Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Coffeehouse Archetypes

Can architecture and design express an archetype? I'm sure the answer is yes. It's fairly obvious how this works with monumental public buildings like the U.S. Capitol or the New York Public Library, but what about something less ambitious, like a neighborhood coffeehouse?

A coffeehouse I sometimes go to had a redesign this year, so I've had a chance to think about the before and after and the way they come across differently. Before the renovation, the interior was a large L-shaped room with the front counter on the short end of the L and seating all around the walls. Even though students with books and laptops accounted for a lot of the customers, the noise level was high and sometimes rambunctious.

I was told that the renovation would move the counter back and create more room at the front of the store. It did. But somehow, the effect now is of less space than before (to me, at least). Previously, the decor consisted of medium-toned furniture and a few bright wall prints. Now darker tones prevail, and the space is almost separated into rooms by the placement of large pieces of furniture and screens that act as dividers. It's a very boxy arrangement for a cafe.

A barista told me that the design is meant to facilitate studying. I can see how that would work, since the segmented spaces almost have the feel of library carrels and study nooks. What I've noticed, however, is that I tend to feel sequestered if I sit behind one of the screened areas or in the back. For me, one of the pleasures of going to a coffeehouse is the sense of community and being with other people, which the new design tends to dampen a little.

I'm surprised it affects me this way, since I've often wished for a little more quiet than the ear-splitting cacophony I've sometimes encountered there. Maybe the noise level has gone down -- I can't say for sure. But in some respects, being sectioned off with a few other people tends to magnify conversations, fidgeting, and other distractions in your immediate vicinity. Overall, the feeling is a bit blocky, although I'm told a lot of customers like it.

One of the main purposes of a coffeehouse is to foster community and provide a gathering place. Libraries do the same thing, and sometimes bookstores do, too. Many bookstores now try to emulate libraries, with cushy seating and soft lights, and some libraries incorporate cafes, so that they've all come to resemble one another more closely. This may be the first coffeehouse I've seen that has attempted to create a less commercial and more studious vibe. It's a bold design, but I miss the spacious, all-encompassing gathering place it used to be.

I once did some research on library architecture and identified one of its archetypal building blocks as the monk's cell, typified by the many paintings you see of Saint Jerome poring over books in a confined, not to mention cozy, room. A scholar's life is monastic and solitary, and a library usually provides a lot of private space for study. A public gathering place, such as a town square, tends to be open, providing no barrier to conversation and free movement. The archetype there is one of unity. The renovated coffeehouse reveals an attempt to combine both of these purposes.

Maybe I'm zeroing in on this because I've been doing research in the area of individualism and community in society. I don't think one precludes the other, but I can't remember ever being in a room where I felt pulled in opposite directions to the same degree. I think the design was intended to have something for everyone, but I liked it better when the community sense was uppermost. It's now more mazelike and seems to require more maneuvering than I'm usually interested in doing with an iced coffee in hand.

It'll be interesting to see if my feelings about the space change over time, and how the rest of the community embraces the new design.

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