My project is an exploration of the social public sphere that has developed throughout history in the “public institution” of the coffee shop in New York City. The project is inspired by the current critique of coffee shops struggling with contemporary media habits of wifi consumption that has turned many coffee shops into out-of-home-offices, and the counter-reactions of coffee shops abandoning computers and removal of couches and tables to regain an atmosphere of intimacy, ambiance and social exchanges (Strand 2010, Idov 2009, Sax 2010, Noe 2010). The contemporary criticism reveals an expectation to the role that the coffee shop has had and should have as a place of significant cultural impact in the American society. My project is an exploration of this potential.
Through four thematic arguments, I explore four aspects of the ‘concept’ of the coffee shop in New York and the urban cultural role it has played in different times, of different ‘publics’ with different needs for social and cultural gathering spots. One of them goes back to the initial manifestation of the coffee house in New York City to explore the ideological manifestation under which the coffee shop has since developed. Another explores the spatial creation of a ‘sphere’ in the coffee shop. It is a collection of material of considerations on spatial qualities, for example the role of interior design for the establishment of a specific atmosphere. Yet another looks at the coffee shop as a social concept and transgresses the spatial barrier of the coffee shop itself to regard the social custom and potential of the coffee shop culture, which has been a premise for the general cultural acceptance and support of the coffee shop, as my findings will address. The final one looks at the coffee shop as a cultural hotsot and a “free space” for creatives and hedonists to work, gaze and feel part of a bigger cultural society, as well as at potential of cultural production within the coffee shop in terms of the formation of clubs and cultural societies.
The arguments are structured with archival material of images, quotes, articles and spatial plans, organized across space and time and all concerned with an aspect of the production of a social public sphere in the coffee shop. My method reflects James Corner’s mapping concept of plotting as a method for bringing thoughts and interpretation to new arguments (Corner 2009, 230). My exercise of curating my extracts of archival documents thematically instead of timely or contextually is structured within then aim of perhaps staging the conditions for new interpretations and thus for truly ‘finding the new in the old’.
From my findings that go back to mid-late eighteenth hundred I have learned that 'the coffee shop' has taken up many categorial variants throughout history. Since my emphasis in this project is on the social public sphere produced in the public space of the coffee shop I have chosen to define my perception of a coffee shop as a meeting place where coffee drinking is a social practice, which is why in some cases restaurants and taverns are included as research objects.
My research has unfolded around a thesis of what characterizes the cultural role(s) of the coffee shop in New York City throughout history as a public institution, and what potentials the evolving nature of its social public sphere has facilitated an contributed to society.
I find in my research that the coffee shop has had multiple functionalities throughout history, as a place for discussion and debate, leisure, lunch hours; as a culturally productive terrain and as a place for people to gather and feel part of society. The coffee house is a public institution where many forms of social spheres can unfold and fold into each other. A contemporary version of the coffee shop and the concept of the social public sphere will have to address the needs for public space of its concurrency. Today, that includes a need for 'public work spaces' that might very well co-exist with places of more intimate and social public spheres, without that being a decline of the public space of the coffee shop. After all, the important role of this public institution, as it has been throughout history, is to provide an open and 'free' space in which people can gather and be liberated from hierarchies and structures of the world outside, at least for the while it takes to sip a pleasant cup of coffee.
Michael Idov: “Bringing the Buzz Back to the Café” (The Wall Street Journal, December 1), 2009
James Corner: “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention”, in Denis Cosgrove [ed], Mappings, (London: Reaction Books) 1999
Rain Noe: “Why the layout of the American cafes sucks (and why it may be about to change)”, (Core77 Design Magazine and Resource (online magazine), august 26), 2010
Davis Sax: “Destination: Laptopistan”, (The New York Times, December 3), 2010
Oliver Strand: “The New Coffee Bars: Unplug, Drink, Go”, (The New York Times, August 24), 2010