Noise and Information in the Office (Joseph L. Clarke)

March 1, 2024 | 1:08:48

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Ever wonder who’s to blame for the noise and distraction of the open office? Our guest has answers.

Joseph L. Clarke is a historian of art and architecture and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. His 2021 book Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space won a 2022 CHOICE Award for Outstanding Academic Title. It’s a fascinating history of how architects have conceived of and manipulated the relationship between sound and space. His most recent publication is “Too Much Information: Noise and Communication in an Open Office.” 

In this episode we’ll talk about media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his architecturally inspired theory of acoustic space, which went on to have its own influence in the field of architecture. We’ll also dive deep into the history of the open plan office, the theories of acoustic communication that inspired it, the sonic disaster it became, and the new media technologies that were invented in response. If you’ve ever been driven to distraction by noise in a cubicle farm or open office and wondered how such a space came to be, this episode’s got answers!

For our Patrons, we have another half hour of our interview, in which we cover the full history of architectural acoustics going back to the ancients and all the way up to the computer models of today. It’s really fascinating. You’ll also hear Joseph’s “What’s Good” segment, which is one of the best ever—some really unexpected selections for something good to read, listen to, and do. To join, go to


Mack Hagood: All right, Joseph. Welcome to the show.

Joseph L. Clarke: Thanks Mack.

Mack Hagood: So you were just just telling me before that you are in Paris right now, in like some kind of 17th century building. Is that correct?

Joseph L. Clarke: Oh yes. The building where I’m staying, it’s in the center of Paris. You know, all the buildings around me are kind of from the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. So it’s a somewhat primitive space, but a very charming one.

Mack Hagood: That sounds amazing. You really know how to do a research leave. What are you doing in Paris?

Joseph L. Clarke: You know, I’m following up on some of the research that I did for my book. My book came out a few years ago, but I’m still trying to trace down some, some of the loose threads. I’m also just really interested in the conversations and the discourse around sound and space in France in relation to the conversations that we have in North America.

I teach at the University of Toronto. This was, of course, the home of Marshall McLuhan, back in the fifties and sixties. Who came up with the idea of kind of popularizing the idea of acoustic space. Canada was also the home of people like R. Murray Schafer who you did a program on the podcast.

So there’s a lot of interesting discussions in Canada around sound and the spatial environment. But in France, there’s a very long standing tradition of  experimental music, sound art, the musique concrète  Pierre Shaeffer in the 1940s. Still today a lot of research and experimental music.

In the French academia, there’s this tradition of the history of sensibilities. And I’m thinking about a writer like Alain Corbin who’s written a number of books and essays, wonderful scholarship about the history of the sense of hearing and kind of its relationship to the city, to the landscape, to the physical environment in one form or another.

There are a lot of interesting conversations to be had between the kinds of research that are going on right now in France around sound and the physical environment and the way we think about these concepts in North America.

Mack Hagood: Oh yeah,  absolutely wanna dig into that intellectual history in North America of the idea of acoustic space. Because I just think that’s a really fascinating dimension of your work. But maybe before we do that, could you tell us a little bit about your background? You know, how did you get into this interest in the sonic dimension of architecture?

Joseph L. Clarke: Sure. So my background, , professionally is as an architect. I went to architecture school and then decided that I really was interested in the history of architecture and kind of found my way into where I currently am. I teach in a department of art history. But I think my interest in sound and space really goes back to when I was growing up.

I grew up in the Midwest, near Cincinnati. I sang in choirs, I sang in a choir at school, in a church choir. I was always interested in music and when I got to architecture school, I was actually really interested in how many of my classmates also had some kind of music in their background.

And it, it seemed to me like, I don’t know, there was some part of the brain that architects, architecture appeals to, music also appeals to some kind of combination of art and, and math. But at the same time, I realized as I went through architecture school, that the way that we are taught, we were taught to design buildings, was almost entirely visual.

And we were told to design through drawings, through images. And really didn’t get a lot of guidance in thinking about the sonic environment of spaces that we were designing and inhabiting. And we all know that actually sound is an incredibly important part of the architectural environment. But somehow it’s kind for architects, it’s a kind of a blind spot or maybe deaf spot.

We don’t really have a lot of tools within the kind of disciplinary framework that architects use to design the auditory environment of buildings in an intentional way.

Mack Hagood: You know a couple of things come to mind there. One, when I was just going through the Rolodex of architects I know, and I think all the ones I’m thinking of do play music. So that’s an interesting thing there. 

Joseph L. Clarke: Isn’t it weird? Yeah. 

Mack Hagood: But, I wanna return to something that you said earlier, and I want to maybe dive a little deeper into it. Which is the idea of acoustic space, thinking about sound spatially. This is something near and dear to my heart because of my own research and for me, I started thinking about sound spatially because of an experience I had when I lived in Taiwan many, many years ago.

In the early, mid-nineties I was sort of collecting these chanting Buddha machines. So the Pure Land Buddhists little like transistor radio looking things that would have certain kinds of mantras that would loop on these devices. And you could sort of generate karmic merit by playing these things, but also. It did something to the space you were inhabiting, right?

Like it made people feel peaceful at ease, so on and so forth. And so when I, you know, I just started these things because they were fascinating to me. I’d never seen anything like this. And then much, much later when I was in grad school I was reading Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Lefebvre talks about space, not as just some kind of emptiness, but like a co-production of our mental ideas about space.

Our social enactment of space, so to speak, and the material dimensions of space. And that those three things together create the spaces we inhabit. And, and that to spaces, not just material, it’s also representational.

And it’s social. And when I read that, it brought me back to those Buddha machines that I collected, right? I was thinking, oh yes, those technologies are using sound in a way that’s social, but it’s also spatial. It’s creating a certain kind of space that a person can inhabit. And that’s really what set me off on all my research into white noise and noise canceling headphones and so forth, was thinking about how we could construct a particular lived space through sound. And then it was only through that interest that I learned about things like R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape and other people who were thinking about sound spatially. And I started reading that literature. Not that there was a ton of it, but there was some stuff.

What I love about your book is, the full title is Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space and, it’s giving us this cultural history of the idea of acoustic space. And actually this idea, at least in that terminology “acoustic space” is very recent vintage, right? Like, this is Marshall McLuhan. And it is also architecture’s influence on Marshall McLuhan. So I’m wondering if maybe you can talk about how McLuhan put this on the map and how it influenced people like R. Murray Schafer, who is gonna be familiar to our listeners.

Joseph L. Clarke: Sure. What a great question. And I mean, that’s so fascinating about the Buddha and your Taiwan story. I just wanted to pick up also on when you brought up Lefebvre’s The Production of Space which is great.

And I just wanted to add that architecture is such an important part of that and Lefebvre talks about the role of architecture in producing space. So, I think it’s so important to think of space not just as a kind of neutral container that’s already there that we just fill with stuff.

But, the space as it’s lived in and as we understand it and occupy it socially is actually produced by us. And by, as you say, by the kind of material world including architecture and the role of architecture in articulating space. And thereby, we might say creating space as a phenomenal reality is one that has been much discussed by architects for many, many years. There was a German architectural theorist named, um, August Schmarsow at the end of the 19th century who made this argument that the ultimate function, the kind of highest function of architecture, was the creation of space.

And this was a really important idea for the early 20th century modernists at the Baaus for architects like Le Corbusier. The idea of actually using architecture to produce a kind of space was absolutely central, which is why I leave out the sonic dimension and we think about architecture purely in terms of a visual construction.

Then we end up with a really impoverished idea of space that is limited to only one of our senses and leaves out the incredibly rich and clearly very important dimension of sound.

Now, your question was about McLuhan. Yes, it’s, so, it’s really interesting. It was McLuhan who taught at the University of Toronto where I teach now. I actually had a number of colleagues involved with architecture and architectural history. One of his colleagues at the university was named Jaqueline Tywhritt who was actually an urban planner and was connected with a group called the CIAM, or the C.I.A.M.

It’s the Congres International D’architecture Moderne, which was kind of a group of networks for architects from all over the world who were broadly aligned with the modernist movement, with the international style of architecture and urban design and would share their ideas. And so this woman Tywhritt was the conduit for McLuhan to really be influenced by all of these ideas of modern architects.

And particularly the, the most important influence on him was an architectural historian named Siegfried Gideon. So he was a Swiss historian who wrote one of the earliest histories of architectural modernism, really as it was happening in the 1920s as European architects were beginning to design these radical new kinds of buildings.

Gideon was writing a book sort of in real time, chronicling these developments. And again, really theorizing this idea of architecture as the construction of space. And so McLuhan discovered Gideon’s writing and was deeply influenced by it, deeply moved by it. He wrote later on in his life about how radical he found Gideon’s historical writing.

He invited Gideon to come. He came to Toronto and participated in McLuhan’s seminar on culture and communication. And this was the context where the phrase “acoustic space” was born. I mean McLuhan wasn’t actually the first person to use this term. You can find earlier examples back in the 19th century of people using the words, acoustic space.

But really it was McLuhan who seized on this expression and said, “Yes, this is the key to putting together all of my ideas about media and sound and literature and space, this kind of physical environment.” And so he took up this “phrase acoustic” space and began to repeat it over and over again in his writings in the late fifties and in the 1960s.

It comes up over and over again.

Mack Hagood: What did he mean by it?

Joseph L. Clarke: He never really defines it, or at least he never sticks to a single consistent definition of it. So, McLuhan as anybody who’s read, Marshall McLuhan knows I mean, he’s, he’s an absolutely inspiring writer. It’s a lot of fun to read his writing. But when you actually try to pin down what he is really saying?

What is actually the argument? So you can test it and see whether or not it makes sense. He’s actually very slippery and he’s much better, I think, for kind of sparking an idea. It’s an incredibly rich and creative way of writing that is not really easy to pin down to a specific definition.

Mack Hagood: You can see how an idea like acoustic space is generative of ideas like “media as the extension man,” one of his, one of his concepts, right? Like the idea, we are bodies in space and that our communications media are ways of extending the body. Our technologies are ways of extending the body.

Then of course he has this problematic way of historicizing our means of communication and extending our bodies based on these different eras that allegedly happened that you referred to earlier. I mean, one of the critiques that you and others have made is that, even though this is a provocative idea, and like you it could be very good to think with, it also prevents us from thinking about the interplay of senses in a given era, right?

Joseph L. Clarke: And that interplay is often the most interesting thing. Yeah, I mean, McLuhan is both a wonderful writer and, and also a frustrating one at times. I mean, sometimes I read McLuhan and I think, “Well, he’s almost exactly right. But not quite.” Actually, for me, his historical framework is useful.

It’s useful that he made that argument because at the time he made it, nobody had put forward anything like that before. And it was incredibly perceptive in picking up on some of these historical changes. But that argument having been made and set out, then we can come along and see that in fact it needs a considerable amount of refinement, let’s say, in order to account for all of the  actually more interesting overlaps and ambiguities and the ways that these things come into a more interesting kind of dialogue.

And in some ways I think McLuhan himself was really interested in those kinds of ambiguities as well. And the very phrase, acoustic space. One reason why McLuhan’s phrase acoustic space is interesting to me is because it combines. Two words, which might have been thought to, to not have so much to do with one another.

There’s an older intellectual tradition, which I guess we could trace back to Hagel or even considerably earlier, that music is an art of time and visual arts, in which architecture is grouped, has to do with space. And so when we talk about sound, we should really be focusing on the temporal dimension as opposed to the spatial. 

So the phrase acoustic space is immediately interesting because it refutes this whole presupposition and suggests that in fact, sound does occupy space and can articulate and, even in a way, construct a certain kind of space.

And clearly that was part of the appeal for McLuhan. So in a way I think although we can point to some of the limitations of McLuhan’s historical categories, I’m sure he too would be the first to acknowledge that way of thinking can be too limiting.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, and it’s so in keeping with his idea that the medium is the message that the media technologies that were available at that time. I think it just makes the notion of acoustic space more available to the mind, right? Like my story about Taiwan. I kind of came to this sensibility about acoustic space. Through my exposure to the Walkman and to this Buddha machine creating this certain kind of spatial…I heard its sound, and I started wandering through some alleys to try to track down where this sound was coming from, right? Like, it was a very spatial experience and there’s about the way we inhabit, a world of mediated sound. That makes the idea of the sensibility of acoustic space just readily available to us in ways that perhaps it really wasn’t in earlier eras.

Joseph L. Clarke: Yes. Or in different ways. It may have been available in different ways in other eras as you’re describing this vignette from Taiwan. So I’m sitting here in Paris, and it was exactly 6 p.m. and so as you were speaking, you probably couldn’t hear it on the recording, but a church bell just down the street started ringing.

And, anybody who’s spent time in one of these old European cities knows that when, when the church bells start going they can actually be incredibly loud when you’re up close to them, and then the way the sound of the bells reverberates down a narrow street of stone buildings can be extremely intense and a very spatial experience of sound.

And then, another church bell, a few blocks away, also starts going and you can almost hear the distance between the two structures. So yes, the idea that acoustic space is in some ways a product of our media environment is absolutely true and we have to remember that people who lived, you know, 300 years ago or however many years ago had their own kind of media environment that had its own acoustic properties that may be somewhat foreign to us today.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. Fair enough. Absolutely. Now that we’ve discussed McLuhan and his concept of acoustic space, maybe we can segue into talking about open plan offices because it turns out McLuhan is sort of a player in that narrative as well. You recently wrote this article “Too Much Information: Noise and Communication in an Open Office.” And I was thrilled to read this because when we first met, I was telling you, we met in Toronto at a writer’s workshop. And I was telling you about the book project I’m working on and one of the chapters, it’s probably the least researched chapter that I want to do is think about the role of offices, especially open plan offices in people’s adoption of things like white noise machines and noise canceling headphones because, you know, quite often when we’re thinking about what kinds of pressures cause people to use these technologies, you know, and I ask people one of the big villains is the acoustic disaster zone of an open plan office. And yet as you point out the people who originally designed this kind of space were thinking about acoustic communication.

It’s not like they didn’t think about sound. They thought a lot about sound. So maybe you can sort of walk us through the early history of the open plan office. What were people trying to accomplish? You know, where does this concept come from?

Joseph L. Clarke: Open plan offices started to become really popular in the 20th century especially around the mid 20th century for, fundamentally because of money, because it was cheaper to build one big open space and put a bunch of office workers in it. All sharing the same environment, rather than building a bunch of separate offices separated by walls and with a kind of corridor connecting them.

This became possible with the advance of steel and reinforced concrete construction, so you could have big wide open spaces in buildings. Fluorescent lighting, air, modern air conditioning technology, all made it more possible and more appealing to construct these kinds of vast open spaces.

But beyond the simple, budgetary rationale that it was cheaper. There was also an argument that people could work better especially in the kinds of knowledge professions where people needed to communicate with one another as part of their jobs. It was better to do it in a big open space because it allowed for the kind of free flow of ideas.

Co-workers could just talk to each other directly, rather than always having to walk down the hall and see if somebody else knocked on the door and see if they were in their office. So for a lot of businesses And this sort of goes along with the rise of the knowledge economy that we kind of often talk about in the post-World War II period.

A lot of corporations started turning to these big open plans, thinking that it would improve the way that people work. And of course, as you can imagine, sound and the acoustic environment is entangled in this idea in so many ways.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. And, one of the points that you make that I really enjoyed was, seeing this transition from pre World War II thinking about the office as a machine to after World War II starting to think of the office as a computer. And that the circulation of information verbally between people. 

In this knowledge work, you know, the milieu becomes sort of like the definition of what is being done in an office like that. That source starts to be the conception of what we’re actually doing. When we’re in an office we are circulating information. And so it would make sense to sort of reduce those physical barriers to our verbal communication with one another because we’re all really just nodes in a network of information. Right? We’re just one big brain and you wouldn’t want to divide your brain with a bunch of walls, right?

You want the brain to be whole.

Joseph L. Clarke: Exactly. We’re one giant brain. And this idea really reflects the rise of cybernetics in the postwar period. This incredibly fashionable, interdisciplinary way of thinking about communication and control systems in anything from an actual digital computer to a whole society and kind of how it works.

But a very influential field in The study of management and business in the post war period and so very influential on the design of offices.

Mack Hagood: And can you tell us a little bit about the German roots of the open plan? Because, this was something that I wasn’t really aware of until I started reading your work.

Joseph L. Clarke: Yeah, I’m actually, I see the history of open plan offices as a kind of essentially, American and German designers and executives. So some really crucial steps happened in Germany. Of course if we think about the history of modern architecture in Germany, the Bauhaus architects like Walter Gropius were incredibly important in promoting taking industrial means of making buildings and developing a kind of aesthetic style for them and really, developing design methods and selling these to the public.

To make big, modern steel and glass and concrete buildings, um, stylish and, to give them a kind of aesthetic sensibility.

So the open plan was an incredibly important part of that the building of the Bauhaus, which was designed by the architect Walter Gropius in the 1920s had a big, essentially open plan workshop studio space so if you think about hundreds of design students in the 1920s went to school and learned how design ina giant open plan space, so it was an incredible tool for the kind of propagation of this idea of modern architecture.

So in the post World War II period the Germans, especially in West Germany, were really interested in open plan office design. And, of course, West Germany at this period had a very direct dialogue with the United States. There was a lot of Marshall Plan money flowing into West Germany to kind of support the economic rebuilding.

And so a lot of German companies were adopting models of American business. and also a lot of German ideas were finding their way into North America as well. So I’m interested in this kind of dialogue between the two countries and, and how it shaped the design of workplaces.

Mack Hagood: You, talked about the, um, I don’t remember how it’s said in German, but it was the idea of the landscape offfice–

Joseph L. Clarke: Yeah, yes, it’s a, yes, it’s one of these wonderful German words that’s just, taking a bunch of words and putting them together. It’s Um, so this is what a term that a couple of offices, actually, they were kind of office consultants, came up with around 1960. They were, two brothers named, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schneller, and they, companies would hire them not just to, redesign their physical environment, that was part of it, but really to rethink the whole way that the, that the office would be organized, rethink the work processes, and so they became incredibly influential consultants.

And they invented a kind of model of the office that they called the Bürolandschaft, or landscape office. Which would be a huge, completely open interior space, and these were, much larger, building floor plates than had been customary in office buildings up until this time. So, again, it’s really these new technologies like fluorescent lighting and air conditioning that make this possible.

Um, but it was very important for them that the space be completely open so that co-workers could have this direct exchange with one another. And it was a, you know, a somewhat utopian idea that more communication is always better. And for, for those of us who actually have experience, working in open offices, you might think you know, you’re banging  your head against the wall when you hear that because because we all can think of the, the aggravations and annoyances that come from, having too much communication with our coworkers.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, and that is so fascinating to me because as someone who has worked in an open office and had that kind of frustration and just felt like, Oh, this is just a cheaper way, you know, to toss us all into one big room and they don’t care what our experiences are. It was fascinating for me to learn about how these Schneller brothers were really thinking that this kind of cybernetic approach to the office would actually flatten the hierarchies of the office, and that it was actually this kind of liberatory idea that you would have this, you know, agile workforce where workers had more autonomy and could collaborate and work in teams and all of this very familiar type stuff today that it was a really kind of a democratic way of thinking about the office, um, which is so different from the lived experience of being a worker drone in an open plan office.

It’s just kind of fascinating to me.

Joseph L. Clarke: Yeah, in studying this history, I mean, I just go back and forth between seeing their ideas as incredibly altruistic and incredibly dystopian. And somehow these two things coexist at the exact same time but at the time, in the 1960s, this was seen as an incredibly progressive and democratic way of making offices in some of these new corporate headquarters that they designed, even the early 1970s.

Executives, even the CEOs, wouldn’t necessarily spend all their time in a private office, but sometimes would actually be out there in the open space along with their employees. So it was meant to kind of reduce some of the hierarchies and, and to reduce some of the gender hierarchies as well.

So people would have thought of, you know, the women are the secretaries or the typists and they’re kind of in the open spaces and then the men have to have private offices, and so breaking down some of these hierarchies, was seen as an incredibly progressive development, but it also brought its share of acoustic frustrations because now you could hear everything going on around you.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. And, this was really interesting to me because it’s, you know, one of those sad cases of unintended consequences, and this model of communication that, you know, cybernetics, has things like Claude Shannon’s, 1948 essay, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” right? Where you’re trying to maximize the signal and minimize the noise to enhance communication, theories like this could sort of have unintended consequences when it came to architectural acoustics because people were sort of trying to apply that kind of theory and the way that they tended to do it was to think about echoes and reflections of sound, things that muddied the sound as being the noise that you wanted to reduce so that you can get a nice clear signal.

And this is what we do with recording studios and audiophile listening rooms as we deaden the space so that we can hear the signal more clearly, but in an open plan office, that can actually be counterproductive. Can you maybe talk a little bit about that?

Joseph L. Clarke: Sure. We all know how distracting it can be when you’re trying to read, or write, or concentrate to hear the sound. For example, let’s say you have a co-worker who’s talking on the phone, and you’re hearing one, so you’re hearing one side of the phone conversation, and, I mean, it can, it can be the most annoying thing in the world, right?

So there was a great effort. There was a real push around the mid 20th century to make offices quieter and eliminate noise. And this is how it was conceptualized. And architects had a kind of repertoire of techniques, for doing that because a lot of their experiences with acoustics were in buildings like concert halls and theaters and spaces where you actually did want to eliminate extraneous noises so that the only thing you could hear was the, performance that you were there to listen to.

The problem is that they found that in offices, the quieter they made them. The more people complained about noise and that it seemed counterintuitive. But actually if anybody who’s like me who sometimes likes to work in Starbucks or work in a coffee shop or a place where there’s a little bit of background kind of hum of people coming and going and talking, we’ll recognize that this kind of background noise can sometimes actually be very conducive to work among other things because it has a masking effect.

So, the problem of distracting sound is not actually noise per se. If you define noise as an unintelligible sound. That unintelligible sound could be good, because the problem is the intelligible sound. The problem is when you can hear noises that you recognize, and this is the thing that really interferes with your concentration.

So there seems to have been a kind of paradigm shift around the 1960s in thinking about noise and moving away from that earlier paradigm of noise reduction and just wanting to, to quiet everything, and instead actually embracing noise at least in limited amounts, um, in always in carefully controlled ways but for its masking abilities.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. And this, as you say, in this 1960s period, it’s interesting because we go from lionizing the transmission of information in this kind of cybernetic model to starting to worry about something called information overload, right?

Where people start to worry, “Wait, wait a minute, maybe there’s too much communication.” Maybe there’s too much information and it’s interesting that information overloads you. mention used to be kind of something that scientists worried about, like keeping up with the literature, which I think any of us can relate to as scholars, right? That form of information overload, but it kind of came into common parlance as just a way to think about this, this, bombardment of media.

And McLuhan seemed to have an idea. And again, this is something I was not familiar with until I read your work that maybe architecture could Be a means of helping us I don’t know mold is in such a way that we could handle the amount of information that that we’re downloading at any given moment

Joseph L. Clarke: Yeah no, it’s really interesting How McLuhan fits in with the kind of anxiety about information overload and McLuhan also writes about kind of the new, all of the new media technologies and, challenging kind of our sensory balance and getting our senses out of balance in some way and so his argument was that humans needed to find ways of adapting to this new media environment these new kinds of communication and architecture was one among many means of facilitating that adaptation.

So he actually wrote a number of articles for architectural journals and magazines. He wrote an article in the magazine Canadian Architect arguing that architects needed to be very aware of all of these changes in communication technology and media and to be really keyed into them because the special vocation of architecture, he thought was to help architecture and really all of the arts was to train people’s sensoria to be able to deal with the new media reality that we’re living in.

And I think information overload was very much part of that. And, certainly a way of thinking through that experience of being in a big open plan office where you can hear. Fragments of people’s conversations and phone calls and all kinds of sounds of business going on around you.

And you have to find a way, psychologically, of somehow dealing with that and insulating yourself from that. And this idea of sonic masking became really important and really comes to the foreground in this period and actually, your own work, Mack on the history of white noise and the rise of white noise.

The kind of personal use of white noise machines is also contemporaneous with this, and I think very much in dialogue with it. And as someone who uses a Marpac to sleep, and I can’t sleep without some kind of white noise I completely identify with this technology and with the necessity of having some kind of masking to be able to just deal with this overload of sound.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I mean my book Hush I talk about how the invention of the sort of sound conditioner as they called it at Marpac was invented basically for domestic use and for helping people sleep. But they found that so many people were bringing these into the office that people were dissatisfied with the branding.

There was a little badge on the top of the machine that said sleepmate. And people didn’t feel like that was professional enough. So they created a second brand. It was the absolutely identical technology, but they called it the sound screen so that you wouldn’t have to be embarrassed about having a sleepmate in your office.

And so, these became, you know, part of what we might say the tactics of people who inhabited the open plan office to mitigate the noise problem, but. What your work speaks to and, you know, what I’m so excited about learning more on is there were also these more centralized approaches to using noise to mitigate the noise problem.

And so this is where we get into Herman Miller and the Action Office. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

Joseph L. Clarke: Absolutely. Herman Miller, the furniture company, is incredibly important in this story. Herman Miller, created the line of office furniture that they call the action office that is often seen as the forerunner of the modern cubicle, essentially up until that point, Herman Miller was primarily a residential furniture company, and they kind of found their way into , selling office furniture as well.

And then this action office concept really took off and seemed to just catch the, the kind of zeitgeist just as American businessmen were starting to discover the Bürolandschaft, that German kind of experimental open office idea. Herman Miller comes along and offers a set of a whole line of furniture, so desks, shelving units, partitions that are perfectly designed to furnish a large open office space like this.

And it was this kind of off the shelf product. You could buy it and configure your own, um, landscape style office. So. These products and these office designs really took off in the U.S. And, of course, this exactly coincided with the anxiety around information overload. And so very quickly, Herman Miller.

And, one of their chief designers, Robert Probst who was an inventor who worked at Herman Miller and was kind of trying to think through a lot of these problems they realized that they had to do something about acoustics. And so they actually, Herman Miller did release its own white noise generator it was called the Action Office Acoustic Conditioner.

And so it was this little object that could be adjusted and tuned, um, you could, you could change the frequency of the sound and adjust some other, , , sound qualities to be able to mask sound, of any particular type that you might encounter throughout the office. So, for example, if you needed to mask the sound of somebody on a typewriter, you could set the frequency for that.

If it was more, the problem was more people talking. You could adjust it. And as time went on, and as they continued to sell their action office line, more and more , the advice that they were giving companies for how to configure their offices was designed around , or was organized around mitigating these kind of acoustic problems, and so they would even encourage companies to, , lay out The workers in the office based on the sound levels that they would produce.

And so, for example, where in an earlier open office, you would cluster all of the typists into one typing pool, and then you would have the people who needed more , a quieter environment, you would sort of segregate them. Now, the advice was actually the opposite, that instead, you should distribute the typists evenly throughout the office, so that their typing would just create a kind of low level background noise that would mask other kinds of noise and then would allow people to concentrate.

So it’s interesting the way you can actually trace this history of thinking about sound and noise and acoustics in the evolving office layouts over the decades.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, that’s just fascinating that we’re still using the same kind of space, but it becomes all about how we use noise to limit the amount of information that can travel through this space, it’s in the principles of masking.

One question that I have is this idea of the electro… First of all, do you know what the Herman Miller device is? Was it also electromechanical or was it electronic? Was it playing, um, a recording or did it have a fan on the inside? Like, like the, um, the Marpac device.

Joseph L. Clarke: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, that’s one thing that I want to dig into.

And, also I’m really interested in sort of tracing the patents around that machine, because I feel like. Even though there was, there were experiments going on with somebody like Leo Beranek, at MIT, on the principles of masking since World War II I still kind of feel like Marpac got there first in terms of a product. And I’m a little surprised how that got such a big uptake in the office world and Marpac never profited from that. And so I just don’t know if they missed an opportunity for a lawsuit or if–

Joseph L. Clarke: It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it? Yeah.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I don’t know.

Joseph L. Clarke: Um, that’s a great question, and I think that, yeah, it would be really fascinating to dig in and research that. I just wanted to mention a funny story while we’re on the subject. So one reason why these Acoustic masking concerns really, really started to become intense in the 1970s in open offices is actually because of the improvement of air conditioning and, and ventilation technology.

So, HVAC, as we call it in architecture–heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems–were becoming quieter and where before you would be sitting and you would always hear this kind of hum of the fan running, blowing air, they became much quieter. And this was another case of it being marketed as an improvement.

Oh, it’s much quieter. But for people working in offices, it actually made things worse because suddenly now you instead of that, that nice, just steady home, you could hear. Everything is going on around you. And so this was one of the catalysts actually for introducing white noise, artificial white noise systems, in offices to replace that lost air conditioning sound.

But for many office workers, they still had the association in their mind, they thought this sound was coming from the air conditioner. And so there’s one story of an office where The white noise generator broke down, and suddenly, people were having trouble working and they all complained that they were suddenly feeling hot because the air conditioner stopped working, which was totally not true.

The air conditioner was fine but they subjectively felt like something was wrong , because they couldn’t hear the noise anymore. So eventually, the company had to let everybody go home for the day , because everybody was complaining about the heat.

Mack Hagood: Oh, yeah, that’s, that’s really hilarious. It speaks to that, you know, Marpac got the, the, the term that they use, the sound conditioner from air conditioning, you know, like that they, they were very familiar with that sort of. sound of the air conditioner. And in fact, the story goes that they came up with the idea for the sound conditioner when the owners, the couple named the Buckwalters, were at a roadside motel and the air conditioner broke down and suddenly they could hear the noise.

Coming from the room next door and that they were kept awake all night because the air conditioner broke So that’s where they got the concept.

Joseph L. Clarke: Such a great story. I love that.

Mack Hagood: So today We are in a new era in which people communicate through computers. We’re no longer just emulating a computer Arranging an office to be a giant brain. We’re all , you know synapses on the web, so to speak. And so how has that affected the contemporary office? You know, obviously we’re in a post COVID moment where people are wondering if office space is still even necessary.

When it comes to architectural acoustics and noise and the, in the office what’s the story today?

Joseph L. Clarke: You know it’s a good question, and I can’t, provide a very satisfying answer, because I’m a historian, so I deal with the past and not the future, and not really even the present, but I can say that computers started or desktop computers really started to proliferate in offices in the 1980s.

And they really did have a profound effect on the way offices were designed. So we, this is sort of when the Bürolandschaft landscape office idea really begins to decline. And, in fact, there are examples of these. Former open office is being converted in the 80s into more compartmentalized offices or sometimes into just, the kind of grids of cubicles that, we’re all familiar with, the sort of dystopian cubicle farm, so it seems to me that with the introduction of networked desktop computers, this earlier metaphor, like you were saying, of the, the office as a giant brain, in a way doesn’t make sense anymore. Because now the communication nodes are computers, rather than ourselves physically present together in a giant open workspace.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that open offices have gone away, and at least, or at least, up until the onset of the pandemic, were still, quite popular but some of that utopian idea that an open office will improve communication, will make it possible for us, for the kind of ideas and knowledge to flow freely between coworkers seems to have lost some of its persuasive power as far as the future and of offices after the pandemic.

You know, it’s really hard to say. Of course, it’s true that computer platforms like Zoom or Teams or some of these other systems are really trying to give physical offices a run for their money. And, the dream is that online platforms would be able to just completely replace physical spaces where co workers would gather together and work together.

As for me, as somebody trained in architecture I hope that doesn’t happen. I would still make the argument in favor of the office, although the history of office design certainly has its share of dystopian examples. I guess part of me at heart, I still believe in the value of having physical environments where people come together and, and interact in person and, collaborate, on projects, together.

And, I think, of course, the sonic dimension of that is incredibly important to be with other people in a shared acoustic environment. So, but I do think it will be a challenge for, office designers as well as for, for companies to make that case, for what kind of value a physical shared office brings in a world where as you say, we, we can communicate perfectly well or, or reasonably well through a, a digital network.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, it’s a very interesting tension at play right now. I mean, on the one hand, we have a lot of people post pandemic who are like, why should I come into the office at all? On the other hand, we’ve also seen the rise of co-working spaces where people who are digital nomads, so to speak. are feeling like they lack a sense of community and want a space where they can still be at least in proximity to others.

So it’s a very strange time for the office. Well, thank you so much for talking to me about all this. I’ve really been, over the past year, getting to know you and your work has been just a professional highlight for me because I think we have a lot of interests in common and I really appreciate the rigor that you’ve brought to your research on this interplay between sound and architecture.

Joseph L. Clarke: Well, the feeling is really mutual, Mack. Your work has been incredibly important and inspiring for me and, and I’ve really enjoyed the chance to talk to you today.

Mack Hagood: All right. Well, thank you so much.