Smell the Coffee
A recent article in The Economist pointed out that purveyors of CDs are moving towards packaging their disks into deluxe packages in order to bolster sales. Similarly, magazine that for decades have been downsizing in size and quality of paper are now going the other way. They are getting bigger and printing on heavier paper. The idea seems to be to make what is physical more luxurious and attractive, allowing the virtual world to become the realm of low- or no-cost content. It is all about the packaging, and nothing proves that more than the silky feel of the iPad, its luxurious and high-priced plane a purveyor of floating flimflam.
This is a message architecture knows, or should know, well. Architecture, that is, as opposed to building. Building has become more and more standardized and buildings more and more bland and anonymous. The storefront with its fancy frames has turned into the tilt-up boxes of Walmart, cookie-cutter McMansions sprout all across the world, and the environments you inhabit as you work, live, or recreate are more and more the same everywhere. But architecture has always been about providing something more, something as intangible as space, whether to get you to that moment of religious transcendence behind the baroque altar or to show your true powers from behind a colonnade.
The exceptions these days are the moments where either one of us or our society decides to devote significant resources to the creation of an extra-fancy wrapper or a spectacular interior. On the outside, these kind of deluxe coats are most common on luxury stores, as we can no longer afford them (for political reasons alone) on our institutions or homes. On the inside, spectacular spaces house spectacles, mainly of the sporting kind, or they are the cocoons of fancy restaurants or, again, stores. The one place where a more contemplative public gets to enjoy the joys of architecture in a more intense and lasting manner are museums, where we recently have managed to spend well over a thousand dollar a square foot on major monuments such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago.
Beyond such moments of luxury, it might be good to look more carefully at what The Economist sees: the expenditure of resources on a highly designed portal into something that exists beyond the physical. What might the architectural equivalents thereof be? The most obvious answer are libraries and coffee houses, where you access the virtual world and a universe of knowledge in a (semi-) public space. The two are increasingly close cousins where people gather to read, study, talk, or just see and be seen. They give room to and transform the experience of being in public into something pleasant, enticing, and at times, wonderful. You can see the same things happening in some hospitals in Europe, which are turning their waiting areas and public spaces into attractive places for a community of family, friends, and even patients. Museums that provide good community services are becoming such gathering spaces, and so are restaurants and “lounges,” the replacements for bars and their uncomfortable stools. They are, in fact, becoming the places for gathering, “The Room” with many purposes Louis Kahn foresaw decades ago when he noted the dissolution of our shared institutions and a need for something where we could be human together.
To think of the gross green and clunky graphics of Starbucks as heirs to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies or the Dhaka Parliament might seem absurd, but they are both trying to do the same thing: concentrate our human efforts on making a human space that is other and much, much better than what is out there in the ether. Of course, they sell coffee, but architects still need to learn from this. The discipline has always served masters, and succeeded when it has wrested something beyond such service.
So it is time to create architecture out of these places of comfort and service, to turn convenience into the beginning of a shared place, and to make a beautiful argument for physical form. It is up to architects to wake up, smell the coffee, and make a better package.