Noise was among the most contested issues in the large open offices that proliferated after World War II in Europe and North America. The “landscape” offices that developed out of the German Bürolandschaft movement were known for large floor plates filled with misaligned desks. They were meant to improve employees’ communication, but their acoustic design prompted worker anxieties about distraction and diminishing privacy. While early remediation efforts sought to quiet offices, in the 1960s designers began adding random, unintelligible noise to mask distractions and arranging employees according to their expected sound levels. This shift from eliminating noise to embracing it as a space-defining element reflected a powerful new acoustic paradigm. The Bürolandschaft movement waned in the 1970s, but the judicious spatial deployment of noise remains an invaluable technique as designers consider how architecture can help or hinder communication and collective intellectual activity.

Noise has assumed an importance in national thinking that could hardly have been believed two decades ago.

—Leo L. Beranek, Noise Reduction, 1960

The imperative of noise reduction—a central goal of acoustic engineering since the field’s genesis in the late nineteenth century—springs from a traditional perception of noise as an ever-growing modern nuisance. Yet this premise does not always hold. In an environment with multiple simultaneous vectors of communication, noise may serve not to disrupt but to mask. Such was the case in many large open-plan offices designed in the 1960s. These environments differed from pre–World War II workplaces, where, as Emily Thompson has documented, “a connection between minimized noise and maximized productivity” guided architectural decisions.1 By contrast, postwar office designers learned to operationalize noise, establishing strategic gradients of audibility and inaudibility in offices.

The context for these developments was the increasing importance of “knowledge work.” The Austrian American management consultant Peter Drucker coined this term in 1957 to describe the fastest-growing sector of the Western economy.2 In the year 1900, managers, clerks, salespeople, and professionals made up just 17.6 percent of the American labor force. By 1959, their share had expanded to 42.1 percent, with signs of accelerating growth.3 White-collar jobs also expanded in the German-speaking world, where, as in the United States, large bureaucracies became instrumental in shaping the course of industrial development and social change. In these two regions especially, designers and managers debated the most appropriate architectural setting for knowledge work.4

One of the most radical proposals was the Bürolandschaft, or “landscape office,” conceived around 1960 by Quickborner Team, a West German management consultancy. A Bürolandschaft offered an open, flexible workplace where desks were interspersed with potted plants in a seemingly anarchic layout, as if a particularly untidy gang of burglars had ransacked the office. The eccentric floor plans of such spaces were not merely artistic declarations of rebellion against the tedium and conformity of traditional office work. They were part of an effort to make offices conducive to complex patterns of communication. Quickborner founder Eberhard Schnelle conceived of a landscape office filled with workers as a giant computer for making business decisions. As Schnelle explained, the layouts were far from random; they were based on careful study of how employees interacted, with the overall Bürolandschaft functioning as “a central information processing facility, one in which information processing plays out between people and within people.”5 According to this view, offices operated as a form of social media, structuring how people interacted, exchanged information, and formed relationships.

Office design of the 1960s thus expanded on an important theme in postwar architectural discourse: the notion of the building as a channel for communication. Earlier in the twentieth century, the modern movement often drew analogies between buildings and industrial machines, but postwar designers more often conceived architecture as a kind of information technology for exchanging messages and making decisions collaboratively. This idea was reflected in Yona Friedman’s flexible postindustrial infrastructures, Nicolas Schöffer’s “spatiodynamic” environments, and Kenzō Tange’s “responsive” urban spaces.6 According to Reinhold Martin, the metaphor was at work even in the seemingly mute forms of glass-clad corporate office blocks.7 But above all, the Bürolandschaft and its successors, including the Herman Miller Action Office line of modular desks, chairs, and partitions, represented the most influential and widely realized case of this communicational idea.

Designers conceived the landscape office as a spacious, inviting place where top minds would work together to solve the great problems confronting contemporary society. At the same time, the face-to-face meetings that were central to this vision of work posed an obvious acoustic challenge. Sonic communication was cited prominently both in arguments for landscape offices and in reactions against them. Over time, managers, employees, and acousticians pursued an entente between noise and intellectual labor, and recognized that under controlled circumstances and in limited amounts, noise—defined as a distortion to a transmitted signal—could in fact be salutary for communication and collective thought.

This insight emerged out of interdisciplinary wrangling over what might be called the office “soundscape”—although this term, promoted in the 1970s by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, is ill suited to describe the auditory environment of a landscape office. While Schafer’s argument for a new practice of “acoustic design” combining engineering, psychology, and sociology was indebted to earlier techniques for managing workplace sound, he decisively rejected the key acoustic innovation of the landscape office: its qualified embrace of noise.8 Today, as some contemporary architects reengage with acoustic design, the history of the midcentury landscape office suggests a valuable alternative to conceptions of the soundscape rooted in Schafer’s anti-noise polemics.9

Since antiquity, architects have sought to establish conditions for intellectual work by shaping buildings to tame cacophony and propagate sound in orderly ways. As Niall Atkinson has observed, premodern scholars beset with auditory disturbances learned to reorient themselves “both physically and mentally within the urban milieu, where acoustic thresholds were, literally and metaphorically, built up and torn apart, poked at, turned upside down and inside out.”10 In the clamorous nineteenth century, as cities became denser and louder, the problem of noise posed a growing architectural challenge. Consider Thomas Carlyle’s auditory vexations in 1850s London. Exasperated with piano-playing neighbors, organ grinders in the street, and roosters in the backyard (“demon fowls,” as he called them), the scholar installed a special double-walled office in his attic. Yet no matter how much noise he blocked out, he found the remaining sounds—even if barely audible—just as mentally intrusive as the original tumult. As Carlyle’s wife, Jane, observed wryly, “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house.”11

Mrs. Carlyle put her finger on a key paradox of noise reduction, but it took more than a hundred years for designers to work out the architectural implications. These implications were not yet clear in the early twentieth century, when a middle-class anti-noise movement seeking to quiet the hubbub associated with urban life took aim at noisy American offices.12 Corporations tended to crowd clerks and typists into large “pools,” where the usual complaints about sound centered on the din of other workers and office equipment rather than on noise from outdoors. Open offices reduced real estate costs and made it easier to standardize and systematize workflow, in line with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management doctrines, but excessive sound could hamper productivity. “Any man or woman working in the midst of distracting sounds or sights must use up a certain amount of nervous and physical energy to shut these out and keep them from interfering with the task at hand,” advised a 1914 article in a business magazine. “The open office makes for general efficiency. To keep its advantages yet cut down on the drawback of noise is the problem which business men and scientists have been trying to solve for several years.”13 The article included an interview with the physicist Wallace Sabine, an authority on architectural acoustics who was often commissioned to mitigate office noise.

Running counter to this quest for quiet, a number of contemporary European composers sought to recuperate noise, in order to evoke the sublime or to disrupt bourgeois decorum. In 1913, Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo argued that conventional music should give way to an “art of noises” embracing the full range of sounds produced in an industrial metropolis.14 His manifesto appeared in the same year that Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant Rite of Spring premiered in Paris and provoked a notorious public uproar.

Beyond these two extreme responses—targeting noise as a nuisance or welcoming it as a provocation—a third possibility dawned on a few contemporaries. In 1924, when the German architect Erich Mendelsohn visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York, he marveled at how innumerable hushed conversations and mechanical sounds melted into a steady susurrus. Standing inside the nave-like atrium, surrounded by five floors of unpartitioned offices, Mendelsohn observed:

There are a thousand people at work here. You hear no single sounds. The collective sound of the working of a thousand individually almost silent typewriters, calculators, and adding machines simply forms the background noise [Rauschgrund] for the common field of activity and portion of duty.15

Completed in 1906, the Larkin Building belonged to the first generation of steel-frame American office buildings featuring mostly open interiors. In many of these buildings, executives and middle managers were housed in perimeter offices, but at the Larkin they occupied the lofty central workspace. The atrium incorporated experimental sound-absorbing materials to soften interior noise without eliminating it altogether.16 The result was a low, ambient chatter, in which the Larkin’s employees lived, moved, and had their being.

Mendelsohn’s generation of German modernists were fascinated by American workplace design. His contemporary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had Taylor’s theories in mind when he envisioned a modern Bürohaus filled with “bright, wide workspaces, clear, undivided, structured only according to the organism of the enterprise.”17 Eventually this ideal traveled back to the United States, where it was realized in postwar International Style boxes whose glass curtain walls and fluorescent lighting allowed for deep floor plates. The interiors were generally organized according to the flow of paperwork. Thus, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the suburban headquarters of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company according to the premise that “an insurance company is essentially a paper moving factory” (Figure 1).18 As Martin has shown, postwar American office design adhered to a principle of “organization” informed by the fashionable field of cybernetics, the study of control signals and feedback in self-regulating systems of all kinds.

Figure 1

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters, Bloomfield, Connecticut, 1957 (photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

Figure 1

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters, Bloomfield, Connecticut, 1957 (photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

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Midcentury American offices, in turn, impressed business leaders in the booming Federal Republic of Germany, where Marshall Plan money fueled a Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle.” The expansion of manufacturing also created jobs for the white-collar professionals who planned West Germany’s industrial progress. “Office buildings are springing up from the ground like mushrooms!” marveled Eberhard Schnelle, a young executive working at his father’s office furniture company, in 1959.19

Moved by the economic changes taking place around him, Schnelle aspired to reimagine problems of office design and corporate management in a more holistic way. He and his brother Wolfgang soon left the family firm to start an interdisciplinary consultancy, synthesizing American approaches to corporate office design with cybernetic techniques for analyzing employees’ communication processes. The Schnelle brothers hoped cybernetics could help flatten traditional organizational hierarchies, making businesses more agile and giving workers more autonomy. Such approaches seemed suited to the much-anticipated new economy, in which automatic machines were expected to take over “regressive” clerical tasks, thus freeing humans for more creative and collaborative intellectual work.20

Teams were central to this vision. The rhetoric of teamwork harked back to the “human relations” management principles advanced by psychologist Elton Mayo in the 1920s as a more collegial alternative to Taylorism.21 The power of teams had also been foregrounded during World War II in U.S. military research facilities such as MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, where scientists and engineers developed microwave radar technology. Such breakthroughs were credited not to individual genius inventors but to carefully managed multidisciplinary research groups.22 Inspired by these successes, many postwar corporations embraced decentralized administrative structures, which not only meshed well with the cybernetic mindset but also served as a liberal response to the rigid bureaucracies of totalitarian governments.23

The Schnelle brothers praised teams for generating stronger “information flow” than hierarchical organizations (Figure 2).24 The distinguishing feature of any firm, they thought, was its structure of communication (Kommunikation).25 Their goal was to optimize a client’s office for teamwork, and their own company, headquartered in Quickborn, just outside Hamburg, took the name Quickborner Team.

Figure 2

Four diagrams of the same bureaucratic process in an office: those on the left are based on the firm’s organizational chart, and those on the right on its physical organization in an office building; the top two diagrams reflect the flow of paper, and the bottom two illustrate oral interactions (Eberhard Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” Kommunikation, Sept. 1965, 6).

Figure 2

Four diagrams of the same bureaucratic process in an office: those on the left are based on the firm’s organizational chart, and those on the right on its physical organization in an office building; the top two diagrams reflect the flow of paper, and the bottom two illustrate oral interactions (Eberhard Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” Kommunikation, Sept. 1965, 6).

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In designing an office, they first studied how the company’s workers communicated during the course of the day, both through paperwork and, more important, through face-to-face meetings.26 This approach is reflected in Quickborner’s breakthrough project, its 1961 office design for Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton, a division of German publishing giant Bertelsmann (Figure 3).27 Buch und Ton’s 270 office workers occupied a Bürolandschaft—as the brothers called the new office concept—in a concrete-frame building designed by architect Walter Henn. The new building’s floor plate measured 39 meters on its shortest dimension, far surpassing the size of a typical prewar office building. The profusion of interior vegetation and even the term “Bürolandschaft” were token compensations for the fact that, in such a vast workspace, most employees had much less access to daylight and fresh air.

Figure 3

Quickborner Team, Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton, Gütersloh, 1961 (photo © Bertelsmann SE Unternehmensarchiv, Gütersloh).

Figure 3

Quickborner Team, Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton, Gütersloh, 1961 (photo © Bertelsmann SE Unternehmensarchiv, Gütersloh).

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Around this time, one of the chief designers at Quickborner, Kurd Alsleben, published a diagram of an unnamed publishing company—presumably Buch und Ton—showing how often employees in various departments came in contact (Figure 4).28 These communication links between departments such as customer service, advertising, operations, and filing were translated into adjacencies on the floor plan (Figure 5). A circulation artery ran diagonally from the elevators on one side to the opposite corner. Departments clustered on either side of this path, often without separating partitions; only the angles of the desks indicated their respective divisions.

Figure 4

Diagram of communication in a publishing company (Kurd Alsleben, Neue Technik der Mobiliarordnung im Büroraum: Versuch über eine funktionale Mobiliarordnung in freiem unregelmäßigem Rhythmus [Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1961]).

Figure 4

Diagram of communication in a publishing company (Kurd Alsleben, Neue Technik der Mobiliarordnung im Büroraum: Versuch über eine funktionale Mobiliarordnung in freiem unregelmäßigem Rhythmus [Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1961]).

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Figure 5

Quickborner Team, plan of Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton, Gütersloh, 1961 (Architekt und Organisator: Probleme und Methoden der Bürohausplanung [Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1964]).

Figure 5

Quickborner Team, plan of Kommissionshaus Buch und Ton, Gütersloh, 1961 (Architekt und Organisator: Probleme und Methoden der Bürohausplanung [Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1964]).

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Quickborner saw information linkages between office workers as something like synaptic pathways. Scientific theories of cognition had been transformed by wartime research on control systems and artificial intelligence. From a cybernetic point of view, thinking was not a uniquely human activity but could also be carried out by machines—or, in this case, by the collective labor of white-collar workers in an office. Quickborner’s floor plans reflected this sociotechnical understanding of thought and decision making. They also registered an ascendant managerialism: Bürolandschaft layouts were not the result of employees’ positioning their own desks to improve communication from their standpoint, but the result of a rational design process undertaken by specialists. The Schnelle brothers acknowledged that their approach amounted to Regierung mit Eierköpfen—“government by eggheads.”29

Business leaders bought into the idea. Over the course of the 1960s, Quickborner created Bürolandschaft workplaces for German industrial heavyweights such as Krupp, Orenstein & Koppel, and Osram, as well as international companies such as IBM, DuPont, Ford, Texas Instruments, Shell, and the BBC.30 By 1972, an estimated forty thousand people in nine countries worked in Schnelle-designed offices.31 Quickborner Team opened a short-lived New Jersey branch in 1967, but the true protagonist of landscape office design in the United States was Robert Propst, a freelance inventor hired as research director for the Herman Miller furniture company to scout out design problems beyond established markets.32 Propst collaborated with George Nelson, Herman Miller’s lead designer, to create the Action Office, a line of desks, shelves, and filing cabinets loosely inspired by the Bürolandschaft.33 Until now, landscape offices had been one-off projects custom-made for individual clients; going forward, any business would be able to create one using modular, off-the-shelf products.

For all its emphasis on communication, the landscape office was dogged by noise problems. At Buch und Ton, for example, despite wall-to-wall carpeting and a sound-absorbing open baffle ceiling, an employee reported that the office’s typical sound level of 49 to 53 phons prompted user concerns about a “loss of privacy,” “visual and auditory distractions,” and “everyone knowing what everyone else is doing.” The writer hastened to add that satisfaction improved after a year in the new building, although “strongly introverted people” still struggled to adjust.34 Similar grievances accompanied the landscape office as it spread both in and beyond West Germany. An exasperated worker at JFN Associates in Chicago, an early adopter of the Herman Miller Action Office, protested that she could “hear everything, including whispering” (Figure 6).35 As management experts and behavioral psychologists debated the effectiveness of landscape offices, their arguments often hinged on sonic issues. Some researchers considered the new auditory environment to be a unique advantage, claiming that increased verbal communication strengthened social bonds and a sense of collective purpose. Others countered that the lack of physical barriers made it hard for employees to focus and inhibited social trust by eroding privacy.36

Figure 6

The first Herman Miller Action Office II installation, at JFN Associates, Chicago, 1969 (photo: Herman Miller).

Figure 6

The first Herman Miller Action Office II installation, at JFN Associates, Chicago, 1969 (photo: Herman Miller).

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Bedeviling this debate was the elusive term noise.37 In the 1860s, physicist Hermann von Helmholtz explained noise, or Geräusch, in objective terms, defining it as a physically irregular or discordant sound.38 In contrast, early twentieth-century telephone engineers adopted a subjective definition: to them, noise was any sound that had no significance for the listener and consequently interfered with the “proper reception” of auditory information.39 This subjective understanding became central to information theory, the scientific model of communication developed by engineer Claude Shannon based on cryptography research conducted during World War II.40 In his 1948 essay “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Shannon defined information channels in abstract terms and technically made no distinction between different sensory registers—say, between sounds and images. Yet he used sonic language and examples throughout the essay, arguing, for example, that a channel “perturbed by noise” must be tuned to achieve optimal measures of redundancy and feedback.41 Information theory quickly caught the imagination of thinkers in fields far removed from electrical engineering, just as cybernetics had, and many of these lay readers took sonic communication as the archetype of communication in general.42

The Schnelle brothers were among those convinced of the social importance of sonic exchange. Earlier, at their father’s office supply company, they had assumed that bureaucratic work necessarily centered on the flow of paper.43 Now freed from the imperative to sell writing desks and stationery, they sought to optimize offices for other kinds of communication.44 One of their firm’s internal publications predicted that as computers and other office machines took over rote tasks, humans would spend more time on the kinds of complex, creative problem solving that could be accomplished only through meetings and conversations.45 The brothers became evangelists for the idea that sonic communication would be central to an imminent new economy. “Paper flow is not a concept of great concern in office landscape,” Wolfgang Schnelle told an American business magazine. “The concern is that people . . . can verbalize” effectively.46

The stakes of elevating spoken over written language are evident in one of Verlag Schnelle’s strangest publications: a 1963 collection of essays advocating a new system for writing German phonetically, printed almost entirely in this experimental orthography (Figure 7). There had been intermittent efforts to standardize the notoriously inconsistent spelling of German since 1902, following the adoption of Konrad Duden’s writing system throughout the German Empire. But where most proposals had merely clarified minor linguistic ambiguities, the Schnelles’ book advocated much more radical changes, promising to eliminate spelling inconsistencies altogether. Such reforms would pave the way for machines to analyze spoken language (in contexts such as automatic dictation and translation) and would ostensibly improve communication in offices and schools. The Schnelle brothers assured readers they would soon grow accustomed to this new way of writing:

Figure 7

Title page of Kurd Alsleben et al., Sprache und Schrift im Zeitalter der Kybernetik (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1963), with the top half printed in a traditional German Fraktur script and the bottom half (and indeed the remainder of the book) printed in the proposed new orthography.

Figure 7

Title page of Kurd Alsleben et al., Sprache und Schrift im Zeitalter der Kybernetik (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1963), with the top half printed in a traditional German Fraktur script and the bottom half (and indeed the remainder of the book) printed in the proposed new orthography.

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The book is meant for open-minded readers who are prepared to learn and retrain themselves. Do not give up on the whole volume because you have difficulty reading the first few lines!47

Although the proposal did not gain traction, it underscored the Schnelle brothers’ faith in the growing social importance of oral communication. In endeavoring to reinvent the printed book as an exact phonetic record of speech, they signaled that writing should change to accommodate spoken language, not vice versa. Likewise, they saw the Bürolandschaft as a means to optimize the office for oral communication rather than paperwork. Their belief that speech and listening were vital to the future of the economy explains why they were reluctant to entertain workers’ complaints about loud offices. Increased transmission of information-rich sound was a feature, not a bug, of the Bürolandschaft.

Many corporate executives shared the Schnelle brothers’ hesitancy to discourage oral communication. In response to ongoing grumbling by Buch und Ton employees, Bertelsmann CEO Reinhard Mohn assessed the problem personally in 1964 by spending two weeks working at an ordinary desk in the Bürolandschaft. Following this experiment, he mounted an elaborate defense of the office’s acoustic conditions. While he found the noise distracting at first, he claimed that by the third day “a complete habituation had taken place.” He accused employees who complained of having a “superficial” understanding of office work and concluded that “there is not a single department in our entire company that could not work better in an open office.” Mohn allowed just one exception to this verdict: “My own work includes relatively frequent meetings which, in the interest of the firm, must remain confidential. . . . It follows that for the company’s top management, a workspace in this setting and of this kind is not appropriate.”48 He insisted that senior executives’ need for auditory privacy was the only legitimate argument against the Bürolandschaft.

While Quickborner Team was loath to inhibit the oral exchange of information in the workplace, it did acknowledge an imperative to reduce “noise,” or meaningless sound (Lärm), by lowering the intensity of sound sources and dampening reverberation with absorptive materials.49 These suggestions dovetailed with the standards for “office quieting” developed by American acoustician Leo Beranek in the mid-1950s. “Office personnel who must communicate on the job are keenly aware that noise is deleterious to speech intelligibility,” wrote Beranek, a key figure in the growing noise reduction industry.50 By this point, most building acousticians had adopted the language of signal and noise from telecommunications engineering.51 Yet their strategies still reflected approaches honed in the early twentieth century, when work in architectural acoustics focused especially on auditorium design. In such buildings, acousticians sought to eliminate distracting echoes and to make the performance on the stage intelligible from every seat—that is, to maximize the information content of sound. This goal of banishing noise was aligned with the ideals of the rapidly growing American market for home audio equipment, as set forth in the postwar period by publications such as High Fidelity magazine. When acousticians applied their tried-and-true noise reduction strategies to landscape offices, however, they failed to improve working conditions.

In North America, as in West Germany, discussions of communication in the workplace reflected a growing tendency to think about society itself in cybernetic terms. In 1953, Charles and Ray Eames produced a short film explaining Shannon’s information theory and its implications. Over vignettes of birds wheeling through the sky and crowds passing in an urban crosswalk, Charles Eames intoned, “Communication is that which links any organism together; it is communication that keeps a society together.”52 The film went on to explain that everyday life consists of innumerable tiny transactions of data. A phenomenon that appeared eccentric at a distance—anything from a work of art to a political movement—could be explained as a multiplicity of small-scale communication acts. Meanwhile, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall applied this cybernetic thinking more directly to the built environment. Hall’s “proxemic” theory posited physical space as a field of continuous interpersonal negotiation regulated by “a series of delicately controlled, culturally conditioned servomechanisms that keeps life on an even keel, much like the automatic pilot on the airplane.”53

Distracting sound seemed to threaten this delicate balance. To some observers, the loud workplace was a microcosm of world society in the age of electronic communication. Marshall McLuhan claimed that open offices manifested an emerging “global-village atmosphere.”54 He argued that radio and other new media collapsed space, turning the planet into an enormous enclosed interior where everyone could hear everyone else: “Information and images bump against each other every day in massive quantities, and the resonance of this interfacing is like the babble of a village or tavern gossip session.”55 Such conditions could be exhilarating, but they also could be terrifying if a society failed to adapt. Auditory media had the power to stir up powerful, primal instincts, leading McLuhan to warn that modern humans “live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.”56 His worries responded to an emerging popular anxiety about “information overload.” Initially a concern of scientists struggling to keep up with the accelerating pace of new research findings, information overload was increasingly seen as a general psychological hazard of the modern era, as people were bombarded with cognitive input faster than they could digest it.57

While McLuhan expected electronic communication to be decisive in reshaping society, he believed architecture could help smooth the transition by training people’s sensoriums to deal with these new kinds of stimulation (which he conceived as notionally, if not always literally, acoustic). He warned in a 1961 article that “today no architect can afford to be ignorant of auditory space,” a phenomenon he associated with corporate decentralization:

How to breathe new life into the lineal forms of the past five centuries while admitting the relevance of the new organic forms of spatial organization (what I have explained as “auditory space” above)—is not this the task of the architect at present? . . . We live in a time when whole peoples have gone out of their wits when impelled by new massive forms such as radio. . . . The problem of design is to understand the media forces in such wise that we need never sink into the zombie tribal state.58

Considered through McLuhan’s writing, the acoustic vexations of large workplaces were more than just a localized nuisance to be solved through better engineering. They were emblematic of far-reaching challenges. It was as if all humanity inhabited a single, gigantic landscape office. Unless an effective way to regulate and structure communication could be found, the resulting cacophony would make collective social and political life impossible.

Robert Propst shared this concern. Propst’s manifesto The Office: A Facility Based on Change, published by Herman Miller in 1968, presented the Action Office not as a collection of autonomous pieces of furniture but as part of a comprehensive infrastructure to accommodate communication and collaborative labor. “Offices are primarily information services,” he declared.59 While borrowing heavily from the Eameses’ and Hall’s vision of the world as a field of continuous information flow, Propst worried that employees now lived “in a blizzard of involvement well beyond their ability to relate and implement.”60 In trying to balance these concerns, he departed significantly from the Quickborner theoretical model. In 1965, Eberhard Schnelle still maintained that “the wider the exchange of information both within the organization and between the organization and its surroundings, the greater the performance of the organization.”61 By contrast, Propst emphasized the need to direct and, in some cases, constrain the movement of information:

Until recently we have been insatiable consumers, always asking for more. “Bring me more information, I will always know what to do with it. I can send it away to store and retrieve it at will.” This has been our historic position until now. In our generation, the accident happened. We have more information than we can use. We get more information than we want. The office, as we know it at present, has only made the accident more acute.62

In response, Propst called for “tools of limitation in the form of capacity regulators.”63 For one such “regulator,” he designed modular fabric-covered screens to separate Action Office workstations. Whereas Quickborner’s offices kept spatial dividers to a minimum, Propst used them to provide a psychological sense of enclosure and to ensure that interaction took place only “in select vectors.” Arranged according to “the kind of communication linkage desired,” he explained, these partitions would help bring the ever-increasing information flow under control (Figures 8 and 9).64

Figure 8

Physical models are used to show how the “communication linkages” in an office change when modular screens are repositioned (Robert Propst, The Office: A Facility Based on Change [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1968]).

Figure 8

Physical models are used to show how the “communication linkages” in an office change when modular screens are repositioned (Robert Propst, The Office: A Facility Based on Change [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1968]).

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Figure 9

Illustrations of how different interior configurations support various forms of social interaction (Robert Propst, The Office: A Facility Based on Change [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1968]).

Figure 9

Illustrations of how different interior configurations support various forms of social interaction (Robert Propst, The Office: A Facility Based on Change [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1968]).

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Even better than physical screens, sound itself could often be used to partition the workplace. Auditory masking had been studied since 1876, when physicist Alfred Mayer observed cases where “one sonorous sensation may overcome and obliterate another.”65 Early twentieth-century telephone companies explored this phenomenon in their search for efficient ways of transmitting speech that would still be intelligible at the other end of the line. While such research aimed to lessen the masking effect of static, postwar studies of office acoustics explored a positive role for masking. “Sometimes it can become too quiet in the office,” remarked UC Berkeley engineering professor Walter Soroka, “and the presence of some noise is welcomed just as a means for masking other sounds of a less desirable character or to serve as a shield behind which a private conversation might be carried on.” Soroka provided an apparent acoustic paradox to illustrate his point: employee complaints about typewriter noise were leading many companies to purchase special “noiseless” machines, but “a typist at so quiet a typewriter would be likely to make numerous errors as a result of overhearing nearby conversations.”66

Like Thomas Carlyle’s struggles a century earlier, this conundrum exposed a problem with Shannon’s theory. Noise—that is, interference with a listener’s reception of auditory information—need not be a hindrance to communication. In a room full of people talking, it was too much information, ironically, that was noisome. In 1963, Francis Duffy, then a student at the Architectural Association, was given a scholarship to travel to West Germany, to visit Buch und Ton and to interview the Schnelle brothers. “The primary objective of Bürolandschaft is to give better communication,” Duffy reported afterward in the Architectural Review. “The main overall problem is to keep the noise level down; but it must not be too low, for then two evils result. First, the environment as a whole seems ‘dead’ and second, nearby conversations are much more intrusive.”67 The realization that a low, ambient gabble could enhance the effectiveness of a large workplace lay at the heart of what Jonathan Sterne sees as a broad interdisciplinary reassessment of the value of noise.68 It now seemed that unintelligible, uninteresting sound was not the problem, as acousticians had once assumed, but rather the solution to better communication.

Sometimes this effect could be achieved only through artificial means. At the Quickborner-designed DuPont office in Wilmington, Delaware, ceiling loudspeakers played tape recordings of ambient office sound. A 1969 article in a business magazine described these recordings as “acoustical perfume,” claiming that “the noises act as invisible walls.”69 This introduction of artificial office noise was different from the earlier use of music in workplaces. Muzak, the canned instrumental soundtracks created for stores and restaurants in the early twentieth century, also appeared in offices beginning in the 1940s. Its promoters did not advocate for its use to mask communication, however. They calculated its metrical and timbral characteristics to pep workers up and establish a rhythm for labor. In short, Muzak functioned as signal, not noise.70 DuPont’s “acoustical perfume,” by contrast, was deliberately nonsensical.

The first generation of office “white noise” systems also appeared during this period, alongside home noise generators intended as sleep aids.71 Often employees failed to notice the piped-in sound, or assumed it came from an air-handling system. One designer recounts that when an office switched off its noise generator, employees experienced a hallucinated heat wave. “Everyone thought the air conditioner had broken down,” she writes. “Everyone got warmer and warmer. Finally they had to go home because everyone was so hot.”72

Soon acousticians began to differentiate between areas of loud and soft noise in the office.73 Herman Miller’s Action Office Acoustic Handbook, published in 1975, recommended that loudspeakers be placed in “strategic spots” and “tuned” to create different acoustic zones, with sounds that might even vary throughout the day.74 Around this time, Herman Miller introduced its own masking noise generator, the Action Office Acoustic Conditioner, a small globe with a frequency control allowing clients to adjust its randomized “whoosh” based on sound levels in the vicinity (Figure 10). “A bit more treble may be added to cover up a whirring, clattering office machine, or to help balance air noise from a nearby diffuser,” the company explained. “A lower frequency may be used to fill in where such sound characteristics need to be added to balance out uneven, low frequency contribution. Let your ear be the guide in choosing the tonality.”75 As Joeri Bruyninckx observes, such masking noise quickly became “integral to the architectonics of the office.”76

Figure 10

Herman Miller Action Office II installation with Acoustic Conditioners, January 1975 (photo: Herman Miller / Henry Ford Museum).

Figure 10

Herman Miller Action Office II installation with Acoustic Conditioners, January 1975 (photo: Herman Miller / Henry Ford Museum).

Close modal

Electronically generated noise might be unnecessary, however, if the various sound sources within the office could be placed to mask one another. It dawned on some engineers that the clacking of a typewriter occupied the same frequency range as the information content of speech. Typists, instead of being grouped in loud pools, might be positioned throughout the office to create masking noise.77 Herman Miller suggested arranging employees in small groups:

Avoid scattering too few people over too much space. This produces a situation where any act of speech stands out excessively. . . . It is both more comfortable and private as well as feedback-conducive to be in “bustle” clusters of voices (and activity) of no fewer than about twenty people. Even people whose activity is unrelated are more comfortable in these zones because of this overall blanket of sound.78

A series of cartoon diagrams included in the Acoustic Handbook illustrate the distribution of workers to mask each other’s sound (Figures 11 and 12). The first panel shows a man and a woman struggling to work effectively over the reverberating sound of his talking and her typing. In the next two frames, the installation of carpeting, window drapes, and ceiling tiles improve the situation, but only slightly. The final image shows how the introduction of more people solves the noise problem. The caption explains that these additional employees, separated by screens, generate low-level noise that varies across the room according to intentionally defined gradients. The two original employees now communicate with each other perfectly, while for the room’s other occupants their voices melt into the general murmur.

Figure 11

Illustration of how sound travels in a large uninterrupted space with hard and reflective surfaces (Robert Propst and Michael Wodka, The Action Office Acoustic Handbook [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1975]).

Figure 11

Illustration of how sound travels in a large uninterrupted space with hard and reflective surfaces (Robert Propst and Michael Wodka, The Action Office Acoustic Handbook [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1975]).

Close modal
Figure 12

Illustrations of how sound travels in large spaces with carpeting and other sound-absorbing materials (Robert Propst and Michael Wodka, The Action Office Acoustic Handbook [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1975]).

Figure 12

Illustrations of how sound travels in large spaces with carpeting and other sound-absorbing materials (Robert Propst and Michael Wodka, The Action Office Acoustic Handbook [Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1975]).

Close modal

Propst’s goal of using noise to organize a large, open interior into distinct zones led him to experiment with combinations of these acoustic strategies. One of his ideas was to integrate electronic masking technology directly into the dividing screens. The Herman Miller archives preserve his sketches for a “communication scrambler system,” featuring a microphone and speaker embedded in each side of a modular partition (Figure 13). When switched on, the device would pick up the sound generated within a user’s workspace—say, one side of a confidential phone conversation—distort it, and then emit the garble from the loudspeaker on the opposite side of the partition. The effect would be to add just enough ambient noise in the precise frequency range of the employee’s voice that adjacent workers heard only gibberish. Propst said he conceived this idea in a restaurant, when he noticed how nearby sounds masked the voice of a garrulous diner at another table.79 Although the scrambler system never reached the market, in 2005, a Herman Miller subsidiary finally released the Babble, a small desktop unit operating on similar principles (the product did not catch on and was quietly withdrawn after the 2008 recession).

Figure 13

Robert Propst, design for a “communication scrambler system,” 1964 (Herman Miller / Henry Ford Museum).

Figure 13

Robert Propst, design for a “communication scrambler system,” 1964 (Herman Miller / Henry Ford Museum).

Close modal

Such examples demonstrate how much the acoustic design of offices evolved between the immediate postwar period and the mid-1970s. In the 1950s, engineers tended to treat open offices as uniform acoustic environments, but by the 1970s, they sought to arrange sound sources in relation to one another. Before, they assured corporations that a landscape office could be laid out to meet evolving work needs, but now they advised configuring the layout based on the different kinds of sound employees produced.

As the task of “composing” workers within the office required creative sonic judgment (and often professional acoustic expertise), it is helpful to consider these changes against the backdrop of concert hall design, a field that was also marked by growing appreciation for the spatial dimensions of listening. Following his publication of the first sonic criteria for offices in the mid-1950s, Beranek codified acoustic standards for concert halls using a similar empirical approach. He described a hall’s “acoustical space” as a complex perceptual phenomenon, not reducible to the established metric of reverberation time but influenced by many sonic factors, including intimacy, liveness, warmth, and diffusion.80 Architect Hans Scharoun and acoustician Lothar Cremer ingeniously manipulated these characteristics in their design for the Berlin Philharmonie, one of the most innovative halls of the postwar period. Like the evolving design of offices during this period, the planning of music venues reflected a growing interest in defining space through the calculated distribution of sound.

The difference was that in concert halls, there was still no place for noise. “There has never been any doubt among musicians or architects that a hall should be free of noise,” Beranek observed.81 When it came to the design of open offices, however, he carefully retreated from his earlier insistence on quieting ambient sound: “Noisiness, the annoyance caused by noise, can sometimes be reduced by adding more ‘noise.’ ”82 This principle was even cited to explain the chaotic-looking floor plans of landscape offices. Hence, a 1964 article in Progressive Architecture argued that the jumbled layouts safeguarded workers from visual distraction or a sense of being under surveillance:

The kind of privacy provided by desks facing in different directions is analogous to the acoustical “silence” provided by the low and constant noise level. . . . When faces and movement are always visible, there is no distraction through singular action. . . . The idea is analogous to feeling alone in a bustling crowd.83

As this passage makes clear, the graphically “noisy” plan of a landscape office should be understood not as an ideological rejection of the conformity represented by a traditional gridded workplace but as the visual correlate of acoustic masking. Such designs were meant to sharpen workers’ focus and increase productivity through a continuous, moderate level of random sensory stimulation.

In the mid-1970s the landscape office movement began to wane, as the energy crisis punctured the fantasies of limitless expansion, perpetual mobility, and environmental uniformity that had driven the creation of vast, open workplaces.84 As real estate became a precious resource, corporations found it hard to say whether landscape offices improved performance at all. Designer John Frederick Pile—an early promoter of the landscape office—asked in 1977: “Does open office planning really work? The trouble with this question is that we are not usually certain what is meant by an office ‘working.’ . . . Is communication really better, are people getting more work done, or doing better work? We are short on clear measures of such matters.”85 If Pile’s verdict was equivocal, Duffy’s pronouncement in 1979 was crystal clear: “Bürolandschaft has come to a dead end.” Duffy now argued that these apparently radical designs never really democratized the workplace, but merely reflected the kind of office that managers thought their employees should want.86 The Schnelle brothers, for their part, left Quickborner Team in 1972 to start a new firm, Metaplan, where they focused on management consulting without a strong design agenda.87

Underlying this loss of faith in the landscape office was a wave of discontent with the dominant managerialism of the postwar economy. At UC Berkeley and the Free University of Berlin, student protesters, who understood themselves to be the future knowledge elite of Western society, attacked the putatively apolitical conditions of academic research; for example, the Berkeley protesters accused the university of serving as a “knowledge factory.”88 Such movements convinced many onlookers that the new economy possessed overlooked political dimensions. Jürgen Habermas criticized the “cybernetic dream” of regulating society through technical protocols. He cautioned that for liberal democracy to flourish, structures of communication and control within organizations must be balanced by a robust public sphere, allowing for debate about not only the means of knowledge production but also its ends.89 In this light, Shannon’s model of a communication system in which information flowed through a neutral, mathematically defined channel seemed hopelessly inadequate to account for the complexity of human interactions in an office, let alone a whole society.

The progressive connotations of the landscape office evaporated as the concept’s basis in information theory was discredited. Kenneth Frampton, in making his case for critical regionalism, cited the landscape office as a horrifying symbol of “the victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture.”90 Around 1980, Buch und Ton remodeled the workplace that launched the Bürolandschaft movement into more traditional compartmentalized offices.91 Those companies that retained open plans did so only to save money or to maintain flexibility in an uncertain economy, not to enhance verbal collaboration. Moreover, they often subdivided the remaining open workspaces using grids of cubicles, which soon became infamous emblems of the tedium and precarity of neoliberal bureaucratic work. Meanwhile, the introduction of networked desktop computers altered the flow of office communication, making it less plausible that spatial layout could substantially contribute to the exchange of information. Some office employees now began listening to music on headphones, in what Michael Bull calls an “auditory privatization of the workplace.”92 Headphone usage was possible only during focused tasks, of course, so this confounded earlier assumptions that office work would soon consist mainly of meetings.

The decline of the landscape office as a system for regulating sonic communication coincided with the emergence of sound art and of more politicized methods for studying sound and space in the academy. In the 1970s, composer R. Murray Schafer popularized the use of the term soundscape to describe how auditory experience is spatially situated. Schafer attended especially to the natural world and expressed countercultural disgust with large-scale capitalism. If corporate workplaces now accounted for some of the most innovative and highest-budget efforts to redesign the internal sounds of buildings, Schafer aimed to shift the focus of applied acoustics away from the “office landscape” to the wider outdoor landscape.

Schafer’s framework was not neutral with respect to noise. On the contrary, he lamented that modern machinery largely drowned out the delicately articulated or “hi-fi” sounds of nature. He also bristled at the expression “soundscaping an office,” used by some acousticians to refer to the practice of introducing masking noise into a workplace.93 Noise functioned as a narcotic, he thought, like the sound played to distract patients during painful dental procedures. His analysis conjured up the specter of corporate drudges jangled into a state of antisocial numbness:

Modern man has discovered what might be called audioanalgesia, that is, the use of sound as a painkiller, a distraction to dispel distractions. . . . Walls used to exist to isolate sounds. Today sound walls exist to isolate. . . .

. . . There may indeed be times when masking techniques can be useful in soundscape design but they will never succeed in rescuing the botched architecture of the present. No amount of perfumery can cover up a stinking job.94

In response, Schafer outlined a new practice of “acoustic design,” in which creative interdisciplinary professionals would ameliorate the world’s “cacophony” by exploring “how the soundscape may be altered, sped up, slowed down, thinned or thickened, weighted in favor of or against specific effects.” The vigilant members of an ideal “acoustic community” would remain continuously attuned to one another’s sounds, he argued, and thus keep noise to a minimum.95 It did not occur to Schafer that a selective ability to tune others out might make a community more—not less—sustainable.

Recent critical scholarship on the soundscape framework has flagged Schafer’s anti-noise outlook as reductive and overly nostalgic.96 Yet many contemporary attempts to recuperate noise remain indebted to a romantic hope of jamming the signals, as it were, of a bourgeois liberal order. Paul Hegarty, for example, celebrates what he hears as the radically disruptive, transgressive, and “nihilist” character of noise.97 The history of the instrumentalization of noise in corporate office design offers a corrective to both the anti-noise bias of soundscape theory and the avant-gardist dreams of a subversive pro-noise politics.

Noise is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Rather, it is a primary condition of any social environment, one that can be intensified and exploited to foster certain kinds of communication and inhibit others. Postwar struggles to mediate sound in landscape offices involved far-reaching debates about how best to configure communicating individuals in larger corporate structures. The problem of communication, in other words, also raises the problem of community. Recognizing that too much information can inhibit constructive exchange and seeking a balance between signal and noise may be important working principles for contemporary architects endeavoring to reengage with sound. In an environment with many simultaneous senders and receivers, some degree of communication masking may always be needed. As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once advised newlyweds, “It helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”98


Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 3.


Peter F. Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 98–106.


U.S. Census Bureau data, cited in Fritz Machlup, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), 381–82.


Notable recent studies of office design include Iñaki Ábalos and Juan Herreros, Tower and Office: From Modernist Theory to Contemporary Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Paola Antonelli, ed., Workspheres: Design and Contemporary Work Styles (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001); Andreas Rumpfhuber, Architektur immaterieller Arbeit (Vienna: Turia und Kant, 2013); Nikil Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (New York: Anchor Books, 2014); Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).


Eberhard Schnelle, “Architekt und Organisator: Versuche zu einer komplexen Planungsmethode,” Bauen + Wohnen 17, no. 1 (1963), 1, my translation. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.


Mark Wigley, “Network Fever,” Grey Room, no. 4 (Summer 2001), 82–122; Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017); Yuriko Furuhata, “Architecture as Atmospheric Media: Tange Lab and Cybernetics,” in Media Theory in Japan, ed. Marc Steinberg and Alexander Zahlten (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017), 52–79; Larry Busbea, The Responsive Environment: Design, Aesthetics, and the Human in the 1970s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).


Martin, Organizational Complex.


R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977; repr., Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1994), 4.


On sound and design methods, see especially Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007). This book is complemented by a number of recent histories of sound and modern architecture, including Sabine von Fischer, Das akustische Argument: Wissenschaft und Hörerfahrung in der Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts (Zurich: gta Verlag, 2019); Joseph L. Clarke, Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021); Angeliki Sioli and Elisavet Kiourtsoglou, eds., The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2022).


Niall Atkinson, “Thinking through Noise, Building toward Silence: Creating a Sound Mind and Sound Architecture in the Premodern City,” Grey Room, no. 60 (Summer 2015), 30.


Jane Carlyle, quoted in Thea Holme, The Carlyles at Home (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 98. See John M. Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 41–81.


Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, 115–68; Karin Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 120–30.


Daniel V. Casey, “Muffling Office Noises,” System: The Magazine of Business, Mar. 1914, 246, 248.


Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto” (1913), in The Art of Noises, trans. Barclay Brown (New York: Pendragon Press, 1986), 26.


Erich Mendelsohn to Luise Mendelsohn, 22 Oct. 1924, in Eric Mendelsohn, Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect, ed. Oskar Beyer, trans. Geoffrey Strachan (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1967), 68, translation modified.


Jack Quinan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building: Myth and Fact (New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1987), 56. The building is also mentioned in Casey, “Muffling Office Noises,” 252.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Bürohaus,” G: Material zur elementaren Gestaltung 1 (July 1923), n.p.


Quoted in Nicholas Adams, Gordon Bunshaft and SOM: Building Corporate Modernism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019), 64.


Eberhard Schnelle, Gegenwärtige Tendenzen und Probleme der Büroorganisation: Barmstedter Hefte 1 (Barmstedt: Velox-Verlag Herbert Schnelle, 1959), 5.


Eberhard Schnelle, “Arbeit, Bildung, Leistung,” in Kybernetik und Organisation (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1963), 93–94.


Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle mention the influence of Mayo in “Muß Planung geplant werden?,” interview, Führungspraxis, no. 3 (1965), 4.


For example, see Robert Buderi, The Invention That Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technological Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).


Peter Drucker, for example, praises the “spirit of teamwork” resulting from General Motors’ decentralized structure, in contrast to a “socialist” logic of strong top-down control. Peter F. Drucker, The Concept of the Corporation (New York: New American Library, 1946), 68, 107.


Eberhard Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” Kommunikation, Sept. 1965, 2.


Instead of the traditional German term for communication, Mitteilung, the Schnelle brothers tended to use the Latin-derived Kommunikation. Rarely used in German before World War II, the latter word proliferated dramatically in the 1960s, under the influence of cybernetics and systems theory.


Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” 5–7. See the detailed account of this project in Andreas Rumpfhuber, “Space of Information Flow: The Schnelle Brothers’ Office Landscape ‘Buch und Ton,’ ” in Experiments: Architektur zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst / Architecture between Sciences and the Arts (Berlin: Jovis, 2011), 200–225.


See Clemens Wischermann, “Corporate Culture at Bertelsmann in the Second Half of the 20th Century,” in 175 Years of Bertelsmann: The Legacy of Our Future (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2010), 260–61; Dieter E. Zimmer, “Wer kauft demnächst wen?,” Die Zeit, 26 May 1967; Stephan Füssel, “The Bertelsmann Book Publishing Companies: 1945 to 2010,” in 175 Years of Bertelsmann, 103–4.


Kurd Alsleben, Neue Technik der Mobiliarordnung im Büroraum: Versuch über eine funktionale Mobiliarordnung in freiem unregelmäßigem Rhythmus (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1961), 14–17.


Schnelle and Schnelle, “Muß Planung geplant werden?,” 4–5.


Die Metaplan Chronologie 1958–2005 (Quickborn: Metaplan, 2005), n.p.


Benno Kroll, “Aufstieg und Fall der Gebrüder Schnelle,” Manager Magazin 6 (1972), 67.


John R. Berry, Herman Miller: The Purpose of Design (New York: Rizzoli, 2004), 117.


Propst acknowledges the influence of the Bürolandschaft in Robert L. Propst, “The Action Office,” Human Factors 8, no. 4 (Aug. 1966), 303.


Kurt Schuldes, “Gute Erfahrungen mit einem Großraumbüro,” Mensch und Arbeit 14, no. 8 (Dec. 1962), 240, 242. The phon, a measure of subjective loudness, and the decibel, a measure of objective sound pressure, are roughly interchangeable in everyday contexts.


Philip Howard, “Office Landscaping Revisited,” Design & Environment 3, no. 3 (Fall 1972), 43.


See the literature review in Greg R. Oldham and Daniel J. Brass, “Employee Reactions to an Open-Plan Office: A Naturally Occurring Quasi-Experiment,” Administrative Science Quarterly 24, no. 2 (June 1979), 267–72.


See Alain Corbin, “A History and Anthropology of the Senses,” in Time, Desire and Horror: Towards a History of the Senses, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 183–84; Hillel Schwartz, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (New York: Zone Books, 2011).


Hermann L. F. Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, trans. Alexander J. Ellis (London: Longmans, Green, 1875), 12.


Harvey Fletcher, Speech and Hearing (New York: Van Nostrand, 1929), 99. On this redefinition of noise, see Mara Mills, “Deafening: Noise and the Engineering of Communication in the Telephone System,” Grey Room, no. 43 (Spring 2011), 118–43.


On the relationship between cybernetics and information theory, see Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 9–36.


Claude E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal 27, no. 3 (July 1948), 406.


See the related idea of “implicit sonicity” in Wolfgang Ernst, Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 21–37.


Schnelle, Gegenwärtige Tendenzen und Probleme, 14.


See Schnelle, “Architekt und Organisator,” 1.


Hans Peter Jacobi, “Über die (für uns zufällig deutsch) Sprache,” Team Brief 17 (25 June 1964), 48. Also see Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002); Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (New York: Zone Books, 2012).


Wolfgang Schnelle, quoted in Walter A. Kleinschrod, “The Case for ‘Office Landscape’: Controversial Ideas Underlie This Planning Concept from Europe,” Administrative Management 27, no. 10 (Oct. 1966), 19.


In standard written German, this passage translates as: “Das Buch ist für vorurteilsfreie Leser gedacht, die bereit sind, zu lernen und umzulernen. Lassen Sie nicht durch die Muhe beim Lesen der ersten Zeilen von der Lektüre des gesamten Bandes abhalten!” Kurd Alsleben et al., Sprache und Schrift im Zeitalter der Kybernetik (Quickborn: Verlag Schnelle, 1963), 6.


Reinhard Mohn, “Erfahrungsbericht über die Arbeit eines Geschäftsführers im Großraum,” 23 Nov. 1964, 0041/76, Archives of Bertelsmann AG.


Kurd Alsleben, Alle Umwelteinflüsse (Farbe) im Büroraum: Barmstedter Hefte 3 (Barmstedt: Velox-Verlag Herbert Schnelle, 1958), 19–20. Similar acoustic strategies were subsequently elaborated in Cord Passow, Lärm und Schall im Büro (Praktische Probleme): Barmstedter Hefte 7 (Barmstedt: Velox-Verlag Herbert Schnelle, 1961). Lärm—a subjectively distracting commotion—is distinguished from the objectively defined Geräusch in Cord Passow, Lärm und Schall im Büro (Allgemeine Grundlagen): Barmstedter Hefte 4 (Barmstedt: Velox-Verlag Herbert Schnelle, 1959), 11.


Leo L. Beranek, “Criteria for Office Quieting Based on Questionnaire Rating Studies,” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 28, no. 5 (Sept. 1956), 846. See also Leo L. Beranek, Music, Acoustics and Architecture (New York: John Wiley, 1962).


As an audio engineer wrote in 1929: “Many acoustical problems can be translated into problems concerning electrical networks, and as there exists a great body of knowledge of such networks, the problem is often solved in the act of translation.” W. H. Eccles, “The New Acoustics,” Proceedings of the Physical Society 41, no. 4 (15 June 1929), 233.


Ray and Charles Eames, A Communications Primer (1953), film, available online at (accessed 5 July 2023). See John Harwood, The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 44–45.


Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), 4.


Marshall McLuhan, “Communication Media: Makers of the Modern World” (transcript of an address at the Twelfth Annual Seminarians’ Conference, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, 29–31 Aug. 1959), in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, ed. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 33–34.


 Marshall McLuhan, “Making Contact with Marshall McLuhan,” interview by Louis Forsdale, 1974, quoted in Forward through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan, ed. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), 46.


 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 31.


  Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, 101–8; Bertram M. Gross, The Managing of Organizations, vol. 2 (New York: Free Press, 1964), 857–58; Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), 311–15.


Marshall McLuhan, “Inside the Five Sense Sensorium,” Canadian Architect 6, no. 6 (June 1961), 52, 54.


Robert Propst, The Office: A Facility Based on Change (Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1968), 37.


Propst, 18.


Schnelle, “Organisationskybernetik,” 2.


Propst, The Office, 14.


Propst, 20.


Propst, 48.


Alfred M. Mayer, “Researches in Acoustics,” London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 5th ser., 2, no. 14 (1876), 500–507.


Walter W. Soroka, “Noise Control in Office Buildings,” Noise Control, July 1957, 45.


Francis Duffy, “Skill: Bürolandschaft,” Architectural Review, Feb. 1964, 152.


Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 92–127.


“The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” The Nation’s Business, April 1969, 61.


James Francis Cooke, “Music Brings New Joy to Life and Work,” Etude 64, no. 5 (May 1946), 245–46. Also see Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 81–87.


Mack Hagood, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019), 75–115.


“The Trouble with Open Offices,” Business Week, 7 Aug. 1978, 84.


R. A. Waller, “Office Acoustics—Effect of Background Noise,” Applied Acoustics 2, no. 2 (Apr. 1969), 129.


Robert Propst and Michael Wodka, The Action Office Acoustic Handbook: A Guide for the Open Plan Facility Manager, Planner and Designer (Zeeland, Mich.: Herman Miller, 1975), 24.


Herman Miller, “Systems Product Statement: The Action Office Acoustic Conditioner,” 1974, 27, Robert Propst Papers, Benson Ford Research Center, Dearborn, Michigan.


Joeri Bruyninckx, “Tuning the Office Sound Masking and the Architectonics of Office Work,” Sound Studies 9, no. 1 (2023), 66.


Richard Hamme and Don Huggins, “Acoustics in the Open Plan,” Office Design 6, no. 4 (1968), 25, 40.


Propst and Wodka, Action Office Acoustic Handbook, 14.


Robert Propst to Lyman Blackwell, 25 Mar. 1963, Robert Propst Papers, Benson Ford Research Center, Dearborn, Michigan.


Beranek, Music, Acoustics and Architecture, 43, 61–71.


Beranek, 404.


Leo L. Beranek, “Introduction,” in Noise and Vibration Control, ed. Leo L. Beranek (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), x.


“Office Landscape: Interior Design Data,” Progressive Architecture, Sept. 1964, 203. Also see Kurd Alsleben, “Die Bürolandschaft und ihre subjektiven Räume,” Kommunikation, Nov. 1965, 75–82.


On the energy crisis and subsequent moves to make open-plan offices more energy efficient—and less comfortable for users—see Kaufmann-Buhler, Open Plan, 60.


John F. Pile, “The Open Office: Does It Work?,” Progressive Architecture, June 1977, 77.


Francis Duffy, “Bürolandschaft ’58–’78,” Architectural Review, 1 Jan. 1979, A54–58.


Frank Ibold, “The Development of the Metaplan Consulting Firm and Its Approach,” in A Discursive Approach to Organizational and Strategy Consulting, by Wolfgang Schnelle, trans. Philip Schmitz (Quickborn: Metaplan, 2008), 92.


Mario Savio, “Speech at the Sit-In, Sproul Hall, 30 September 1964,” in The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings That Changed America, ed. Robert Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 114.


Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 118. Also see Jürgen Habermas, “Praktische Folgen des wissenschaftlich-technischen Fortschritts” (1968), in Theorie und Praxis: Sozialphilosophische Studien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978), 336–58.


Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), 17.


Stephan Petermann, “Gütersloh Ice Core Drilling,” Perspecta 48 (2015), 210–19.


Michael Bull, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience (London: Routledge, 2007), 108.


Schafer, Soundscape, 146. Muzak used the term this way in the early 1970s; see advertisement for Muzak, Business Week, 21 Apr. 1973, 46. For a Schaferian critique that addresses office masking more specifically, see Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1984), 23.


Schafer, Soundscape, 96, 224.


Schafer, 237, 238, 216.


Marie Thompson, Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 87–126; Jonathan Sterne, “Multimodal Scholarship in World Soundscape Project Composition: Toward a Different Media-Theoretical Legacy (Or: The WSP as OG DH),” in Sound, Media, Ecology, ed. Milena Droumeva and Randolph Jordan (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019), 88.


Paul Hegarty, Annihilating Noise (New York: Bloomsbury, 2021), 241.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “R. B. G.’s Advice for Living,” New York Times, 2 Oct. 2016, SR4, (accessed 5 July 2023).