Beware the gleaming, purpose built headquarters: C Northcote Parkinson’s Law of Buildings

From the Johannes de Berlaymont blog a few years back,   here is a piece on C Northcote Parkinson, prophet of administration. I have a sense that the world of work is now treated with far less humour and levity than it was. Parkinson exemplified how wit could illuminate patterns of organisational life we all surely recognise:

Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) was primarily a British naval historian who accidentally fell into the field of public administration and management via a 1955 humorous article published in the Economist magazine. Later expanded to book length, Parkinson’s Law, which argued that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ rapidly became ubiquitous. That ubiquity overshadowed the fact that Parkinson, a prolific author, proposed a number of equally convincing laws and observations about bureaucratic life. He developed, for example, a mathematical formula to predict that the (British) Royal Navy would one day have more admirals than ships (on 24 September 2008 the Daily Telegraph duly reported that ‘There are currently 41 admirals, vice-admirals and rear-admirals but … the number of fighting ships in the Navy now stands at just 40.’).


The post is focused on “Parkinson’s Law of Buildings” (Johannes de Berlaymont focuses on EU institutions, a fertile source indeed):


This blog may return to Parkinson’s other laws at some date, but the law that concerns this essay was first published under the title of ‘Plans and Plants, or The Administration Block.’ For ease of reference, it shall be referred to here as Parkinson’s Law of Buildings. This he defines as follows; ‘a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse… Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is not time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done.’

Parkinson calls in evidence a series of historical examples of architectural grandeur accompanying organizational/institutional decline. In the case of the Vatican, for example, ‘the great days of the papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.’ By 1933 the League of Nations was seen to have failed, and yet its ‘physical embodiment’, the Palace of Nations, was not opened until 1937. He argues that Louis XIV moved to Versailles in 1682, the year his career reached its apex, and thereafter, as the sumptuous Palace was gradually completed, so his power inexorably declined. Parkinson gives a number of British examples, including Blenheim Palace, Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and the Colonial Office, but identifies New Delhi, started in 1911, several years after the decline of British imperialism began (with the 1906 General Election), as a perfect example of his Law’s applicability.

One could imagine many other examples. As well as  “during a period of exciting discovery or progress there is not time to plan the perfect headquarters”, I wonder do organisations in cramped, improvised settings have a better institutional functioning precisely because the staff are thrown together, are less likely to have their own offices,  with a resulting sense of collegiality and solidarity? (or something like that)

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