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How Cyber Cafe Design Can Revolutionize “Sense of Place” By Bridging Between the Physical and Digital World

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Aka Hige | Flickr

Many major companies and institutions (like Starbucks and some major airports) are now making sure to include free WiFi wireless connection to boost sales through major increases in customer traffic. And in doing so, they are using this incentive for customers to come in and buy their products and services.

But, as more and more people come to these venues with their mobile digitally connected technologies, what does that mean for the design of the buildings which house them? How do you as an architect account for higher volumes of traffic that may congregate, use the space differently, and be technologically connected at just about all times?

Almost gone are the few coffee shops where the space is simply a place to enjoy that warm cup of coffee and perhaps a slice of desert with a friend or with a good book. Instead, being added to that picture, is the rapidly increasing popularity of free WiFi connection — which, with it, is bringing about some new occupant interaction behaviors within such established institutions like cafés and airports.

In fact, I went into a café recently and saw their new renovation which “updated” their previous standalone tables and chairs to now be replaced by one elongated cafeteria-style table where cyber café customers now sit with their laptops, androids, ipads, and other mobile devices. What I find interesting is that in a world where so many people are “on the go”, it seems that mobile devices are simultaneously better connecting them to information, while also disconnecting them from various social or “sensorial” interactions. Being interpreted loosely, being “on the go” time-wise does not necessarily mean moving between only physical spaces, but it can now mean moving between virtual ones as well.

A Place Where Bits Merge with Bites

Thus, I think it is the new challenge for architects to straddle both areas — providing building occupants with both greater digital world connectivity to social and informational networks while also providing them with a way to “disconnect”, or better “bridge” with the physical world so they can sensorially experience what is happening around them in real time. After all, I think that the two can work together very well for people, as they feed in and out of each other. For example, your design could bring sensorial and social interactions to impact building occupants’ way of thinking, which, in turn, will impact what they do with their virtual connections…and visa versa.

I was recently reading an excerpt from the book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (affiliate link) where William J. Mitchell makes a point about just how interconnected virtual bits are to their physical body counterparts. That is to say that actions that occur in the physical world, are almost timelessly linked to the actions that are now occurring in virtual space. With that in mind, it should be your job as an architect to design physical spaces that impact not only the building occupants within them, but also the stream of bit-like interactions that will result because of them.

So begin simply by taking a second look at those cafés and airports which are often taken for granted. For when you think of a café and its customers, think of the physical and sensorial interactions that occur there — and then think of the parallel effects of those interactions in the digital world of virtual space. How will the two merge within your design? How can you play off of one to make the other better? And is there a place within which you would ever try to separate them? Today, architects must often design for not only the physical, not only the ethereal, but also the digital world of bits.

So, perhaps the reason customers go to these places are changing. And as what they do there changes, will you be adjusting your architectural designs to their change in behavior after the fact? Or will your architectural designs lead the way?

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Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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