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Uptown Towers: Obsolete

How the office revolution will transform Charlotte's showpiece

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All plans for Charlotte's future promote uptown, our main employment hub where 50,000 workers toil in towers. Charlotte's self-image is tied to these mighty, man-made stalagmites of corporate power that symbolize the city's place in national finance.

But a national seismic shift is occurring in the meaning and content of office work, one that will change radically the lives of the workers and the form of the buildings. It's not just about the office interior, or even the design of the building itself. This upheaval goes deeper: it will change American cities. Skyscrapers, our urban hallmark for over a century, are especially vulnerable to this revolution in the design and management of corporate real estate.

Could the unthinkable happen? Could Charlotte's towers go dark as the unforgiving pressures of business make them obsolete? Could the city survive this trauma? Are these forces of change so powerful that they could undo all the good work of the last decade to bring uptown back to life?

The answer is yes, unless we anticipate this change rather than merely respond to it. By then it will be too late. The leasing agents of the Hearst Tower, and other high-rise properties uptown may not know it, but they're dealing in dinosaurs.

The changes in office work in the next few decades will transform the city landscape as surely as the changes of the Industrial Revolution did 200 years ago. It's a complex story involving information technology, global competition, increasing energy costs, higher expectations by workers of their building environments, and fundamental changes to the concept of real estate, where time becomes more important than space.

This makes it an issue of the bottom line. And that's why this change is inevitable.

But that doesn't mean it's bad. We just have to figure out what's happening and why. Then we can act, be part of that change, and create a new city, a new uptown.

"All That Is Solid Melts Into Air"

Marx's poetic metaphor about social change in the 19th century industrial world still fits transformations in our post-industrial age, especially those having to do with firm phenomena like buildings and cities.

Years before September 11 altered forever the way we think of skyscrapers, an unprecedented convergence of global economics and information technology forced companies to rethink working methods and organizations in radical ways. Mundane tasks were outsourced to back offices in rural America, or in developing countries, all linked by the Internet. Information technology makes it possible to use time and space in new ways. In more and more ways, the workplace follows the sun.

For example, at the close of their working day, Charlotte architects email sketches to branch offices in India or China and have them back on their PCs the next morning, developed and rendered. By using time in this way, the offices use less space and save money. Good news for the firms, but bad news for the larger world of corporate real estate.

One man who knows more about this subject than most is Frank Duffy, an English architect, a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) an honor awarded by the Queen for his services to architecture. More specifically, he's an expert on office design with more than 20 years' experience worldwide.

In a recent book, The New Office, Duffy relates an epiphany which came to him some years ago, gazing over Dallas' skyscraper skyline. He'd been advising the senior partners of a large international corporation how they could use their office space more effectively; in their passionate pursuit of profits the partners wanted to reduce their occupancy costs, cutting rent, property taxes, service charges and energy bills. Duffy explained how the company could shrink its office space almost by half by using technology more effectively, and by reducing and reshaping its work areas to fit the new work patterns. In short, they could vacate a lot of space in the downtown towers of Dallas and other cities, saving big bucks in the process. The partners were ecstatic.

But Duffy's mind was troubled. Many of the glittering towers he was looking at were less than 10 years old -- and his expert advice was already making them obsolete. Not only that, these towering buildings, from which Dallas derived its identity, and from which Duffy had just eliminated a major tenant (and presumably, many more companies that would follow this cost-cutting example) were parts of his clients' pension fund portfolios. Suddenly, real estate didn't seem so real anymore.

Mr. Taylor Takes Charge

Today, more than 50 percent of North American employees work in offices, up from a mere five percent in 1900. But for most of the 20th century, office work was seen as dull; Kafka depicted the office as a nightmare. As the 20th century progressed, more and more people were required to process more and more information, usually in paper format, and often by means of tedious, repetitive clerical tasks.

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