By Gideon Strauss

“Buildings do not exist in a vacuum.” “All facilities should make sense in their context. In turn, facilities should create a context for a state or stage of corporate civilization.” So wrote Max De Pree, in a chapter from Leadership Is an Art, “Some thoughts for CEOs who build buildings.”

The De Pree Center is partway into a move from our long-time offices to a new space on Walnut Street in Pasadena, California. As I wrote in the first of these “Moving Out Loud” pieces, we want to give expression to the identity of the Max De Pree Center both in the eventual shape, look, and feel of our new space and in the process by which we arrive at that new shape, look, and feel.

De Pree Center: the floor plan of our new space

De Pree Center: the floor plan of our new space

In addition to reading Max De Pree’s own reflections on buildings, we are also reading Jerry Cruikshank and Clark Malcolm’s Herman Miller Inc.: Buildings and Beliefs (1994). Early on in their book they recount the questions that guided the process in which the Herman Miller company (of which Max De Pree was the CEO) planned and built their facilities. We intend to consider these or similar questions in our own process, even though what we are doing is on a much, much smaller scale than what Herman Miller did.

(1) What is important?

Does the “place” part of “workplace” really matter? Is it worth investing time and energy (and money) into shaping a space? We are in agreement with Max De Pree and Herman Miller that it does, and it is. Winston Churchill reportedly said that “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” If that is so, then the places we make to work in have an effect on who we are, who we become. This must surely matter very much. But we are discovering that even at our own small scale, it is as difficult as it is important to make the argument that the “place” in “workplace” matters.

(2) Who are we?

To guide us in our effort to give expression to the identity of the De Pree Center in our new workspace, we continually reference our identity statement, in which we say that “The Max De Pree Center for Leadership is a catalyst for the truly human practice of work, leadership, and organizational life in businesses, non-profits, and churches …” But that is not the only part of this question that matters. The De Pree Center at present also consists of a number of people, either as full-time employees, or as senior and doctoral fellows. How each of these people is accommodated, in terms of their contribution to our work and their needs as persons, is a big part of our answer to this question. And then there is the constellation of relationships that make up the social ecology in which we exist, which must surely affect the place that we make for our work.

(3) Who can teach us something?

While we can and must learn from our colleagues who are responsible in various ways for buildings on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Pasadena campus, we believe we must also learn from friends of the Center who have design insights and experience. Today, as this piece appears in Fieldnotes Magazine, we are hosting two architects, a designer, and a doctoral student of leadership interested in workspaces, in a two-hour on-site conversation about our new space — a conversation on which we’ll report in our next “Moving Out Loud” piece.

Cruickshank and Malcolm raise further questions: (4) What do we owe? (5) How do we get from there to here? (6) What can go wrong? (7) What happens next? We’ll say a litter about these in future “Moving Out Loud” pieces.

How does the place where you currently work give expression to who you (singular) are, as an individual person, and who you (plural) are, as a work community?

Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.

Editor’s note:This article is part of an ongoing series related to the De Pree Center’s relocation. Read the rest of the related articles: Moving Out Loud 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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