In most North American offices, the lunchroom, if there is one at all, is a windowless horror with a fridge and a microwave. According to MNN, only a third of Americans take a lunch break, and 65 percent of workers eat at their desks.
It's a very different scene in Scandinavia; in fact, it's law that there has to be a canteen, a place to have lunch. The Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta takes it to a whole new level. They build their office around the lunch table, which is a place to eat, a place to meet, and a place to work.
In August, I visited the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen, where Snøhetta built an exhibition about their office around a long photograph of their long table. Now Anthony Paletta writes about how it works for Metropolis, showing the photos taken for that exhibition. He writes in architectese:
Like an Italian piazza, the key to the lunchroom is the indeterminacy of its function and also the synergy it stimulates. The tables, depending on the hour, sprout varying topographies of models, renderings, charts, laptops, and foodstuffs. An orderly meal with uniform plates and cutlery punctuates the daily life of the Oslo tables; the American panoply of lunches spans a greater variety, from takeout to brown-bagged, and stretches across a longer span of hours.
Translated into English, that means they use the tables for lots of different functions, have a meal together in Oslo; but in America they eat lunch like Americans, grazing whatever and whenever out of feed bags. Which is a shame, because as Craig Dykers, principal and founder of Snøhetta notes, it's important to develop relationships within an office: "A lot of architects talk about creating more socially inviting formulas, and yet most of their offices, the way they’re set up, they aren’t at all social."
Architects' offices are very much a reflection of the personalities of the architects running them, which was why mine was made out of old doors on cheap IKEA trestles and was a complete mess. That's why I find this one so impressive and admirable, with so much space devoted to the table that serves so many functions but is primarily social, a place to get together. Because as Dykers notes, “If we don’t have a space like this to show them, how can we expect them to believe us?”
There is much to love about this, and much to learn from it. Above all, meals should be healthy, and meals should be enjoyed. This is very different from the tech companies that have food available all the time to encourage employees to never leave their desks. The phrase "turn the tables" comes from the medieval practice of dining on what were essentially boards on trestles, which were then turned, or removed so that the room could serve other functions. Snøhetta has turned the table on the conventional office lunchroom in a way that should be a model for others.