Time is moneyThe evolution of social space

Friday 7 February 2014Shares

London’s first pay-per-hour 'café', Ziferblat, [1] is a prime example of the evolution of social space. Totality has been working on developing third space facilities for several years, and now it seems that the café culture is openly acknowledging and embracing the notion. Based on a Russian chain [2], Ziferblat shifts monetary value from consumables themselves to the social and spatial. At 388 Old Street, time spent is money, to be measured by your own personal alarm clock.

The notion makes sense when you consider how many people take to cafes for hours with kindles, ipads, magazines and newspapers. The introduction of free wifi in cafes has undoubtedly encouraged new forms of social activity to take place within the public realm, in conjunction with the increase in portable technology, which means almost anything is possible remotely. With complimentary snacks, pay-as-you-go sites remove the pretence that to be in a café you must be actively consuming – allowing people to just ‘be’.

Owner Ivan Mitlin envisaged utopian free space where people can engage in leisure activities, work, play music, or prepare food – all at a cost of 3p per minute.

Unsurprisingly, Ziferblat has experienced problems with its lease given that it straddles the line between a ‘shared workspace’ and a ‘venue selling food and drink’. [3] The difficulty lay in how third spaces can themselves be chargeable, and gain credibility in a society which traditionally revolves around commodity consumption.

A fully lived space, Ziferblat undoubtedly falls into Edward Soja’s [4] definition of third space, and indeed is arguably a post-modern day heterotopia. [5] A term coined by philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, a heterotopia is a space ‘which takes the form of relations among sites…in such a way as to…neutralise… the set of relations that they happen to mirror, or reflect.’ His 1967 essay ‘Of Other Spaces’ was the precursor to place being considered as a heterotopic entity. What brings people to the café is its neutrality and the growing acceptance that the café experience is mutating into an almost ‘open air living room’; [6] a public space to engage in private activity, since no longer is private time spent exclusively in the privacy of your own four walls, or paradoxically a public space to engage in social or public activity. Ziferblat is a place where tangible and social societal arrangements are represented and at the same time overturned. An experience there is a slice in time where the visitor is present in the space at the other side of the glass, but often un-present…in their own world. As urban planner John Montgomery states ‘The attraction of the city is that it liberates individuals from deeply felt norms in the private self, and allows people to learn about themselves and others…this is only possible because one can choose to remain private in a public place, or public in a public space’. [7] Interactions within the café environment have become a microcosm of city living, providing a welcome retreat for the melting pot of city dwellers. They are places for voyeurism, socialising, studying and in Ziferblat’s case a place to completely lose yourself in time.

Featuring a Rene Magritte style logo, Ziferblat is much like a social experiment, or ‘a social network in real life’, [8]  as its website claims. It also resembles installations by contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija which bring people together in space, such as his ‘Untitled (Free)’ café installation at MoMA, NYC.

John Montgomery summaries the argument made by Danish architect Jan Gehl, who argues that ‘good public spaces are characterized by the presence of people staying or lingering when they have no pressing reason (or 'necessary activity') to keep them there…(he) argues that the success of urban public space can be judged by whether or not people are engaged in 'optional' and/or 'social' activities, such as having a conversation, sitting or simply watching others’. [9]

If we want our urban spaces to be successful, we need to embrace the notion of the third space, and transform and design the urban realm to allow for ‘other spaces’, in which optional public and private activities can take place.

Author: Sarah Moor

To learn more about Ziferblat's future visit http://ziferblat.net/en/news/

[1] Translating to clock face
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/jan/08/pay-per-minute-cafe-ziferblat-london-russia
[3] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/clock-may-be-ticking-for-ziferblat-londons-first-payperminute-caf-9103543.html
[4] Postmodern geographer and urban planner
[5] "effectively realized utopia, in which all the real arrangements, all the other real arrangements that can be found within society, are at one and the same time represented, challenged, and overturned: a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable.” ‘Of Other Spaces’, Michel Foucault
[6] J Oosterman from ‘Welcome to the pleasure dome: play and entertainment in urban public space: the example of the sidewalk café’
[7] Café culture and the city : The role of pavement cafes in the social realm by John Montgomery
[8] http://london.ziferblat.net/
[9] Café culture and the city : The role of pavement cafes in the social realm by John Montgomery