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The Cubicle Is the New Loft

Well, not yet. But office vacancy rates are soaring. So why not?

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Photo-illustration by Darrow
Photographs: Roger Wright/Getty Images (office building); Jean-Yves Bruel/Getty Images (kitchen); Tim-Street Porter/Corbis (bedroom); Micaela Rossato/Getty Images (living room)

Once upon a time in Soho, when the city had bottomed out and its factories had largely abandoned their cast-iron buildings, the loft was born. It’s a story we all know well: First came the artists, who colonized the empty spaces and put up with the freezing winters. They were joined by the gays and like-minded urban adventurers, who made loft living synonymous with downtown bohemian culture … and then pseudo-bohemian culture, as well as gay and gayish yuppie culture, and finally, luxury urban living. The idea of the loft spread far beyond Soho, so that by the end of the most recent building boom you could purchase “New York–Style Loft” apartments in downtown Houston or the wealthy neighborhoods of Bogotá. The loft had become one of our most clever inventions and cultural exports.

Here we are again, with another type of New York building facing massive oversupply: the office building. Office vacancy rates are around 13 percent in Manhattan, and as major new buildings continue to come onto the market (One World Trade Center alone will dump another 2.6 million square feet downtown), older, less desirable office buildings are increasingly sitting empty.

It’s not hard to imagine some of these disused office buildings being taken over by the occasional urban squatter. So here’s a thought: What if some smart landlord decides to rent his office space to low-income artists, and turn a blind eye to those who spend the night? What if those tenants start appropriating the visual language of the office space (cubicles, carpets, fluorescent lighting) in ways that became, well, inhabitable? We can imagine the cycle continuing, as tenants become fancier and more discerning and urban-office chic invades Pottery Barn, until eventually we are all living in knockoffs of Don Draper’s office at Sterling Cooper. We invited five design firms to play along.


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