This is an essay about creativity and architecture and puts forward a proposal to stitch building typologies and exapt1 them to a new way to live and work. It is also an essay about cultural innovation and coffee.
On any given morning in Sydney or Melbourne commuters queue at hole-in-wall counters for coffee in paper cups, which they then balance in hastened walks back to their offices above. Outside, on footpaths, laneways and arcades, little, round café tables and chairs and milk-crates and standing counters are full. Melbourne consistently makes the list of world coffee capitals. It keeps company with Addis Ababa, Istanbul, Havana, Buenos Aires, Rome and Vienna.
Coffee is the stimulant that fuelled the Enlightenment. The Grand Café in Oxford, England’s first coffee house, opened in 1650.2 Until then the population drank alcohol, primarily gin, because the water quality was poor. The switch to a stimulant, coffee, from a depressant, gin, meant that good ideas weren’t forgotten in a drunken haze and made it into print.3 The invention of the printing press a century earlier now meant that a debate in the coffee house could be structured and disciplined away from opinions, belief and sophistry by quotable facts and precedents.
Jurgen Habermas’s ‘Public Sphere’4 is a discursive space. Rhetoric oscillates through a process of synthesis towards a more enlightened position, each oscillation is a correction of excessive fervour or error. The Public Sphere is primarily the world of letters and journalism, published fact, science, and philosophical theory. It is an imaginary, idealised community housed in an arena of debate and deliberation.
At various critical junctures in social history where the existing culture has been upended, or where there have been unusual levels of creativity, the ‘public sphere’, has been identified with a physical form and space: the agora of Athens in ancient Greece, the coffee houses and salons in London and Paris of the 18th Century Enlightenment, the cafes of Paris and Vienna of the early 20th Century, the coffee houses of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s.5
“For generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and ‘mind-workers’ of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life… Peter Altenberg was only one of the many literati who did everything but sleep in the café, although he might have been unique in having it as his only address: P. Altenberg, Café Central, Wien 1.” Clive James, ‘Cultural Amnesia’ 6
The Vienna café was a clearinghouse for thinkers from entirely different professions and creative pursuits, an informal, open ‘university’7 where a career of learning continued. The creative vanguard of modernism, congregated, was educated, and worked in the cafés of Vienna and Paris. Writers, poets, musicians, artists and architects were all gathered at the same cafes; most notably the Café de Flore in Paris and, in Vienna, the Café Central.
The guest lists of just these two cafes is astounding, a who’s who of 20th Century cultural and political action.
These contributors to our culture are the alumni of an environment with a specific architecture and social function; they were genius enough to seize an opportunity from within the liquidity of creative exchange in which they were immersed, and to leverage the cultural evolution going on about them to their specific ends.
Adolf Loos worked in this milieu; according to Loos’ wife and biographer, Claire Beck Loos, his “best building designs…originate on the marble tops of coffee house tables.”8 In Vienna ideas started their life at coffee tables where you paid for a place by the hour, ‘wit and point were a form of currency and everyone was a famous talker’. This is a reminiscence of Vienna café life related by Claire Beck Loos’ father: “… There was always fighting over the newspaper and it was always gone. During one such dispute, a patron just decided to jump up on a table and began reading the article out loud. And that is what they did from then on…the coffee house seemed more like a meeting place, and afterwards there would be a lot of discussion…” 9
This scene portrays the discursive space of the Public Sphere, where patrons ‘dared to know’ and challenged one another in vigorous rational exchange; and dwelled late conversing because the lunch hour was insufficient time to get all the ‘unimportant things said’.10 The result of these encounters: a fulcrum for cultural, social and political innovation.
Space is the abode of human consciousness.11 Alvaro Siza, the renowned Portuguese architect, realistically positions the café within the process of functions he needs to do his work:
“It is true that I design in cafes… it is one of the few places where you can remain anonymous and concentrate. It is not a matter of avoiding the conference table, avoiding interdisciplinary discussions, the telephone, the regulation forms, the catalogues of prefabricated components or facilitating tools that make so many things so much easier, the computer or neighbourhood meeting. It is to overcome…the basis for working with this and for this.”12
What is it that Siza wants to overcome, why the justification? It is remiss to underestimate the impact of space on our psychology and well being; and a topoanalysis, as defined by Bachelard and extended by Foucault,13 can be applied to assess the mental health of an office worker. A simple calculation that considers an average working life, life expectancy, retirement age, leave allotment and recommended sleep, shows that we work for twenty five percent of our waking life. The brutal fact that we spend nearly twenty straight years of living mostly constrained to seated rows at computer monitors is a tremendous sadness.
Alain De Botton explores these ‘distinctive psychological side effects’ in his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He concludes that the modern office environment with it’s social-power constructs and exploitative power dynamic is repressive: “It is an essential feature of the erotic that it thrives… where it is most forbidden… there are few settings today as libidinous as the… open-plan spaces of our corporations. The office is to the modern world what the cloister was to medieval Christendom: a chaste arena with an unrivalled capacity to excite desire… the office and the nunnery have been singularly popular in the imaginations of pornographers…contemporary internet pornography is inordinately concerned with fellatios and sodomies performed by office workers against a backdrop of work stations and computer equipment.”14
This repressive environment, with its hierarchically engineered seating arrangements and oversight; its noticeboards of corporate jargon, its platitudes and saccharine managerial concern, is all painfully satirised in Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s mirthlessly hilarious television series, ‘The Office’.
As architects, and innovators in society, how do we instigate change? We might start by inventing better workplaces and studios for ourselves, for how would we seek to ignite any creative sparks in the oxygen-deprived environments described above. In our research and design towards an ‘architecture of happiness’ 15, we might do well to consider the history of work and the type of space ‘where good ideas come from’:
“The physical architecture of our work environments can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas.” Steven Johnson in ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ 16
There is a recognition in traditional workplace design that a collaborative environment is ‘built around the water cooler’17. In the office the water-cooler and coffee counter promote ‘casual mingling and interdepartmental chatter’18, they permit the chance meeting of a ‘random disrupter’ from a different team or department to challenge a worn idea and force a creative leap. A totally unrelated topic can bring about a realisation or serendipitous idea: in good workplace design, it is Architecture’s role to orchestrate serendipity knowing that serendipity ‘favours the connected mind.’19
Cities are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion and adoption of good ideas owing to their connected environments and a proximity of the ‘adjacent possible’20. Information and ideas have liquidity in dense settlements because there is a larger network of individual minds in collision21.
Jane Jacobs observed that, “…innovation thrives in discarded spaces”.22 The frenetic energy of the city leaves open older, less desirable or abandoned environments available for imaginative reoccupation by subcultures of creative innovators; their proximity in old warehouses, on wharves and in disused factories at the cheap end of town foments a new culture for artistic exchange. The goal of workplace spatial framing is to encourage this ‘adjacent possible’, to nudge, using architecture, an introduction of potential innovative collaborators in a more sociable, less formal setting: to design a space of overlaps, an intersection of the structured and the loose, a mediation, or, an expansion of the threshold between public and private realms. Outside of the office, in cities or on the high street, this intersection is found in cafes, hotel foyers, and small bars. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg defines the intersection as the “Third Place” – a connective environment distinct from both home and office where citizens meet on an equal footing and on neutral ground in discursive space.23
One such connective environment of the past was the phalanstère imagined by Fourier in the 1820s. Walter Benjamin, writing about Fourier’s ideal society in his Arcades Project a century later, stated that the unfolding of work as play would presuppose highly developed forces of production.24 Today’s technology introduces the feasibility for work as play as was instituted in Fourier’s phalanstère: finally ‘play is the canon of a labour no longer rooted in exploitation.’ 25 The phalanstère, a synthesis of military phalanx and monastery, was an immense architectural structure housing Fourier’s utopian vision for an egalitarian, co-habiting, cooperative society freed from the industrial class, gender and power relationships of the early 19th century. It is a city of arcades, of wide street-galleries with peristyle mezzanines flanked by multistory living accommodation; it has public halls and kitchens, dining rooms, ballrooms, meeting rooms, libraries and studies; and a workshop wing for noisy work and play – a kind of crafts-hall and crèche hybrid. Fourier’s ideas inspired the structure of the 1848 Paris Commune and influenced Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. He is also credited with having penned the word ‘Feminism’ in 1837.26 Today, similar co-living and co-working experiments of the new knowledge economy might be termed a ‘Fourth Place’, an extension of Oldenburg’s concept.27
When asked in Sydney, in 1974, about the underlying social consequences for a computer dependent society, Arthur C Clarke, with great prescience, foresaw a future society whose lives were enriched by the possibility to work and live anywhere they liked.28 His future-fiction is the present reality. Our technology now permits a less discriminatory working culture and begins to balance a historically male dominated work arena, because you can work from home when you need to.
Sometimes, however, home is too chaotic for concentration: the neighbour’s leaf blower, the town council’s lawnmower; the laden presence of mounting household chores and personal administrative tasks; all these intrusions compete for space for the mind. A ‘third place’ is sought for concentrated, uninterrupted thought.
What is here envisaged resembles a contemporary urban phalanstère: it is an expanded foyer and cafe, organically connected to neighbouring foyers so that together they occupy a significant portion of the ground floor and mezzanine of a city. It is an interior accessed off the city’s footpaths, laneways and arcades; it is an urban, informal, open system. The interior is a synthesis of café, co-work or work-share, small bar, office foyer, hotel lobby, business centre, book and stationary shop, library and mediatheque. It is a pleasant, warm, clean and friendly place where you have your anonymity and can concentrate; where you can read and work, but when you want to, can meet people there, play chess, scrabble, and ‘rub shoulders’, collaborate, or disagree vociferously in heated debate. Diverse influences and interests surround you, it is serendipity orchestrated.
There are rooms, or alcoves with large wooden tables where you can arrange to meet others. Tucked away, and brought out when needed, there are screens, magnetic whiteboards and chalkboards. There are rooms with comfortable furniture for presentations, debate forums and film. There are recharging points scattered throughout for your smart-phones, electronic readers and notebooks and laptop computers.
It has waiters; so that you don’t have to neglect your things, or loose your seat when you go up to the counter to order coffee. Or, you can simply order and pay for sustenance using your smartphone and someone will bring it over. As was the case in the old Viennese cafes, you can pay for the table by the hour so that no one is ever rushing you out the door. Drinking water is free. You can dwell, take your time. The various surfaces have softer finishes to absorb some of the din of chatter and the clatter of cups and saucers. The space is articulated with corners, windows seats, deep reveals, benches, bays, niches, nooks and pockets. It is intimate without being claustrophobic; it is happily illuminated with natural light, and is naturally ventilated, you are able to look up and see the weather. You can take your dog there, there’s a crèche adjacent where you can leave your children with caring staff. There are hammocks near the window for reading. There are fireplaces with ingle-nooks, there are shelves of books, which you can borrow or buy, return or sell. At intervals in the plan, escalators and staircases or glass elevators extend this realm to upper levels where hanging gardens, viewing decks, spas, health clubs, gyms, rooks, bars, lounges, and restaurants overlook the city’s landscape and lights.
When open plan office and desk bound employees have worked through the life-maths to realise that we live just once, they will either leave for freer work situations or negotiate agile contract arrangements with their employers. It is then that they will enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of the self-employed and depart their arid work surrounds for the cafés. A future workplace similar to the one just described need not remain a Fourier inspired fantasy-utopia.
1 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, Oxford, TEDGlobal, July 2010. Exaptation is a word proposed by evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba to describe a shift in the function of a trait during evolution
2 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, Oxford, TEDGlobal, July 2010
4 Habermas, J, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, tr. Burger, T & Lawrence, F, Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1989
5 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, Oxford, TEDGlobal, July 2010
6 James, C, Cultural Amnesia, Notes in the margin of my time, London, Picador, 2012, pg. 1; pgs. 233-234
7 Ibid, pg. 1
8 Skjoldager, P & Nielsen, J.E, Aron Nimzowitsch, On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924, McFarlane & Company, Inc., 2012, pg. 29
10 https://www.cafecentral.wien/en/; James, C, Cultural Amnesia, Notes in the margin of my time, London, Picador, 2012; Morton, F, Thunder at Twilight, Vienna 1913-1914, Da Capo Press, 2014
11 Beck Loos, C, Adolf Loos, A Private Portrait, ed. Paterson, C, Los Angeles CA, DoppelHouse Press, 2011, pg. 21
12 Ibid, pg. 3
13 James, C, Cultural Amnesia, Notes in the margin of my time, London, Picador, 2012, pg. 234
14 Ockman, J “The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard”, Harvard Design Magazine No.6 / Representations / Misrepresentations and Revaluations of Classic Books, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Fall 1998
15 Hemingway, E, A Moveable Feast, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010, pg.17
16 Frampton, K, Alvaro Siza, Complete Works, London, Phaidon Press, Ltd., 2000, pg. 71
17 Ockman, J “The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard”, Harvard Design Magazine No.6 / Representations / Misrepresentations and Revaluations of Classic Books, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Fall 1998
18 De Botton, A, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Camberwell, VIC, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group (Australia), 2009, pg. 262
19 De Botton, A, The Architecture of Happiness, London, Penguin Books, 2007
20 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, New York, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2010, pg. 62
21 Ibid, pg. 64
22 Ibid, pg. 62
23 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, Oxford, TEDGlobal, July 2010
24 Johnson, S, Where Good Ideas Come From, New York, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2010, pg. 30
25 Ibid, pg. 57
26 Jacobs, J, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York, Vintage Books, Random House, Inc.,1992
27 Oldenburg, R, The Great Good Place, New York, Marlowe & Company, 1999
28 Benjamin, W, The Arcades Project, tr. Eiland, H & McLaughlin, K, Cambidge, MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, pg. 361
29 Ibid, pg. 361
30 Goldstein, L, “Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier”, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol.43, No. 1, 1982.
31 Morisson, A, A Typology of Places in the Knowledge Economy, Towards the Fourth Place, Rochester NY, SSRN, 2017
32 Menand, L, “Words of the Year”, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, Comment, NY, January 8, 2018
33 “C for Computer”, Perspective, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1974; featured in Sorkin, A, Steve Jobs, Dir. Boyle, D, Telluride CO, Universal Pictures, 2015
34 Dick, P.K., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, London, Rapp & Whiting Ltd, 1969