Dirt: Sublime Severance
A mid-century wasteland.
Daisy Alioto on architecture, design and suburbanism in Severance. SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
If you haven’t watched Severance (Apple TV+), it’s worth at least signing up for a free trial. The Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle-directed series combines workplace comedy with West World sci-fi. It has been compared to the diorama machinations of Being John Malkovitch and the color-coded visuals of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Maniac .
Although the show’s main character is Mark Scout, played by middle-manager-looking-ass Adam Scott, the first episode ‘Good News About Hell’ opens with a shot of the red-haired (and conveniently named) Helly. Helly is new to Lumon Industries, where employees on the “severed” floor have undergone a procedure to separate their work and home selves. Their cubicles sit at the center of a carpeted room, like tiny furniture in the center of a billiard table–a texture you can almost taste.
Helly’s Mary-Jane-Watson-red hair is a stark contrast to the deliberate palette of greens and blues inside the office space. In her panic to leave and multiple escape attempts she looks like one of Roy Lichtenstein’s desperate comic strip women, and her temporary acquiescence to life at Lumon might as well be delivered with an unconvincing “Ohhh…alright.” In The New York Times, James Poniewozik asks: “What kind of heaven could you live in if your alter ego could, like Persephone, do the time in hell?”
“Every time you find yourself here it’s because you chose to come back,” says her minder. Coming back means entering through the lobby of the building where a large profile of Kier Eagan calls to mind Lenin. Sartre said that “Hell is other people,” but the logic of Lumon is that hell is other selves. The irony for Mark Scout is that he is happy at work and unhappy at home, where he has actual recollections of his dead wife instead of a blank baby brain informed by the only book in the office: the Lumon handbook.
The crumbling facade of Mark’s work life is helped along in part by a (blazing red, literally) book of contraband authored by his brother-in-law. A book so stuffed full of banal platitudes it could only be considered revolutionary in a world where no other books existed and well *gestures vaguely to previous paragraph*
Much ink has been spilled on the set design of Severance, as it should be, because it’s fucking fantastic.1 Vulture has the full scoop from production designer Jeremy Hindle and set decorator Andrew Baseman. The boardroom table that Helly wakes up on, “is meant to evoke a subconscious, almost nostalgic sense of the idea of ‘work,’ grounded in mid-20th-century design.” Of course, I thought of Knoll. The perforated little box that Mark instructs her through? Pure Dieter Rams.
We wanted to confuse the viewer about whether this is a period piece, contemporary, or the future. The lamps and chairs, all of those things were either manufactured or found in faraway lands because we didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, that’s an Eames chair.’
The exterior shots were filmed at the Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche-designed Bell Labs Holmdel complex in New Jersey. While I watched the series, I couldn’t help but think of the design in macro, severance as a metaphor for the suburban business park itself.
The American business park (also called office park) has its own architectural vernacular of inconspicuousness. Rather than draw on the surrounding landscape for inspiration, the platonic business park deflects attention– an aesthetic consistent with its origins. Even the ones designed by big-name midcentury designers have to fight for functional relevance in 2022.
In 2015, The Washington Post called suburban office parks, “the new American ghost town.” However, unlike vacant malls which are imbued with nostalgia, nobody loves business parks enough to rhapsodize about their demise. As the Post explains, the first office park was opened in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s so that commuters could avoid “racial tension” in city centers. Office parks were the logical completion of white flight: segregated offices for segregated neighborhoods.
If business parks were ghost towns in 2015, they are even more obsolete now that coronavirus has rapidly accelerated the remote working trend. Bell Labs is actually a success story. Now known as Bell Works, it has been converted into a coworking space for multiple companies, complete with hip on-site coffee.
The former IBM Campus in East Fishkill, New York–now known as iPark–(not far from where scenes of Mark’s life outside the facility were filmed in Beacon) has not fared as well as Bell. A planned sportsdome is at a standstill, resulting in a lawsuit over construction delays. Semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries, located on 160 acres of the iPark, was supposed to supply microchips for contemporary IBM. The two companies are now suing each other. There’s also an Amazon warehouse, a film studio, multiple food service companies and a “milk provider,” according to The New York Times. A mediocre future for what was once a cutting-edge concrete structure by Paul Rudolph.
Drama has also unfolded around the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed (SOM if you’re nasty) GE headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. GE was wooed to Boston with a tax break they ended up having to return, resulting in this extremely petty article five years later in The Hartford Courant: “Fairfield County, spurned by General Electric Co., is rebounding from the pandemic while the one-time global conglomerate dismantles itself.”
To come back to Severance, the exact portal between “innie” and “outie” consciousness for each severed Lumon worker is the building’s elevator. But the real portal between outside and inside is the same portal for all suburban workers–the car. At the beginning of the series we see Mark grieving while parked outside Lumon. Inside the facility he has no memories of his dead wife, but he can’t hide his puffy eyes and hungover visage. “You carry the hurt with you. You feel it down there too, you just don’t know what it is,” says one of his coworkers, Petey, who finds a way to reverse the severance procedure. Over at The Deleted Scenes, Addison Del Mastro writes prolifically about urbanism and car culture:
Maybe we got it right the first time, a century or more ago: cars are great for leisure and exploration and sport, but not so great for commuting, running errands, and other everyday tasks, at least in areas that were already substantially built out before widespread car ownership. It was once common, for example, to own a car for weekend drives, but commute on the trolley.
But we were sold—and to our discredit, we bought—gridlock and rush hour and ten-minute trips for a half-gallon of milk and 30,000 Americans violently killed each year under the banner of exploration, freedom, and the open road.
The suburban office park worked because we severed ourselves from interconnected urban design. It failed because now work is everywhere, on every device and communication platform. The extreme surgery the severed workers have undertaken to resist this infringement is like work/life balance horseshoe theory. There can be no work utopia nor life utopia without violent force. As Lewis Mumford writes in Utopia, the City and the Machine, “In the end utopia merges into the dystopia of the twentieth century; and one suddenly realizes that the distance between the positive ideal and the negative one was never so great as the advocates or admirers of utopia had professed.”
According to Variety, the Lumon logo was designed by Tansy Michaud. It reads Lumon inside of an oblong globe, with a reverse droplet-shaped “O.” This logo reminds me of the unfinished glass sphere built outside Trump’s doomed Foxconn plant in Wisconsin, a story told thoroughly by The Verge.
The workers of Foxconn, hired in a spree needed to get the promised subsidy from the state, had the same soul-crushing disconnect from their work that eventually tips the blank slate “innies” of Severance into rebellion. “Imagine being in a job where you don’t really know if it’s real or not. Or you know it’s not real, but you don’t know it’s not real. It’s a constant thing you’re doing in your head day after day,” one worker said, “I think all of us were on the verge of a major breakdown.”
As I wrote before in Dirt, that Foxconn sphere was itself an echo of another sphere nearby in Racine at the S. C. Johnson building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mid-century architects lent prestige to offices for General Motors, TWA, IBM, Bell Telephone, John Deere, and CBS and their talents legitimized the post-war economy and suburban style of work as a whole.
These same companies used the 1964 World’s Fair to show off the future of their technologies (keyboards, electronic punch cards, modems). The symbol of that fair? A unisphere, of course. The Hall of Presidents, a Magic Kingdom attraction not unlike Lumon’s “Perpetuity Wing” with its hall of animatronic past CEOs, began as a 1964 World’s Fair destination called Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. It really makes you think!
The bouncing desktop screensaver version of the Lumon logo might be a call back to a favorite scene in The Office, or more recently, that Superbowl commercial. The bouncing logo is actually perfect for the nostalgic retrofuturism of Severance because it didn’t exist until the late 90s or early 2000s, and belongs to the DVD not the desktop computer. According to ycombinator, “As a historical note, the bouncing logo wasn't just for fun, but was important to prevent screen burn-in on CRTs. If you had a static image on a CRT for a long time, it could damage the phosphor.”
Another digital Easter Egg is a reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog2 on the screen that pops up after Helly finishes “refining” her data (an inscrutable task) and also in an oil painting of Kier Eagan that hangs in the office hallway.3
“Such a lovely vista but I keep thinking he could slip,” says Irving, Mark’s somewhat neurotic veteran coworker. He is describing the sublime but he doesn’t know it, the will of Caspar David Friedrich to simultaneously capture beauty and fear. The sublime is one of those complex emotions lost through severance, just as the workers “refine” (weed out) the floating numbers on their screen that elicit a fearful response. Beauty and fear are supposed to be integrated together, it’s the only way to feel properly. “It’s an unnatural state for a person to have no history. History makes us someone, gives us a context, a shape. And waking up on that table, I was shapeless,” Irving tells Helly at one point.
There is a Plato’s Cave aspect to Severance, with Petey as the returning scout blinded by the sunlight but no longer illusioned by puppet shadows. “A world compelled to good alone is as much a shrine to compulsion as a world compelled to evil only,” wrote Stanislaw Lem. Severance shows work/life balance at its extreme: pure totalitarianism. I for one am excited for the final act. — Daisy Alioto