EMBRACING THE MENTAL CUBICLE
Why the geometry of finite space calms and motivates us
I was in a Zoom meeting the other day when someone said she missed her office building.
I had a moment of mental sneering (yeah, right, like a toothache!) but then a few folks on the call heartily agreed with her. They started to wax reminiscent about the carpeting, the awards cabinet, even the stairwells (free exercise!). A senior leader asked if any of us had heard of prairie dogging. I hadn’t, but everyone else laughed. I learned that prairie dogging in an office context is when, sitting in our cubicles, we hear a strange sound and instinctively stand up and poke our heads above our upholstered metal walls. Once we either a) find the source or b) decide we don’t have time for this, we pop right back down to what we were doing. This was back when we were all in the office, of course. Now, if I hear something distracting, I hide in my home bedroom-converted-to-office until the family-induced crashing/whining/yelling goes away on its own. Kind of the opposite of prairie dogging. Ostrich head in the sanding, maybe? I was never good at pithy names.
But these sentimental feelings about our building stayed with me for hours after the meeting ended. What is it about a confining geometry that makes us feel good?
And what happens when it’s missing — a kind of homelessness for our thoughts? There’s a lot of research on why people build spaces and then spend time in them. Architects love this stuff. But beyond the need for shelter, there are reasons we like to work within the structure of four-square walls (or geodomes, or tents). We are predisposed to concoct some sort of geometrical shape to mull things over in, either alone or with others. Spaces create a sense of balance and placement, for our bodies and our thoughts. They echo our earliest memories of homework, sitting alone, working things out, a desk in a bedroom, or a spot in the kitchen corner, occupied long after the meal is done.
Ancient people created arenas to gather the multitudes and provide spectacle. But today, in a world gone home to work (for the most part), are we missing the spectacle of prairie dogging? I doubt it. I think we just like to box ourselves into a place that demands our undivided attention, forces us to face our demons, and allows us to collect our scattered thoughts. Mental or physical, we bring things to these places like offerings to an altar. We seek the proverbial slice of soil in which to concentrate our attention, both in the mental sense and in the physical, restricted sense. The building my colleague missed so much wasn’t just a tangible space.
It was something she could rely upon to move and inspire her, in community with others of like-mind. Her singular hexagonal cell inside the honeycomb of activity.
Do we see similar examples in nature? Beyond bees in a hive, there are many examples of effective co-working in the animal and insect kingdom. Recently, it’s been proposed that even trees work together in silent communion. Alone but together. Accountable to the one but also to the many. Buildings and cubicles are synonyms for individual struggle set against the backdrop of humanity. The large made small. The confinement of thoughts harnesses them, and the hive provides an opportunity to share. Possibly, the best ideas are fostered in a special space that’s ours alone, amidst the vastness.
Workspaces could be, in fact, the geometrical manifestation of something that only exists in our dreams. The parapets we build. Our castles in the air.
No wonder we miss them, regardless of the commute we once took to get there and the opposite one we took to fight our way home. The cubicle represents an expressed desire to create, with intention, that which would possibly outlive us. Our work. The expression of our best selves. Surrounded by papers, photos, and binder clips.
Without the confines of the walls, without the restriction of geometry, our thoughts can escape us like doves from a cage, before we’ve properly prepared them for flight.
Prophets have instructed us not to want buildings because when we gather together, we form a sort of human tabernacle. This is a soothing thought, and when my father passed many years ago and we needed a minyan to say Kaddish, I remember the rush of emotion my younger self had at the gathering of ten men, whose mere presence together, shoulder to shoulder, formed a geometrical shape — in this case, a circle — to pay homage to someone I loved. The structure rose up from nothing when they joined together. A human building, in the middle of which they held prayer books in their hands. Chanting the old words, we gathered together, remembering him, confirming the need for geometry to harness our thoughts and honor our dreams. It’s natural, it’s universal, and it works.