Igor Schwarzmann is the German co-founder of Third Wave, a strategy consultancy based in Berlin that works with small-scale industrial manufacturers. The company’s clients range across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, so Schwarzmann often finds himself moving between poles of the global economy. While traveling, he turns to Foursquare for recommendations about where to eat and drink. “It knows what I like,” he says.
The Subway That Sunk
How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world
By Kyle Chayka | Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
Igor Schwarzmann is the German co-founder of Third Wave, a strategy consultancy based in Berlin that works with small-scale industrial manufacturers. The company’s clients range across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, so Schwarzmann often finds himself moving between poles of the global economy. While traveling, he turns to Foursquare for recommendations about where to eat and drink. "It knows what I like," he says.
Every time Schwarzmann alights in a foreign city he checks the app, which lists food, nightlife, and entertainment recommendations with the help of a social network-augmented algorithm. Then he heads toward the nearest suggested cafe. But over the past few years, something strange has happened. "Every coffee place looks the same," Schwarzmann says. The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.
It’s not that these generic cafes are part of global chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee, with designs that spring from the same corporate cookie cutter. Rather, they have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic. Digital platforms like Foursquare are producing "a harmonization of tastes" across the world, Schwarzmann says. "It creates you going to the same place all over again."
It’s easy to see how social media shapes our interactions on the internet, through web browsers, feeds, and apps. Yet technology is also shaping the physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave in areas of our lives that didn’t heretofore seem so digital. Think of the traffic app Waze rerouting cars in Los Angeles and disrupting otherwise quiet neighborhoods; Airbnb parachuting groups of international tourists into residential communities; Instagram spreading IRL lifestyle memes; or Foursquare sending traveling businessmen to the same cafe over and over again.
We could call this strange geography created by technology "AirSpace." It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.
It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t. Well-off travelers like Kevin Lynch, an ad executive who lived in Hong Kong Airbnbs for three years, are abandoning permanent houses for digital nomadism. Itinerant entrepreneurs, floating on venture capital, might head to a Bali accelerator for six months as easily as going to the grocery store. AirSpace is their home.
As the geography of AirSpace spreads, so does a certain sameness. Schwarzmann’s cafe phenomenon recalls what the architect Rem Koolhaas noticed in his prophetic essay "The Generic City," from the 1995 book S,M,L,XL: "Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport—‘all the same’?" he asks. "What if this seemingly accidental—and usually regretted—homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?"
Yet AirSpace is now less theory than reality. The interchangeability, ceaseless movement, and symbolic blankness that was once the hallmark of hotels and airports, qualities that led the French anthropologist Marc Augé to define them in 1992 as "non-places," has leaked into the rest of life.
As an affluent, self-selecting group of people move through spaces linked by technology, particular sensibilities spread, and these small pockets of geography grow to resemble one another, as Schwarzmann discovered: the coffee roaster Four Barrel in San Francisco looks like the Australian Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn looks like The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen looks like Bear Pond Espresso in Tokyo. You can get a dry cortado with perfect latte art at any of them, then Instagram it on a marble countertop and further spread the aesthetic to your followers.
This confluence of style is being accelerated by companies that foster a sense of placelessness, using technology to break down geography. Airbnb is a prominent example. Even as it markets unique places as consumable goods, it helps its users travel without actually having to change their environment, or leave the warm embrace of AirSpace.
Founded in 2008 by two graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, Airbnb allows "hosts" to rent out unused space in their own homes. It now includes more than 2 million spaces in over 190 countries. "Experience a place like you live there," is the company’s current credo. It heralds "a world where you can belong anywhere."
Airbnb’s early website design, when it was still called AirBed & Breakfast, was Craigslist-rough and functionalist, promoting shots of hosts or scenery over interior decorating ("better than a cheap hotel," its embedded title text read). By late 2012, it settled into the house-porn format it embraces today, with high-resolution, full-bleed images that could have been pulled from the pages of Dwell. The listings are presented not just as convenient hotel alternatives, but places where users would love to live permanently. The aspirational quality helped the company to blow past predecessors like Couchsurfing.org, which championed the experience of intruding in someone else’s life rather than roleplaying being a local. In a sense, Airbnb became an interactive lifestyle magazine.
In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. "I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes," she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called "Modern Life Space." But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. "The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity," Schwulst says. "But so many of them were similar," whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.
There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. "It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms," she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. "It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too," Schwulst says.
Airbnb’s advertising dwells in this paradox. A 2014 spot appropriates the nauseous, dissociative glamour of Lost in Translation’s Tokyo tourism in a series of shots out of various windows, looking into the foreign from a safe distance. In April of this year, another spot parodied tourist behavior — selfie sticks, Segway tours — and set it against the "authentic" activities — falling asleep on the couch reading a book or watching your child build a pillow fort — enabled by a stay with one of the platform’s hosts. It offered a vision of possessiveness, in which visitors consume recognizable symbols rather than encountering unfamiliar ones: "The local coffee shop is yours, too."
Aaron Taylor Harvey, one of the leaders of Airbnb’s environments team, which oversees the design of the company’s offices around the world, has also noticed this pleasant sameness (Harvey estimates he has stayed at over 60 Airbnbs). While Airbnb doesn’t offer any decorating standards besides a few tips posted on their website ("show personality, not personal items," one reads), the existence of the platform itself and the needs of its users enables a certain sameness to spread. "You can feel a kind of trend in certain listings. There’s an International Airbnb Style that’s starting to happen," Harvey continues. "I think that some of it is really a wonderful thing that gives people a sense of comfort and immediate belonging when they travel, and some of it is a little generic. It can go either way."
Hotels have long sold visions of comfort and stability, and Airbnb is evolving toward replicating the hotel industry it disrupted. In 2013, the company hired Chip Conley, the founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel group, as its head of global hospitality and strategy. But what makes Airbnb different is its decentralization. Like Schwarzmann’s copycat cafes, its aesthetic arises from tens of thousands of people making the same independent decisions rather than a corporate mandate. The Airbnb marketplace is evolving toward its most effective product; it seems that what consumers want more than an exotic experience is something like a Days Inn but more stylish and less obvious — a generic space hidden behind a seemingly unique facade.
Yet Airbnb would prefer to dispel any association with the non-local. When I asked Harvey to clarify his definition of International Airbnb Style in writing, a PR rep interjected, and stopped our correspondence short: "Each host and guest will have their own personal thoughts on this phrase." However, some characteristics jump to mind: white or bright accent walls, raw wood, Nespresso machines, Eames chairs, patterned rugs on bare floors, open shelving, the neutered Scandinavianism of HGTV. "The industrial look and the mid-century," suggests Natascha Folens, an interior decorator and Airbnb consultant in the Washington, DC area. "As long as it doesn’t look cluttered and old."
International Airbnb Style may be associated with comfort and accessibility, but it is far from equally accessible to everyone. Earlier this year, Quirtina Crittenden, a business consultant in Chicago, started the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack to highlight experiences of discrimination on the platform, like hosts accepting reservations from an account with a white or anonymous avatar and denying a dark-skinned one. The observation was reinforced by a Harvard Business School study finding that users with stereotypically African-American names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted by hosts. It’s an issue the company knows it has to address; it recently appointed former Peace Corps director David King in the new position of "director of diversity and belonging."
Meanwhile, International Airbnb Style continues to reproduce, sometimes by outright appropriation. Zoé de Las Cases and Benjamin Dewé, a French interior designer couple, were shocked when they discovered that Airbnb had replicated the design of an apartment that they listed on the platform for a meeting room in the company’s San Francisco corporate office, down to a trio of faux-industrial pendant lights, a twee chalkboard, and a floating shelf full of almost identical art objects (in 2012 Airbnb itself had rented Las Cases and Dewé’s space to host a party). The couple sued Airbnb in late 2015. "They are branding their company with our life," Dewé told BuzzFeed. In making the replica rooms, company designers would "reproduce the exact sofa, as close as they could to the exact chair," recalls Lisa Bottom, a design director at Gensler, the architecture firm that designed the office in 2014.
Bottom says the meeting rooms were the brainchild of Airbnb founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, the RISD graduates. Gensler arranged the company’s meeting rooms around an atrium so that, "when you looked up through the atrium space, it was like looking at little snapshots of various cities," Bottom says. All places, in one place. Imagine traveling across continents in a pilgrimage to the headquarters of the company that helps you open your house to strangers only to find yourself — at home.
Yet other startups are creating this globalized sameness-as-a-service in a self-enclosed package, a holistic AirSpace lifestyle.
I met Bruno Haid in a cafe that Igor Schwarzmann could have been describing, an austere garage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, full of blonde wood, understated leather furniture, and motorcycle gear, which the shop also sells. Haid is the founder of Roam, an international "co-living" startup that promises its users — "Roamers" — the ability to move freely across residences in different countries for a monthly fee of $2,000 (or $500 per week). The company raised $3.4 million in funding in May, and currently manages spaces in Ubud, Bali; Miami; and Madrid. Buenos Aires and London are coming soon.
The properties vary: Roam Madrid is in an ornate 19th century building previously owned by the Vatican, and Ubud is a former boutique hotel. But they share a basic structure: "a shared kitchen, even-sized private bedrooms, all have private bathrooms. The communal areas always have a really nice co-working space, always have high-end physical networking gear," Haid says. In every workspace, "wherever you go we have those Eames aluminum chairs. We looked at so many different chairs and they are the best." Other flourishes include tulip tables, wide communal desks, and attenuated wire lamps.
Through its network of digitally linked spaces, Roam guarantees that you can cook in the same kitchen and sit in the same chair under the same light anywhere in the world. Like similar startups Common and Breather (or WeWork’s WeLive), the company is betting that this experience is now what we prefer to constructing our own unique spaces. It’s "a professional nomadic community," says David Cornthwaite, a self-identified adventurer and blogger who was one of the first residents at Roam Ubud. "We had an almost full house, 24 rooms," he says. "It was a perfect space."
Aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand, and tech investors are catching on. With Airbnb, "It’s not like you’re at a Holiday Inn that’s the exact same everywhere, but there’s a feeling of familiarity even in the midst of diversity," says Kanyi Maqubela, a venture partner at Collaborative Fund, which invested in Roam. "I can stay in other people’s homes with them, eat apples they got from their own farmer’s market."
Schwarzmann critiqued the lack of locality in generic places, but Haid’s company suggests a different, paradoxical definition of locality: desirable places should be both specific enough to be interesting and generic enough to be as convenient as possible, consumed quickly and easily — equal parts authentic and expendable. In his 1992 book Non-Places, Marc Augé, the French anthropologist, wrote that with the emergence of such identity-less space, "people are always, and never, at home." If we can be equally at home everywhere, as Roam and Airbnb suggest, doesn’t that mean we are also at home nowhere? The next question is, do we mind?
The profusion of generic cafes and Eames chairs and reclaimed wood tables might be a superficial meme of millennial interior decorating that will fade with time. But the anesthetized aesthetic of International Airbnb Style is the symptom of a deeper condition, I think.
Why is AirSpace happening? One answer is that the internet and its progeny — Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb — is to us today what television was in the last century, with "a certain ability to transmit and receive and then apply layers of affection and longing and doubt," as George W.S. Trow wrote in his paranoiac masterpiece of media criticism, "Within the Context of No Context," originally published in The New Yorker in 1980. But instead of Trow’s "grid of 200 million," American television viewers, we now have a global grid of 1.6 billion: Facebook’s population of monthly active users, all acting and interacting more or less within the same space, learning to see and feel and want the same things.
The connective emotional grid of social media platforms is what drives the impression of AirSpace. If taste is globalized, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases. It resembles a kind of gentrification: one that happens concurrently across global urban centers. Just as a gentrifying neighborhood starts to look less diverse as buildings are renovated and storefronts replaced, so economically similar urban areas around the world might increasingly resemble each other and become interchangeable.
In their introduction to The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization, the fashion scholars Eugenia Paulicelli and Hazel Clark write that this "aesthetic gentrification… divides the new world map in the light of a softer post-Cold War prejudice: the fashionable and the unfashionable world." In other words, we are experiencing an isolationism of style versus one of politics or physical geography, though it still falls along economic lines. You either belong to the AirSpace class or you don’t.
The homogeneity induced by this division can become stifling, to that point that opting out appears the better option. Rochelle Short was an Airbnb Superhost in Seattle (the designation requires many guests, high response rates, and perfect reviews). She started on the platform in 2013 and became a kind of guru for hosts through her blog, Letting People In. But she stopped hosting this year, as Airbnb itself has in a way become gentrified.
"I think the demographic started to change," Short says. In 2013, Airbnb felt like a true social experiment, "pioneering new territory, attracting people who were open-minded, easy-going, don’t worry if there’s a fleck on the mirror in the bathroom." By 2016, she explains, it "became the vanilla tourist who wanted the Super 8 motel experience. I don’t like these travelers as much as the earlier days."
This year, Airbnb moved from passively shaping the spaces users inhabit, to changing the way they travel by creating in-app guidebooks that will provide Foursquare-like recommendations to guests based on host tips. Just this week, the company also announced Samara, an in-house design and engineering studio that will "pioneer services for connection, commerce, and social change within and around the expanding Airbnb community," Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia said in the press release. Samara’s first residence and community center in Nara Prefecture, Japan, Gebbia suggests, will enable a kind of voyeurism for foreign tourists: "I picture Western guests walking up, stepping inside, and you’re interacting with the community from the minute you arrive," he told Fast Company.
Yet the AirSpace aesthetic that Airbnb has contributed to, and the geography it creates, limits experiences of difference in the service of comforting a particular demographic ("the vanilla tourist") falsely defined as the norm. It is a "hallucination of the normal," as Koolhaas writes. This is the harmful illusion that so much technology, and technological culture, perpetuates: if you do not fit within its predefined structures as an effective user, you must be doing something wrong. Says Schwarzmann, "It’s a bubble, a lot of things that are reinforcing our bubble. I’m definitely part of the described problem. White, male, privileged and I travel a lot."
Among the phenomenon’s consequences is depersonalization, in the psychiatric sense: "a state in which one loses all sense of identity." I personally like the AirSpace style. I can’t say no to a tasteful, clean, modern life space. But thinking through its roots and negative implications makes me reconsider my attachment. It’s hard to identify with something so empty at its core.
In the advent of AirSpace, our options are limited. The first is finding "the advantages of blankness," as Koolhaas writes, becoming connoisseurs of "the color variations in the fluorescent lighting of an office building just before sunset, the subtleties of the slightly different whites of an illuminated sign at night." Kanyi Maqubela, the Roam investor, sees meaning in the generic from an unexpected source. "If you go to Catholic church in most parts of the world, the mass is going to feel like the mass. There is still a sense of unity," he says. "We’re starting to enter the world where these private companies have some of that magic to them, the notion of feeling at home across time zones in any country."
Suggesting that Airbnb could become the next Vatican is a stretch, however. While it would be impossible to stop the spread of the generic style—like trying to stop all hotels from looking the same—there are still steps to consider against the imperfect frictionlessness of the territory it occupies. This could come in the form of legislation that resists the spread of services like Airbnb (as Berlin, Paris, New York and San Francisco are considering), or a simple personal choice to become more invested in the local than the mobile — to opt for the flawed community bed & breakfast rather than the temporary, immaculate apartment. Seeking out difference is important, particularly when technology makes it so easy to avoid doing so.
Left unchecked, there is a kind of nightmare version of AirSpace that could spread room by room, cafe by cafe across the world. It’s already there, if you look for it. There are blank white lofts with subway-tile bathrooms, modular furniture, wall-mounted TVs, high-speed internet, and wide, viewless windows in every city, whether it’s downtown Madrid; Nørrebro, Copenhagen; or Gulou, Beijing. Once you take the place of the people who live there, you can head out to their favorite coffee shops, bars, or workspaces, which will be instantly recognizable because they look just like the apartment that you’re living in. You will probably enjoy it. You might think, ‘This is nice, I am comfortable.’ And then you can move on to the next one, only a click away.