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The Agora in the Company

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Gunter Henn

Technical University of Dresden, as part of the “Agora and Void conference. Staging of the centre in architecture and town planning”, June 24, 2011

The term “agora” has similar meanings to “forum” or “plaza”. If the term describes buildings of state or local institutions, then as a rule it is accompanied by high expectations of “something social”, which is to happen there. In the private economy, these are usually retail buildings, which are brightened up and made attractive by public areas. “Agora” goes back as far as we can remember, or more precisely to the beginning of the archaic culture and the revival of Attic democracy almost 3000 years ago. The agora gave rise to the principle of synoecism, i.e. the merging of several independent villages and noble families (“oikoi”) into a town or “polis”. A similar amalgamation can be observed during the same period in respect of the Forum Romanum. It is characteristic of the polis that previously, independent “houses” or families entered into a new kind of association, without however, becoming merged.

The accompanying increase in social complexity is decisively set in motion by architecture and town planning. Previously, the exchange of goods between individual “houses” was only possible outside the town and only at particular locations, where items were left or collected. This risky arrangement for potential encounters with strangers (the sociologist,  Dirk Baecker, drew attention to this) now only appears in the town centre, which, as a result of such encounters, only becomes a town in the sense that is familiar to us, i.e. as a place of exchange between strangers, who remain unknown to each other.

Architecture always plays a part in that it introduces distinctions. Therein lies its self-reference. In the first place, architecture makes a distinction between inside and out, between one space and the next and only in a wider sense does it bear symbols, show the choice of form and material or adopt stylistic references. The architecture of the polis, which originated in the 8th century BC, introduces the market and with it, the strangers into the town and it does this by making a distinction between private houses and a public market, the agora or central square. Architecture, therefore, introduces and maintains a difference, which is not absolute but can often be randomly exceeded. Together with the market and its ability to bring strangers closer together, whilst they remain strangers, this led to a new type of political system, which we now call democracy.

Modern society has changed its forms of meeting and communication as a result of the rise of new media, such that the market in town no longer appears to play a central part. However, in no way has this architectonic invention ceased to serve its purpose; what is changing is purely its scope. A good example of this is the 100x100 m project house at the Research and Innovation centre of the BMW Group in Munich. It has a large atrium, in the centre of which a free-standing building has its own open agora for each level. Whilst the individual departments are based in the surrounding office spaces, where they collaborate on producing a vehicle – engine, body, electronics etc. – the experts meet at the agora. Rapid prototyping takes place there, by which progress in co-ordinating the technical knowledge is presented and examined. Here too, the agora – in principle nothing more than in the ancient polis – introduces a distinction but now between the technical disciplines, with their “power bases” and the vehicle, as the “big picture”. Technical knowledge is necessary and indispensible – but for the market, where the company has to exist, the vehicle is the deciding factor. The market, mainly located outside the company, is introduced to the company and visualised. As a result of repeated encounters at the prototype, a new form of communication gradually evolves, in which technical disciplines meet and exchange ideas as strangers and without merging together, because every encounter is broken off again here. The architectural distinction between offices and agora generates a further, functionally indispensible distinction in the social communication networks of the company. This distinction, with which every brain researcher is familiar, is that between strong and weak ties.

Gunter Henn was born in Dresden in 1947 and studied architecture and structural engineering in Munich and Berlin. He is the chairman of HENN. He founded the office in Munich in 1979 and is the successor of the office of Walter Henn. Since 1994, Gunter Henn has been a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Gunter Henn manages the chair in industrial construction and the Centre for Knowledge Architecture at the Technical University of Dresden.

Gunter Henn
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Architekt