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Tech Is Transforming Our Spaces, And We’re Just Beginning To See How

Our smartphones have enabled us to do everything, everywhere–and our physical spaces are changing as a result, according to a comprehensive new survey by the architecture firm Gensler.

If you step inside a new boutique hotel’s lobby, you’ll probably see more people in the space who aren’t there for a night’s stay than people who are. Take the Ace Hotel, in New York. I’ve never stayed overnight, but I’ve been inside for work meetings in the lobby lounge; killed time by getting a coffee, perusing their gift shop, and plunking down in one of their sofas; met friends for drinks; and had dinner. Each space is part of the same hotel, and each has its own eye-catching interior design. Regardless of what you have to do during your day, there’s a good chance the space can support it. This is emblematic of spaces of the future: multifunctional and eminently photogenic.

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According to the Experience Index, a new study by the architecture firm Gensler, this is all thanks to the smartphone in your pocket. Gensler’s research shows, quantitatively, that the technology has given rise to offices, stores, hotels, and transportation hubs that are fluid–not designed for a single purpose.

Smartphones have slowly made their mark in the interior design world. “Airspace”–a term Verge writer Kyle Chayka coined to describe the generic-fancy style that usually includes midcentury furniture, reclaimed wood, and Edison bulbs–has spread around the world thanks to sites like Airbnb. To appeal to food bloggers, restaurants are dialing up the color and pattern of their interiors and creating Instagrammable moments to become more photogenic and feed-friendly.

First Energy Stadium [Photo: ©Gensler/Ryan Gobuty]
Now, the impact of this technology is moving beyond stylistic decisions about space to influencing their actual composition. It’s not just punchy tile or chic furniture that makes a space exceptional–and thereby more successful in the eyes of people who use them–it’s about what experiences they enable. Because we can shop, work, socialize, and entertain ourselves on our phones anywhere, rigid, single-function spaces are becoming obsolete.

“We’re in a multitask world where people are toggling between different modes. Space needs to be flexible to handle those modes,” Lauren Adams, a Gensler strategist and the study’s lead author, says. “It’s almost like every space needs to be in beta.”

Hyundai Card Music Library [Photo: ©Nacasa and Partners]
Last week, WeWork announced a blockbuster acquisition of the legacy department store Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship in New York for $850 million. The retailer will rent 25% of the 676,000-square-foot building and the rest will become the coworking company’s headquarters and rentable workspace. Samsung is locating customer support services in select WeWorks–an experiment in fitting technical support more fluidly into everyday activities. Instead of waiting in a retail store–à la Best Buy or Apple’s Genius Bar–folks can catch up on work or relax in a comfortable lounge.

“People are constantly connected to work and to each other through their phones–it’s the new way of life,” Adams says. “Our phones have changed our lives to certain degrees and our spaces need to reflect that–and support the opposite of that.” Turning to our phones for more and more of our day-to-day needs removes a lot of natural social interaction–small talk with cashiers, talking with friends in person–so physical spaces need to work extra hard to restore some of that socializing.

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Gensler’s researchers spent 1.5 years conducting roundtable discussions with its clients, holding long-form ethnographic interviews with over two dozen people (some of whom cared about design a lot and some not at all) across the country (in New York, Raleigh, North Carolina; Minneapolis; Seattle; and Los Angeles), and surveying over 4,000 more people to better understand how design can make a space emotionally engaging, satisfying, and memorable.

Primark King of Prussia [Photo: ©John Muggenborg]
One key finding from the research was that a person’s reason for visiting a space frames his or her experience. Gensler’s team identified five primary modes of experience in a space to understand this better. “Task mode” involves focused and direct attention, like having a meeting. “Social mode” is where the primary purpose is to engage with other people, like going out to eat with a group. “Discovery mode” is about exploration and finding new things, like wandering through a store without a specific purchase in mind. “Entertainment mode” is about seeking escape from daily life, like going to a performance. “Aspiration mode” is about fueling personal growth and inspiration, like visiting a landmark.

Interestingly, Gensler’s research showed that people become emotionally attached to spaces that offered satisfying experiences in multiple modes.

For example, Gensler invited its subjects to take them to a place they felt strongly about, positively or negatively, then spent two to three hours interviewing them about why they felt that way about the space. Two of the top-ranked places were Eataly and Applebee’s. They occupy different ends of the food spectrum–one deals in fine Italian imports and the other in mainstream, middle America-friendly fare–but both supported multiple modes of experience.

Cadillac House [Photo: ©Eric Laignel]
The New Yorker who picked Eataly loved it because she could go food shopping (task mode), she could meet her husband there for a drink at the rooftop bar (social mode), entertain her clients there (work mode), wander the aisles and find new goods (discovery mode), and watch the chefs cook (entertainment). It also reminded her of a favorite time in life when she lived in Italy (aspiration mode). The Minneapolis resident who picked Applebee’s liked it because when she was in law school she could study there (task) and she could go on dates there (social). She liked that the waiters knew her and recognized when to offer service, or to leave her alone. A single-function building just isn’t relevant any more to people who care a great deal about design and those who don’t.

Gensler hopes this survey helps prove the connection between great design, excellent experiences, and success for business owners (happy customers usually mean good business). Gensler co-CEO Andy Cohen says that the firm’s clients have been asking about how to create great experiences and this report “validates that design has a quantifiable impact on experiences,” he says. He hopes that this, in turn, makes companies interested in building spaces that truly meet the needs of people who’ll be using them rather than pandering to some of-the-moment trend and the expense of function.

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I asked Cohen and Adams if they think this move toward multimodal space will lead to everything looking like some Frankensteined coworking-cum-retail-cum-hospitality space. They think not, since the survey also showed that authenticity is important to people. Next up, they plan to dive further into what exactly that means. (“Authenticity is an ’emperor’s new clothes’ word and we’re really starting to unpack what it means and how can we encourage what this means, or else [clients will] lose business if it’s done wrong,” Adams says.) They also have plans to create Experience Indexes for the European and Asian markets, which have different cultural values than North Americans, and might view architectural experiences differently.

“Our goal and vision is to create a better world through the power of design,” Cohen says. “What better way than being able to articulate and measure what creates great experience and great design.”

The way we live in the 21st century will continue to be shaped by 21st-century technology. It makes sense that spaces designed for purely 20th-century conditions–the cookie-cutter shopping mall, the department store, the stuffy office–have outlived their usefulness. Architecture evolves with culture and now there’s scientific research to show how.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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