Koehler: Accounts From The Office (Session 2)

It wouldn’t surprise me if Bernhard Siegert calls his work ‘office’ Büro. This, of course, is what Siegert called the chapter we have been reading the past two weeks. Even though ‘bureau’ seems to be an outdated term in the English language, German office workers of all kinds still refer to their workplace by using the term Büro. Due to the same etymological roots of Büro and bureau and in anticipation of the next chapter we will read on bureaucracy, I will continue using the term ‘bureau’ rather than ‘office’. Drawing on David Godfrey’s afterword accompanying Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications, Siegert associates the bureau with a type of writing other than constructing sentences based on a “unit of utterance”. This ‘other type of writing’ [Schriftmodell], as Siegert puts it, is constructing algorithms based on a “unit of process” such as “sorting, simulation, comparison, calculation, modelling, inference, transformation, etc.” (33 and Godfrey, 173). Drawing on Godfrey, Siegert refers to such an option of writing as “the Carthage option”.

[Godfrey describes how Innis indicates Carthage as a ‘third kind of empire, a commercial empire based on trade’ as distinct from the predominant conception of empire as either military or religious (Godfrey, 172).]


The diagram above introduced in the section Bittere Nachbarschaft describes Siegert’s conception of the graphé as a trifurcation of calculatio, the alphabet and an intermediate logic – the logic of data processing (39, 424). According to Siegert, data processing techniques of writing such as lists, indexes and tables enable the modification of data and connect the data to its reality. The two dimensional surface of paper becomes operational. In the following two sections of the chapter Siegert describes the emergence of such kind of paper-based operations in the bureau of the merchant (Doppelte Buchhaltung) and in the bureaus of the state (Am 0. Januar: Simon Stevins Buchhaltungstraktat). Double-entry bookkeeping is defined here as a type of business management technique, which enables the merchant to stop seafaring and to manage and control his accounts from the office (43). Though tightly connected to the real movement of real goods and real people, Siegert also describes how the operations performed in the bureau become spatially, temporally and semiotically disconnected from the real (43). With Stevin’s treatise on bookkeeping the economic/business management technique of double-entry bookkeeping infiltrates the bureaus of the state as a technology of government (51). The last two sections of this chapter Dixit Algorizmi and Arbeitsspeicher [which is the German term for random-access memory (RAM)] then address the technical and material preconditions for the emergence of the bureau and the associated algorithms: the import of the Indian-Arabic numerals and the media form of paper.

Following this very brief summary of the chapter, and because of my own interest in the development of the office into an architectural type, I would like to return to three of Siegert’s definitions of the bureau with an attempt of translation:

This other type of writing, which forms small, scattered centres at the interface of the striated and the smooth space, shall here be termed bureau (33).

Bureaus are algorithmic couplings of media and interconnected “units of process” (33).

One can describe the bureau as a symbolic machine for the perpetual production or transformation of things and humans (43).

Although Siegert seems to use the term bureau predominantly as a synonym for various operations connecting the symbolic with the real, I am wondering, how the bureau as an architectural space produces its own reality. In particular, I am interested in the trajectory of the spatial and/or architectural formation of an administrative apparatus (such as the bureau) employing algorithmic tools in order to manage and control an increased movement/circulation of money, goods and people (for example due to the technology of the compass, 43). Although concerned with a completely different period, reading Siegert’s chapter on the bureau made me think of a quote from the architect Gordon Bunshaft, in which he describes the development of the design for the office building of an insurance company as an architectural organisation of the flow of paper and the associated ‘units of process’:

We had people writing a program, trying to find out from the owner what he was going to do with his people and how many people he had and what each group did and how the material or paper moved. We spent at least six months with just that. Not a goddamn bit of drawing. Making diagrams showing relationships. What we found out in those six months is that in an insurance company there’s a key group of executives who make all the policies. From then on, there’s paper that moves from one procedure to another. It’s nothing but a light industry of moving documents for review or for preparation from one group to another. It requires large areas for moving these papers.[1]

The result of this endeavour is the General Life Insurance headquarters in Bloomfield, Connecticut, completed in 1957. Located in the suburbs, the building was only three storeys high with an enormous footprint for the efficient movement and processing of paper, organised in the fashion of an assembly line.

[1] See Oral History of Gordon Bunshaft, interviewed by Betty J. Blum, compiled under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago, 98.



4 thoughts on “Koehler: Accounts From The Office (Session 2)”

  1. Thank you very much for the nice summary and the addition of some of you own thoughts on the office/bureau. I was suddenly wondering where Siegert’s use of the word Büro comes from? Is it purely based on the use of bürokratie and the idea of processing data and documents associated with it, or is there also another meaning/etymology/relevance attached to the idea of the Büro? Of course, next to a room/space (we use the term in Dutch as well, although “Kantoor” is more common nowadays. The Flemish still use ‘bureau’ more commonly), it is also a piece of furniture…

    ps. I looked up the etymology of the Dutch ‘kantoor’ (office/bureau) and apparently, it’s derived from the French “conter” (later “compter”): counting, which, in turn stems from the Latin computare. According to that same source, like bureau, the word was originally reserved for the piece of furniture and later came to stand for the entire room. But you’re undoubtedly aware of that last fact.

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    1. This is just a quick note to add to the etymological entanglements. The etymological connection of the Dutch kantoor and the Latin computare you mention is very interesting. Siegert points out the etymological roots of the term Büro in reference to the practice of calculating with the abacus. (56)

      “Vom Rechnen auf Linien hat das Büro übrigens seinen Namen […] ‘Burra’ ist lat. “die Wollflocke”, davon kommt frz. ‘bure’, der Name für einen groben Wollstoff. “Bure” diente zur Bedeckung des Rechenbretts und hieß als Decke dann “bureau” […]. Als Bureau ist das Tuch nichts, das wärmt, sondern etwas, das aus dem Unendlichen des Raumes eine begrenzte Operationsfläche herausschneidet. Als man das Tuch wegließ und zum Rechnen spezielle Tische anfertigte, auf denen Linien eingekerbt waren, blieb der Name am Rechentisch haften. […] Vom Tisch übertrug der Name sich auf den Raum, in dem der Rechentisch stand, dann auf die Rechen- und Schreibkammer – auch als diese schon keine “Kammer” mehr war, sondern eine Behörde – und schließlich auf die Gesamtheit der Schreiber […].” (427)

      It seems that etymologically the term Büro implies the practice/technique of calculating as well as the demarcation of a surface designated for writing/calculating operations.

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  2. I think the question where the use of the word Büro comes from is hard to answer without ambiguities, but there is certainly a tradition in literature (Kafka), where the bureau plays an important role. Friedrich Kittler, in “Drakulas Vermächtnis” (1993), “dracula’s legacy”, is constantly referring to Büroangestellte, Büropraktikanten, Bürokratie, Büroarchive… Maren, did I got you right, the bureau as a place is the (spatial) condition of (diagrammatic) bureaucracy?

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