• Sunday , 24 September 2017

Simon’s Place in George’s Street Arcade

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The life of Simon’s Place, the coffee shop at the entrance to George’s Street Arcade in Dublin, is structured by the activity within. The patterns of observed activity that emerge reveal a common sequence of things that people do. Typical interactions happen regularly, and are repeated throughout the day, involving different people and at different times. At my table, I leaf through a copy of Totally Dublin that the person who sat here before me had been reading. As I was waiting at the counter for my coffee, they were getting ready to leave. While our patterns of activity are basically interchangeable, our experiences, due their subjective nature, are not. Our interpretations of surrounding conditions will be unique. The kind of activity in Simon’s occurs too in contexts elsewhere. Across the Liffey, St. Joseph’s Penny Dinners is a refuge for people in crisis; people come in, make their way to a counter, and are passed a meal and a cup of tea or coffee. They are there out of necessity, and no money is exchanged. The motions are about the same as in Simon’s Place, though due to the particular conditions within the place, a very different experience is conjured. The same goes for profit driven chains at the other end of the spectrum; the customers at any Starbucks go through a similar routine, but are taking part in an homogenous experience reproduced everyday all over the planet according to a formula. This formula eliminates a sense of real place, and creates instead familiar places to be immediately recognised by people in unfamiliar worlds.

Meals, coffee, tea; we have them every day. Mary Douglas’ study highlights how any one meal is understood in reference to previous meals.[1] Features that stand out against all the remembered features of all the other meals we’ve ever had, and the variety of spatial settings in which we have them, can make sense to us in different ways. Experiential factors come into play here, like memory, taste, smells, sounds, physical elements, people and their cultures. Luce Giard with De Certeau considers the everyday experience of eating as making ‘concrete one of the specific modes of relation between a person and the world, thus forming one of the fundamental landmarks in space-time,’[2] and so as David Leatherbarrow suggests, ‘ordinary practice may transcend itself into a rite.’[3]

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The experience of the coffee shop unfolds as a sequence, and each stage of this sequence is marked by particular physical elements, their position, role and meaning. These physical features of the place come into focus and recede as necessary. The salt and pepper shakers on every table are noticed when needed, then quietly efface into the background afterwards, allowing one’s attention to turn to other things.[4]

The first physical element to deal with is a door, an important feature that simultaneously separates and connects the inside of the café and the city around it. Simon’s Place has two doors; one connecting to the arcade, and one to the street. If coming from the north end of the street, people are more likely to first come through the dramatic, Gothic gateway which naturally draws you into the arcade, and then use the side door into the coffee shop. Moving through this semi-outdoor threshold is a more gradual way to enter. The use of the door features twice in the experience of the coffee shop. It is one element, as explored by Georg Simmel, with a ‘complete difference of intention between entering and exiting,’ acting as bookends in a customer’s interaction with the place. [5]

From its corner position the coffee shop is connected to both the arcade and the street. The space is separated on both sides almost entirely by glass, so that from the inside, customers can always look out, and from the street and arcade, passers-by can see in. This visual connection is very strong, and crucial for the life of the coffee shop, as William H. Whyte observes, ‘what attracts people most, is other people.’ The window seats in Simon’s Place are great spots for people-watching too, an important activity for people in the city as Jan Gehl reminds us: ‘man is man’s greatest joy’.[6] Watching through the glass, like being in an aquarium, bodies flow by soundlessly in both directions. From inside the coffee shop, one can strengthen their sense of place by observing the particular types who frequent the arcade, and the community that it supports. People of all shapes and sizes pass through, alone, in pairs or groups, dressed according to current and outdated trends. A man who stops at the piercing stall considers with a friend whether or not to go for a septum piercing. The stall has cases and cases of jewellery on display. The same man works there every day and the arcade manager helps him set up sometimes. In the last week of November, tinsel appears on the stall and elsewhere around the arcade.

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The coffee shop appears to have self-awareness, alluding to the classic café culture of the Parisian arcades that appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century – the predecessors of the modern shopping mall.[7] This implication is made with the signage font, the red and green colour combination used throughout the place, and the French version of the name, Place du Simon, above the door on the arcade side. Walter Benjamin considered the arcade ‘the most important architecture of the nineteenth century,’ studying those in Paris with the aim to explore the commercial nature of the emerging capitalism.[8] It was from these ‘inner boulevards’[9] that the urban phenomenon of ‘flânerie’ emerged – an activity of idling, window-shopping, people-watching and observing the city that you are part of. This way of life is bound with the arcade, the street and the café, and evident before you even reach the door into Simon’s Place, as you pass people sitting with their coffees or cinnamon buns outside, chatting, smoking and watching the world go by.

1. Mary Douglas, ‘Deciphering a Meal’, Daedalus 101, no. 1 (1972), p. 66-81.
2. Luce Giard, Michel de Certeau and Pierre Mayol, ‘The Nourishing Arts’, The Practice of Everyday Life Vol. 2 Living & Cooking, (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota, 1998), p. 183.
3. David Leatherbarrow, ‘Table Talk’, In Architecture Oriented Otherwise (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).
4. Ibid.
5. Georg Simmel, ‘Bridge and Door’, trans. Mark Hitter, Theory, Culture and Society 11:1 (February 1994), p. 5.
6. Jan Gehl, Cities for People, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010), p. 7.
7. Walter Benjamin and Rolf Tiedemann, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 3.
8. Ibid., p. 834.
9. Ibid., p. 874.

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