Design Won’t Change Who We Are

Publication Date
February 6, 2020

American purveyors of European food culture have popularized the image of an old-world inn, filled with long wooden tables around which gathers a community of rustic gastronomes. In the brasseries and trattorie across the U.S. today, the long table seems to invite, even compel, an experience of collectivity rooted in communal enjoyment of food. It says, “Come rub elbows with strangers and eat this crusty bread.” By its very shape—that rousing length—it suggests something beyond the nuclear family, beyond the identity of the consumer, beyond business. It suggests new social possibilities, disrupting our expectations in exciting ways, like purple potatoes or rosemary olive oil ice cream. In cafés and coworking spaces too, the long table is a common fixture, a clear illustration of the collectivity and collaboration those spaces offer, ostensibly to counteract the atomizing tendency of precarious self-employment.[1]

A long table symbolizes togetherness, even when no one is sitting there. In the absence of a culture of collective living, the long table may express a memory of, or wish for, such a culture. The table operates as a sign of community—a system of meaning. And by allowing the physical proximity of individual bodies, the table works physically, as a shared space, to potentiate community. The form of the table begins to project, but cannot independently realize, both the symbolic and physical conditions of community-making.

Yet, in the examples so far, the table has not produced anything we can call real community. The effects are transient and psychological, not deeply social. In fact, contrary to the claims of coworking’s proponents, in a recent study “most coworkers did not define coworking as an opportunity to collaborate on federated projects.”[2] Similarly, the open office plan, sold as a progressive reform promising collaboration and creativity, is now being revealed as a failure—the literal togetherness of bodies in space actually reduces productivity and collaboration.[3]

Yet what about the case where the table expresses and makes manifest an existing culture of collective living? In this case we find a consonance between the formal structure of the table and the social structure of the table’s context. The ancestor of your favorite café’s long table, perhaps standing in a 19th century roadside inn in the French countryside, existed as an accessory—a tool for maintaining the collective culture among working classes of a farm economy. That table did not merely signal “collectivity,” but it made manifest in its form the social structure and cultural context of togetherness out of which it had evolved.
In the absence of a culture of collective living, how could a long table produce anything other than temporary social side effects? In the U.S. today, what agency does the length of a table have in producing a new, collective culture? Co-ownership of the long table, and the space in which it stands, is a tool capable of generating a robust collectivity, activating social relations and sparking their transformation.

Imagine a very long table in a room that is not a restaurant, not a café, not a coworking space. This room, and the table inside it, are collectively owned, legally, by everyone who lives within a quarter mile. While the length of the table will allow it to be used by many people at once, it is the collective ownership of the table which will activate it as an agent of collective life. Co-ownership produces a structural equality among the stakeholders, which will make possible a coming together as peers, as full individuals. That is quite unlike the togetherness of the café or commercial coworking space, which demands a relative homogeneity of values, behavior and agendas, a direct result of the transactional nature of entry into the space.

The owners, a group united only by their neighborhood, must agree how to share the table, what uses are appropriate, how to regulate the space’s availability and how to maintain the space. This conversation will inevitably lead to a discussion of purposes, values, and agendas that will vary drastically from person to person. Confronting and working to coordinate these varied agendas, purposes and values is the key to a deeper reality of collectivity and collaboration. This process will reveal a heterogeneity of aims and subjectivity which are excluded by the kinds of togetherness we may experience as co-consumers in a café or restaurant.

Architecture cannot determine social forms. Interaction and relationship do not depend on a continuous surface of wood to connect two people—conversely, a continuous tabletop devoid of a communal context is no guarantee of any kind of meaningful interaction or shared experience. As Georg Simmel observed, the issue with modernity is the existence of strangers as an urban category to begin with, certainly not what kinds of tables they are seated at.[4]  A piece of furniture, and by extension architecture itself, can symbolize and facilitate certain social realities. But it can do little to transform social relations unless that transformation is already well under way. Co-ownership of space and the objects within it is one way to activate the environment’s potential for social transformation.

1. Peuter, Greig De, Nicole S Cohen, and Francesca Saraco. “The Ambivalence of Coworking: On the Politics of an Emerging Work Practice.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 6 (November 2017): 687–706.
2. Spinuzzi, Clay. “Working Alone Together.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26, no. 4 (2012): 399–441.
3. Bernstein, Ethan, Turban, Stephen. “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration.” Philosophical Transactions B. Royal Society, B 373: 20170239. (2018)
4. Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In The Blackwell City Reader, 11–19. Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Publication Date
February 6, 2020
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