Sunday, March 10, 2013

The essence of privacy: designing for individual needs

Not long ago privacy was a concept that related essentially to the physical world. All human beings need time to be with themselves: to rest, to reflect, to pray, to prepare mentally for the outside world or just to enjoy quality time in small groups. Finding a place to be alone or to enjoy privacy was not difficult. 

Then, in a short period of time our lives were taken over by an ever-growing dependency on the digital realm and rather than relating to the fulfillment of individual needs, privacy became instead a way to quantify the amount of personal information that we share with others, willingly or not.

If privacy is less and less a physical experience, how do we frame the need for privacy in todays built environment? Our homes are places where we can still affect some degree of control over what we share about ourselves, but how can we achieve it in the public environment: in the workplace, in leisure areas, in hotels or in cultural venues?

In his inspirational book "The Poetics of Space", french philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote:
 "... the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace."
The complaint about lack of privacy is not a real one as most people knowingly accept some interference with their personal lives in order to benefit from the enhanced reality provided by our permanent sharing. I believe it is the ability to find some sort of personal space to be oneself without the involvement of others that can provide us with a sense of privacy. Even if we remain connected, we need to be in control of our environment. Privacy is probably shifting from the "alone-together" idea that used to be common in libraries, museums and churches, and moving towards a "together-alone" behavior where we can selectively connect to the wider community in some form of seclusion.

I wonder if the growing appeal of calm and serene wellness destinations does not come from this inner desire to be in a bubble where the outside world is kept somewhat at bay. It is not unusual to see people in spa relaxation areas with their smartphones or tablets. They might be enjoying leisure activities but also replying to a work email - but they still feel relaxed because there, they feel protected.

I used to think that being in an airplane provided me with a distance from the real world and for a few hours I was in privacy, even if the passenger next to me was clearly inside the most personal area of my proximity sphere, where usually no-one besides my family can stay for such a long period of time. But now we can connect to the world from the plane, and although I try to resist it, there is a sense of guilt in insisting to have those few hours all for myself.

So how do we address the design of public spaces to ensure that we create the "new privacy" that people seek?

The ability to personalize interiors is the bridge that separates public and domestic spaces, but as urban dwellers become more transient, empowered by the tools that have fostered globalization that allow them to be in multiple locations simultaneously, the challenges to the design of public spaces include trying to create those dreaming and reflecting places without interfering with the every-day life.

In "The Architecture of Happiness", Alain de Botton shares sensitive insights into the nature of human needs that we should keep in mind:
"What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty."

I take this to mean that if we can create a sense of identity between people and the spaces they inhabit, then we can trigger a positive connection. So much of what we call "connection" these days is so short-lived and superficial, that if we use the permanence of architecture as something that people can experience, then we touch them at a deeper level and imprint more memorable experiences. And if people experience that physical connection then we can start exploring new forms of privacy.

Relating this issue to the design of hotels is my immediate reaction as those are the spaces I deal with professionally, but I am interested in the public sphere in general. I always learn from watching how people behave in public and I've researched recent projects in the cultural field to make some sense of this important driver of design.

Charles E. Young Research Library

In the Fall/Winter issue of IIDA Perspective Magazine, UCLA Deputy Librarian Dr. Susan Parker leads an interesting tour of the recently renovated, high-tech and socially mediated facility, where physical books as well as technology and privacy held equally important places in the brief to designers Perkins+Will and Eva Maddox Branded Environments.

Perspective IIDA - Fall/Winter 2012 (pg. 14

I invite you to discover how relevant some of the aspects of this library's design are for wider thought about public spaces, but a particular comment stayed with me:
"We have a progression of spaces within the library, inviting people to explore and find areas that are relevant to them. That echoes the metaphor of discovery - of knowledge - that happens in the library."
It is so important to create the possibilities of self-discovery, as those will provide people with a sense of individuality, with the ability to customize their environment around their behavior, and ultimately enable that elusive sense of privacy. 

East Hotel - Hong Kong

Just recently I stayed a few days at East in Hong-Kong. East is part of Swire Hotels, owners of  The Upper House, which in a past blog post I elected as one of the game-changers in the hospitality market ("Hotels of the future: will they be comfortable?").

Entrance (from:

East is a wonderful example of a hotel where all spaces are able to retain the ability to treat each guest in an entirely personal way, where travelers that are focused on the reason for their trip can feel as if there is a little bit of home there, and still enjoy communal  areas in a very relaxed way. As I said before, most people have accepted to live with smaller intimacy spheres around them, so the answer to creating some privacy possibly comes from having a variety of contiguous spaces to satisfy different needs. It could be the ability to jump into a private call by moving away from the louder areas into small acoustically appropriate compartments and a diversity of seating layouts that can accommodate both formal and informal gatherings in the same space, allow for work, relax, alone or together.

Sugar Bar (from:
And in the guestroom, then more freedom is permitted to provide that variety, sometimes with a bit of gimmicks and otherwise just by providing natural and serene comfort with the focus on the bed, the lighting, the shower and in this case ... the view!

1 comment:

  1. east hotel looks amazing! and i think the issue of privacy is going to become even greater, not just about what we keep private to safeguard our identities but also when the world of social media platforms and sharing, which requires us to allow for more personable connections, just is sharing simply too much?