In my final year of architecture school at the Harvard GSD, my thesis project proposed a ‘mixed-use-on-crack’ museum/dormitory/academic building in which the program was essentially a combination of ‘live-work-play-study.’ The proposed site was an enormous, vacant lot across the street from the Harvard Innovation Lab in Allston, just over the bridge. This project surfaced the interesting tension between public and private spaces that naturally happen in a university setting. This project propsoed that students work, study and live amongst the millions of things squirreled away in Harvard’s private collection. And that led to some interesting thoughts on what ‘private’ space is today, if it exists at all anymore, in the Airbnb age. In a time where privacy is constantly being redefined in the digital realm, I belive it is having a profound impact on our physical spaces as well, with many shades of gray between absolute privacy to absolute public-ness. I think this reflects our need as humans for a variety of conditions in which to dwell, both online and in the physical world.
‘Private-Private’ Spaces & Stuff in the Sharing Economy
In an age where privacy is constantly being redefined in the digital realm, how is that impacting our physical spaces? Is the single-family home, the last vestige of a space that we can define as ‘private-private?’ In a world where smartphones, cameras and video recording are readily available at our fingertips, is any home really private anymore?
Furthermore, how will the internet of things and the continued growth of the sharing economy transform the ‘sphere of domesticity?’
As I was thinking about these gradients of privacy and ‘public-ness,’ I had an Airbnb hosting opportunity coming up on my calendar. My participation as a host was also re-shaping my perception of privacy (not to mention my normal routine for house cleaning), and I wanted to understand this in a deeper way. So I made a quick sketch of my apartment in Cambridge at the time by focusing only on the things in my space. It looked like this:
Here, I’ll define objects in the ‘Public-Public’ category as anything that I wouldn’t mind if I found a picture of it somewhere on the internet for anyone to see. This would include my books, drawings, paintings and household furnishings.
I define ‘Private-Public’ as stuff that I wouldn’t mind an Airbnb guest using when they stayed in my home, but that would feel a bit weird if I saw a photo of it on the internet. This includes objects like linens, gifts from others, and the contents of my cabinets and utility closets.
And finally, things I categorize as ‘Private-Private’ include papers in my filing cabinet, photographs, my dresser drawer, and personal files on my computer. Using only hatch lines and black and white, I quickly diagrammed those objects within my 800-square foot apartment in Cambridge, and they looked like this:
In the axonometric floor plan, I’ve displayed the objects as they resided within my apartment. Many things in the Private-Private category were in the bedroom (not surprisingly), but not all. So for the next diagram, I decided to rearrange those objects according to these funny little orbits of privacy.
The circular drawings at the bottom display cocentric circles of privacy, with ‘Private-Private’ at the core, ‘Private-Public’ in the middle, and ‘Public-Public’ inhabitin the outer ring. I was most surprised by how many things were in this gray area between absolute privacy and absolute public-ness. By asking myself 2 key questions (‘Would I want to see this on the internet?’ and ‘Would I want my Airbnb guest to see this?’), I had separated my objects into three different layers. Not rocket science, but it is one way to think about how spatial privacy is expanding from a single word into a gradient. Cars, sports equipment, and even clothing and are all examples of spaces and objects that are being redefined by the sharing economy.
I’ll continue this discussion of ‘private-public’ spaces by returning to Harvard here for a minute. At any given time, less than 1% of Harvard’s enormous collection of books, art, artifacts, and stuff is on display for students, researchers, or visitors to see.
In fact, to be granted special access to the resources in storage, there are 2 levels that one must pass — the first is that you have to learn or discover that Harvard has them, and second, you must present the credentials to prove that you have a right to see it, study it, or even touch it. Harvard is essentially “private-public.” It is private in that you need access to get into the community, but it is ‘public’ in that technically, anyone can walk into the front door of the library, hang out there, and make a request. Other examples of private-public spaces are anywhere a membership card (or keycard) is vital. Membership can be formal and for a certain duration of time (like a gym membership or a hotel stay). “Private-public” space is more difficult to define in the digital realm, and it is difficult to capture users who are accustomed to having free access to vast amounts of resources and information.
What exactly does a membership to a digital product entail? Sites like The New York Times online, Patreon, and See.me are experimenting within this space. Kickstarter makes membership (becoming a backer) happen on the project level, and these ‘insiders’ gain access to goodies and rewards, or simply move to the front of the line.
The “public-public” library, with a civic mission to inform, educate and provide tangible educational resources to anyone, is a fairly recent invention that started with the Boston Public Library, and then spread to every major city throughout the 19th century. The architect who became the go-to architect for this new building type, H.H. Richardson, instituted a style and visual vocabulary to accompany it. The style became known as Richardsonian Romanesque, and incorporated loads of rusticated granite on the exterior. The interiors were just as ornate, and it is so closely associated with a ‘library aesthetic’ today that we rarely notice it. Below is a Richardsonian library in Woburn, Massachusetts:
H.H. Richardson was kind of rad and took himself a little bit seriously. (see below).
Think about that outfit for a second — he lived during the 19th century, not when Middle Earth was a thing. Anyway, other examples of what I would define as ‘public-public’ spaces are coffeeshops and piazzas, or public squares. Public-public spaces are not ‘spaces with no rules.’ In fact, public-public spaces are often designed to have their inhabitants move, act, and hang out in a very specific way. Some of this is reinforced through the physical architecture of the space, and sometimes through social codes. Michelangelo’s design for the Laurentian Library c. 1530 in Florence reflects this. There is 1 central aisle, with 1 desk per aisle, and 1 book per desk. At the time, books were so valuable that they were chained to the desk. They are as architecturally significant as the
Granted, the Laurentian library was a ‘private-private’ space for the scholars and family that had access to it, but I bring it up here to discuss the ‘discipline’ and order that the architect brought to the space, and the lineage of libraries that followed its model. Largely because of the diversity of people using the space, public-public spaces have loads of subtle or explicit social ‘codes’ that shape the behavior of its inhabitants. Think about what rush hour in Manhattan would look like without them, or the comments section on Youtube. Because of the enormous scale and diversity of that audience, norms are quickly established for the community. Voting comments up or down allows the most popular ones to rise to the top, and at the same time removes the burden of policing comments from the community managers.
If websites from 2000 through roughly 2010 were characterized by the runaway success of Public-Public spaces like Youtube, Ebay, or Craigslist, my guess is that the next generation of websites and apps will be more interested in exploring our need for subtler definitions of community. I think this will lead to a greater diversity of Public-Private and Private-Private digital spaces.
As I stated earlier, I think this reflects our need as humans for a variety of conditions in which to dwell. In this post-Snowden era, we have seen the widespread popularity of apps like Whisper and Secret that are public, but at the same time maintain one’s private identity. Pinterest created secret boards to respond to user demand for a space that is private and all yours. Private-private apps like Snapchat are enthusiastically received — it seems that ephemerality of content and an app with truly short-term memory has really resonated with its audience.