Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: a double tall tale of caffeine, commerce and culture has made me sensitive to the carefully engineered spaces of commerce that now dot our cities and malls. Engineering does not fully capture the totality of the effort, either. These spaces – the Panera’s, the Barnes and Nobles, the A&F and the hundreds of others – are scripted like set designs. The showcase design skills of thirty years ago have been extended as the front display now encompasses the entire space. It is a logical and ruthless expansion.
Is authenticity possible in such a space? If we know that the placement of the stuffed chair has been subjected to focus groups, if you realize that the shade of green on the walls is supposed to make you feel hungry or thirsty, is authenticity possible? My sense is that with knowledge we assume internal mechanisms to cope with the environment. Walking down the midway at carnival, we expect to be bombarded with sights, smells, sounds and the cajoling of barkers. And we adapt, aware and guarded, to cope and defend ourselves while enjoying the cacophony.
We want certain spaces to encourage certain behaviors in academia. The underlying aim is not commerce, but learning. Some of the most interesting experiments in space planning for college students today are taking place in libraries. Information commons, media stations, flexible learning spaces and innovative technological applications are increasingly common in contemporary library design. And completing the circle, one of the most popular changes is the inclusion of a coffee bar, often a Starbucks.