling headphones, and material samples and books that accumulate for each project I work on. My work takes place in public and academic libraries, my car, my home, hotel lobbies, rented conference rooms in hotels, bars, cafés, restaurants, food courts, airplane lounges, airplanes, colleagues and clients’ offices, picnic tables in parks, skateparks, gyms, pools, spas, a friend’s airplane hangar, and on hiking trails.

In his 1983 essay The Future of the Office?, George Nelson offers some relevant speculation. “Maybe the best place to write a speech or an important report is not the office at all, for some people, and that a kind of library carrel in a space free of telephones would be better. For others, it may be an empty table in the company cafeteria or snack bar.” If we carry Nelson’s thinking to its extreme, we would have to consider every place that is not an office desk and multiply those places by the varied activities that work consists of today. We would get hundreds of possible combinations of tasks and destinations.

"As work technology has let us all work from virtually anywhere, people have become accustomed to – and enjoy the benefits of – working from everywhere."

Working on a publication with the architect Florian Idenburg, we used the courtyard of the West Los Angeles Courthouse – an iconic street-skating destination – to discuss editorial structure. The movements and sounds of the skaters, the shade provided by the trees, and the long concrete benches provided an optimal place to sit down and chat.

Libraries have become a favourite work destination. I find tremendous motivation being surrounded by the physical embodiment of so much work captured in book form. In Los Angeles, I frequent the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale, which is the former mansion of Leslie Coombs Brand: the developer of the city who donated his home and its grounds as a public park and library upon his death in 1925. There is never a dull moment at the Downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena libraries thanks to the local homeless population, which makes one feel fortunate to be working and dream of a day when universal basic income could remedy our social ills. The UCLA libraries are solid, but the towering eucalyptus, pine trees, and abundant outdoor cafés are the real pull. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I sometimes work, I prefer the Woodbury Poetry room, designed by Alvar Aalto, for its focused subject matter, small scale, warm wooden interior, and soft acoustics. For research I needed to do on color, I turned to the Straus Center for Technical Studies and Conservation at the Harvard Art Museums – a kind of library – that houses natural and artificial pigments.

Woodbury Poetry Room, Harvard University
Straus Center for Technical Studies and Conservation, Harvard University

Once, needing to rid myself of distractions I travelled to London to use the library at the Architectural Association for a week. This “workation” provided a stimulating change in scenery, a focused environment at the school, and the pressure of needing to accomplish the task I had come for in a fixed period of time. In the mornings, I used the restaurant at the Ace Hotel to summarise the research I had done the previous day and revise my to-do list for the present day. The plane rides between cities offer the ultimate library setting – zero distractions; this is where I can do my most challenging work in five or even eleven hour work binges.

Architectural Association School of Architecture, London

For a meeting with four manufacturing partners coming together to form a new company, I rented the conference room at The Robey hotel in Chicago for two days. The privacy, quiet, slide projector, long table, drawn shades, and dim lights gave us the right setting to discuss structural business details. After the first day of discussion, we got even more work done at a Bavarian restaurant over beers. The next morning, a caffeine-fueled breakfast at The Robey’s restaurant was perhaps the most productive of all our meetings, with new ideas pointing toward a funding balance that made sense for everyone involved. Another recent meeting, on this very publication, was held at an outdoor café in Venice, where we could review layouts and discuss freely on large wooden picnic tables.

Conference Room, Robey Hotel, Chicago
Cafe Robey, Robey Hotel, Chicago

Needing a good environment to broach a sensitive subject with a client, I remembered that the chef Ruth Rogers said that people go to public places to do private things. I took my client to the Hammer Museum for a stroll through the galleries. The tough subject came up naturally and casually, and the humorous art we were seeing gave the conversation optimism. Afterwards, we went to a local Persian ice cream shop and discussed next steps.

I have always had a hard time listening unless I’m busy with something else that requires little thought. In high school and university classes, I had to take notes or doodle to stay focused. When I had an office and would take phone calls, I would pace around, which drove my staff crazy. And while these techniques still work today, I recently found that driving is the ultimate killer of distractions. I now schedule important calls for times of day when traffic is low so that I can drive the highways of Los Angeles with my interlocutors on headphones. Once, stuck in traffic I decided to make one of those annoying calls to the bank where they keep you on hold for twenty minutes; I felt as though I had discovered some loop-hole where the traffic and hold time cancelled each other out. I was free to listen to music and do some thinking.

I have found that on the hottest days the Russian spa is the place to be. No one thinks to go to hot baths on a hot day, so the common areas by the pool are completely empty. I can post up there with a laptop and books, hit the saunas, and cold plunge to clear my mind between tasks. The best way to get work done, I have found, is to avoid it altogether. If I play hookey and go to the skate-park, I often have more ideas in between tricks than I could ever have sitting at my desk. It is then that I am eager to race home, shower, and get back to work on new ideas.

Jonathan Olivares

When I do work from home, it’s from a variety of settings; I have a stand up desk, a dining table, a daybed in my study, a beer garden table on my balcony, a sofa and lounge chair in my living room, and a bar in my kitchen. I live by the Hollywood reservoir which is a stellar place for a walk to clear my mind or chat with a collaborator. Not everyday, but somedays, I need a two hour nap in the middle of the day. When I wake up, have some coffee, and get back to work, I power through into the late evening with a force of energy. In his book Daily Rituals, Mason Curry reveals that Louis Kahn, Thomas Mann, and Frank Lloyd Wright all took naps as part of their routine, so I have no shame in counting my bed as an integral part of my office.

As an independent designer I am able to enjoy these freedoms – these delights – of working how and where I want. Rather than be a designer in an office, I am a designer in the world. While life sans-office is a possibility for me, this is not the reality for the employees of large, team-driven companies. As work technology has let us all work from virtually anywhere, people have become accustomed to – and enjoy the benefits of – working from everywhere. Companies that want to allow the greatest freedom and productive capacity for their employees will exist in proximity to a wide array of public destinations or integrate them into their own offices and campuses. In my opinion, this is just the right thing to do.

Jonathan Olivares collaborated with Pernilla Ohrstedt on the concept and execution of the Vitra Workspace.


Publication date: 1. 8.2019, first published in «Where To Work Better», at Orgatec 2018
Author: Jonathan Olivares
Images: Architectural Association Archive, Harvard Library, Caitlin Cunningham Photography, President and Fellows of Harvard College, Robey Hotel Chicago, Jonathan Olivares