Summer 2001

The Clean Room / Some Like It Cold: Engineering the “Personal Environment”

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

In 1975, the law firm for which my mother worked moved from cramped quarters on the seventh floor of an office tower to a sprawling, single-story building formerly occupied by a massive chain supermarket. Renovating a space with few, if any, interior walls posed interesting questions for the architectural firm hired to transform the supermarket into a working office. The architects chose to divide the cavernous interior into a labyrinth of impenetrable, twisting corridors of myriad conference rooms, office suites, mini-office suites, supply closets, and employee lounges. Sometimes I would go to visit my mother at work and marvel at the lush flora and gurgling waterfall in the foyer, admire the multicolored Leroy Neiman lithographs depicting regatta competitions, and thrill at the touch of the bleached faux bamboo wallpaper. As one journeyed deeper and deeper into the center of the building, one became increasingly aware that the absence of windows or skylights was inversely proportional to the presence of enormous, life-size murals depicting desert grasses and tropical rain forests.

As a visitor it never occurred to me that, except for the attorneys whose grand offices around the perimeter of the building featured large windows, these seemingly green aesthetic details obscured an austere work environment as artificial and grim as a laboratory at the bottom of the sea. The vast majority of employees—whose inner worlds were cooled by computer-controlled thermostats and warmed by fluorescent lights—never experienced a single moment of the natural world, as technologically mediated as the natural world typically tends to be in modern workplaces. This was true even if their immediate habitat featured many of the same environmentally degraded work conditions found typically in sweatshop labor. Those who work in such corporate surroundings may be deprived of healthy work conditions but, as C. Wright Mills informed us in his magisterial study of the service sector economy White Collar (1950), at least they are compensated psychically by having achieved middle-class status.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship between work and environment, and the environmental conditions of the places in which work is performed, raise serious questions about the status of health and comfort in the modern office building. Examinations of the political and social dimensions of design and technology in the workplace also have become increasingly more relevant, sometimes even more than the architecture of the workplace itself. Perhaps this is because, with the rise of information technology in the 1990s and the consolidation of a 24-hour transnational economy, the distinctions between work spaces and domestic spaces have collapsed (as flush dot-com futurists tend to boast) or have been erased outright (as bankrupt dot-com futurists tend to mourn). In the past year, a fair number of museums and galleries—including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Yale University School of Architecture in New Haven—have engaged this theme by exploring the architecture and interior design of office culture. At the NBM’s exhibit “On the Job: Design and the American Office,” the emphasis on the healthy office is seen as a recurring theme of Western modernism. The exhibit presents the long, evolving history of environmentally progressive design from the Bauhausian functionality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building (1906), considered the first “modern” office space, to the healthful, ergonomic reveries of Herman Miller chairs and tables in the 1950s and 1960s, to the unisex, monochromatic bathroom on TV’s Ally McBeal. One can appreciate how “the office,” as the NBM’s exhibit catalogue states, “is a microcosm of American social transformation and a yardstick of cultural progress.”

Johnson Controls, an international, high-tech, industrial design company, has recently released a new product, the “Personal Environment,” that provides a poignant “yardstick”—or, perhaps, barometer—for measuring modern work culture. The Personal Environment is an individual air conditioning, filtration, and environmental lighting system that enables an office worker to regulate his or her own immediate workspace. Two small cooling and filtration units and one large flat heating panel at foot level—both cast in white, unobtrusive molded plastic—are connected beneath one’s desk by thick gray plastic tubing. Poised to combat the extremes of the corporate thermostat, the office worker can make an arc of personal comfort as light or dark as he or she wants, as cold as a meat locker or as temperate as San Diego in September. This is accomplished by using a Dr. Who-like control panel that also resembles a mixing board for a Lilliputian sound studio. By controlling temperature, air flow, air quality, and lighting design, a user can create the spatial equivalent of a private weather envelope.

The RX-5 Litton Advanced Extravehicular Suit, soft version. Courtesy the Smithsonian

How do we understand the Personal Environment beyond its bells and whistles and whispers of novelty? One interpretation might show environmental control as a political artifact of how workers can be adapted to the demands of capitalism. Johnson Controls developed its expertise, beginning in the late 19th century, in standardizing temperature and climate control systems to accommodate the needs of managers and corporations. Regulating environmental conditions in the workplace is not that far removed from other solutions for dealing with employee dissatisfaction and labor unrest. In the early 20th century, industrial psychologists convinced managers that if workers and unions could be taught that their problems were personal, rather than structural, they might be more easily subdued. As Daniel Walkowitz has examined in his recent history of American social psychologists and social workers, Working with Class (1999), managers who followed this industrial psychological model would encourage patients to explore the Freudian origins of their emotional insecurities rather than express their frustration through collective action. The Personal Environment updates this managerial approach for the information age, confident that giving employees control over their personal space is one easy method of generating company loyalty and increasing productivity. The brochures and websites produced by Johnson Control explore this without subtlety: “[M]ore than 25% of office workers are dissatisfied with their environmental conditions, including air quality, temperature, task lighting levels, and acoustic conditions. This dissatisfaction results in reduced productivity and has a negative impact on job satisfaction.”

Yet the categories of “comfort” and “control” (and, indeed, “personal”) are partly self-reflexive ones. Rather than represent objective standards, such concepts can only be understood if they are measured against artificial categories of air quality, temperature, lighting, and so forth created by companies like Johnson Controls in the first place. These standards have become naturalized in our lives, in an invisible process through which the climate-controlled environments of our homes, schools, and cars are indistinguishable from those of hotels, shopping malls, casinos, and hospitals. Only the most environmentally sensitive among us can experience binaries of health or comfort (such as heat/cold, light/dark, fresh/stale) that exist outside of the limited palette of environmental design originally developed for the modern office.

Another interpretation of the Personal Environment might see it emerging from a different, and less tendentious, set of expectations. The Personal Environment was designed, after all, as one technological response to the human body’s potential to adapt to climatic conditions, often those not of one’s choosing. In the 1950s, while companies like Johnson Controls made fortunes implementing pneumatic and electronic control systems for buildings, they also thrived as military-industrial contractors in the service of Cold War science. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, private companies like Johnson Controls collaborated with federally sponsored research projects in aviation, aquatic, and space sciences. That level of government and corporate sponsorship enabled Army, Navy, and NASA engineers to imagine, and build, stable independent environments that would protect the human body under conditions that would otherwise be inhospitable to life. The space suits designed for the Gemini missions of the mid-1960s, for example, combined mixed layers for comfort and warmth as well as flexible, superinsulated materials that allowed the astronaut to pass unharmed through disparate atmospheric pressures. The intended goal was to create synthetic approximations of familiar, and comfortable, environmental conditions. Later space suits engineered for the Apollo missions used cooling undergarments through which water circulated to keep the astronaut comfortable while also lifting perspiration from the surface of the skin. To my adolescent mind, these environmental technologies helped conjure images of jet pilots in flight suits with buzz cuts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, athletic American astronauts drinking Tang and writhing in zero gravity, or hunky, bare-chested Frenchmen in skimpy, damp bikinis conducting dangerous experiments thousands of leagues under the sea.

Might we understand the Personal Environment as an extension of engineering science’s goal to create technologies that are not regulator mechanisms of corporate oppression, but are utopian tools—as imagined by scientists and science fiction enthusiasts—that expand the possibilities of freedom? High-altitude jet aircrafts or sound barrier-breaking land vehicles, or manufactured habitats designed for outer space or underwater, were the material products of New Frontier fantasies of technological triumph. These fantasies were particularly gratifying not only for Carl Saganesque pundits who imagined communities for underwater agriculture or outer space exploration, but also for apocalyptic ecologists concerned with the expanding population and dwindling resources of the earth. These were the ones who imagined a world where synthetic fibers and space helmets engineered to protect the human body fit smartly on the trim, athletic bodies of young mothers who feed perfect children nutritious treats derived from blue algae.

The Personal Environment, like designs for space suits or underwater laboratories, fulfills the dream of freedom founded on principles of Cold War liberalism: release from the limitations of the earthbound world to embrace the aesthetics of living underwater, or traveling at high speed through the air or through outer space. After all, the promise of freedom can be more seductive that the promise of control. One of the supposed joys of the international economy is the necessity of constant travel between far-flung corporate headquarters. One can often need to be in New York, London, and Tokyo within a week’s time. Psychologists, sociologists, and managerial theorists know what a physical, psychic, and often emotional toll this much traveling has on the human body, and so exhausting travel has been partly replaced with the weightlessness of information technology. In this sense, the Personal Environment’s individualized control over temperature, lighting, and air quality is not oppressive but transformative. With environmental controls at his or her command, the office worker can imagine himself or herself as more than just another corporate stooge. He or she can assume the role of technological explorer and info-astronaut, racking up Frequent Flier miles without ever having to leave the comfort of one’s climate-controlled, air-filtered bubble of environmental stasis.

David Serlin wishes to thank David Gissen for his help with this article.

David Serlin is assistant professor of history and American studies at Albright College, and a contributing editor to Cabinet. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics.