Preparing my Pecha Kucha presentation for this week made me think much more concrete about the objective of my research, and the argument I am going to spatialize. Reading Olivia Mitchell’s advices for holding a Pecha Kucha presentation also directed my focus towards what I really find to be interesting in the project. I find that, particularly inspired by reading Habermas, my research objective is to identify changes in the urban social culture that has been, and is being, produced in the coffee house, and how the changes in this might relate to changes in the mode of subjectivity of society. Similar to Habermas, I wish to address the public sphere as a space in between the public and the private (Habermas 1991, 159), and as a complex relationship between individual and the social, and the social collective.  My project will not argue along with or against Habermas’ dealing with mass media’s role as a new authority replacing the bourgeois, and its damage on the vibrant and autonomous public sphere (Habermas 1991, 194), which might have invited for a project of critiquing the common Internet culture in coffee houses today. Rather, I wish to map more objectively how the public sphere of coffee houses has changed within more complex relationships, and try and understand coherencies between forces that have enabled such changes.

Defining my base map

I will be looking for signs of changes, trends and patterns in the evolution of the urban social culture of the coffee house in New York City. My research focus is therefore directed towards the changes of configurations rather than on the ‘decline’ of the traditional, vibrant coffee house over time, into an urban office, which might have been my initial focus. I thus imagine my ‘base map’ as a space of events and relationships in between these; events in the sense of emergencies and changes of coffee houses and the practices taking place in them, and thus echo Alison Sant’s argument of inverting the standard visualization of the geographical street-map like Google Maps, in “Redefining the Basemap” (Sant 2004, 2). My challenge is how to organize my material according to a system of relationships between the ‘types’ of coffee houses, (and to define these types without enforcing a rigid categorization, which might be done with reference to coffee house types and practices from historic periods), instead of presenting a timeline of ‘coffee house evolution’. I wish to put the transformation of the urban social culture in the center of my research, and as the underlying logic of my map. In a flexible and open logic, it should be possible to find coherencies between coffee house types produced from particular combinations of forces as defined below, so that future researchers can find different patterns and look for alternative interpretations in building different arguments.

Sketching a research method

I will approach the subject with a similar multi-disciplinary method as Habermas practices, as he takes cultural, social, philosophical as well as political developments into account, to understand the transformation of the public sphere. My categories however will be modalities in the form of changes in media consumption, spatial orders (architecture and interior design), wifi installations, rules and regulations (limited seating time or abandonment of laptops), patterns in coffee house chains and openings, and motives behind recent counter-reactions to ‘the office café’. I will restrict my research to address the past fifteen years, which have been characterized by the emergency of wireless hotspots in New York City and thus a change in communication consumption, which will be the central ‘force’ of my attention. From producing my PechaKucha presentation, digging further into Habermas and after receiving advices from the designers, I have come to understand that the changes of the public sphere of coffee houses depend on much more complex relationships however. Designer Scott Pobiner particularly reminded me that the evolution of the urban social culture of coffee houses is more nuanced than a dialectic relationship between the coffee house and people’s media habits, because broader societal structures, like financial ones, also influence people’s time-lapsed and characteristic use of coffee houses. Scott mentioned as an example, how the use of the open hotspot office had exploded during the recession, when people were looking for jobs.

In the process of this research, I will remember not to “trace” but to “map”. As James Corner reminds us, referring to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, mapping will orient research towards constructing possible connections and thus enable me to experiment with these coherencies, rather than visualization and reproduction of an already existing ‘timeline’ (Corner 1999, 213).

Towards a spatial argument

My biggest concerns at this point are the scope of my project, as well as the digital possibilities for organizing my spatial argument as flexible as I aim for. I still need to work on the spatialization, however rather than thinking in neighborhoods or timelines, I prefer thinking in ‘modes’ of public spheres that overlay the city, perhaps in timely connections as well. Of course, what makes these overlays interesting for others is the formation of an argument about the current movements of the mode of the public sphere of the coffee house that should appear from my mapping, and that is anchored in tendencies from the history of the coffee house in New York City.


James Corner: “The Agency of Mapping”, in Denis Cosgrove [ed.]: Mappings, London: Reaction Books, 1999

Jurgen Habermas: “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society”, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991

Alison Sant: “Redefinint the Basemap”, in: Intelligent Agent Vol. 6 no. 2, 2006