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Toward a Third Place Aesthetics: An Afternoon Symposium on the Aesthetics of Communal Life

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Conference website: https://philevents.org/event/show/98857#

Organizer: Zed Adams (New School for Social Research)


Aaron Meskin (University of Georgia)

Sanna Lehtinen (Aalto University)

Zed Adams (New School for Social Research)

Symposium Overview

In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places” to refer to the “core settings of informal public life.” Among the third places he discusses are English pubs, French cafes, and American taverns.  In that work, Oldenburg discusses the personal and social value of third places. There is almost no explicit talk of aesthetic matters in the work, and when there is, the focus is on the visual aesthetics of interior design and architecture.  But pubs, cafes, taverns and the like are, at least under ordinary non-pandemic conditions, important locations of aesthetic experience and value. Moreover, the aesthetic experiences and values we find in such a spaces go beyond those associated with design and architecture and include experiences of ambiance or atmosphere, encounters with the individual or general style of such places, the aesthetic dimension of the social interactions that typically take place there, and the way in which third places may manifest creativity and other aesthetic virtues.  

This symposium will serve as an introduction to, and example of, aesthetic theorizing about third places. Meskin’s paper will provide an overview of the topic and make the case for its significance. The papers by Lehtinen and Adams will focus on the aesthetic investigation of specific kinds of third places–specifically, public libraries and outdoor dining structures–and, in so doing, provide concrete examples of third place aesthetics in action.   

Symposium Information

Date: Friday, April 22nd 

Time: 2-5pm

Location: Theresa Lang Community and Student Center (Rm. I202), 55 West 13th Street

Note: This symposium is open to the public. To attend, you must first check in at the New School’s Welcome Center at 72 5th Avenue. All visitors must be fully vaccinated and boosted and present proof of vaccination to the Welcome Center staff. Visitors must wear a mask in all university buildings and indoor spaces for the duration of their visit.

Symposium Schedule

2pm: Aaron Meskin, “Third Places Aesthetics: The Experience of Bars, Cafes, Coffeeshops and Pubs”

3pm: Sanna Lehtinen, “The Shared Aesthetics of the New Public Library” 

4pm: Zed Adams, “Curbside Cabanas and the Aesthetics of Impermanence” 


“Third Places Aesthetics: The Experience of Bars, Cafes, Coffeeshops and Pubs”

Aaron Meskin

Department of Philosophy, University of Georgia

The paper is an introduction to, and defense of, the significance of third place aesthetics. I shall argue that the aesthetics of third places have been unjustifiable neglected, that there are rich aesthetic topics to explore here, and that the contribution of third places to human flourishing is dependent, at least in part, on their aesthetic character.

The first section of the paper briefly introduces third places and the existing discourse about their value. I focus on Oldenburg’s account of the third place and discuss the individual and social values that he locates there. 

It might seem that the aesthetic dimension of third places would be a natural topic of interest for those working in the domain of everyday aesthetics. Nevertheless, philosophers working in the everyday aesthetics tradition have not, as a matter of fact, attended seriously to the aesthetic dimension of third places. In the second section of the paper, I offer a diagnosis of this neglect. Among the contributing factors, are narrow conceptions of the everyday which associate it with “daily routines or patterns” (Melchionne), the commercial nature of most third spaces, and the fact that, as Oldenburg points out, “As a physical structure, the third place is typically plain.” None of these, I shall argue, justify the neglect of third space aesthetics.

But what does justify philosophical attention to the aesthetic dimension of third places? In the third section of the paper I start to make the case for that attention by outlining the many aesthetic dimensions of third places. Putting aside the architectural and interior design features of third places, as well as the aesthetic aspects of what may be consumed there (about which much has already been written in other contexts), I turn to some aesthetic aspects of third places that are not much discussed in contemporary Anglo-American aesthetics: the atmosphere or ambiance of third places, the style (both individual and general) of these places, the creativity manifested by third places, and – perhaps most significantly—the aesthetic features that are associated with the activities of visitors to those third places. In a third place, Oldenburg suggests, “the playful spirit is of utmost importance.” I suggest that there is something right about this, at least in many cases. Third places, when they work, often lead to something like “aesthetic striving” gameplay as described by Nguyen—a temporary focus on various ends (drinking a beer or two, having a cortado) for the sake, at least in part, of the aesthetically valuable activities that lead to, or are associated broadly with, those ends. 

In the final section of the essay I argue that attending to the aesthetic richness of third place experiences provides insights into the way in which they contribute to well-being. Third places enrich our lives by providing rich contexts for aesthetic experience and, especially, aesthetic activities. This fills in a gap in the growing literature on aesthetics and well-being.

“The Shared Aesthetics of the New Public Library”

Sanna Lehtinen

School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland

Public libraries have an important link to the everyday lives of people through their main function: they present the idea that the cultivation of intellectual values is an everyday practice and that this should be available to everyone. The increased use of electronic books or cheap access to the internet has not diminished the value of providing the community with access to books and information. On the contrary, it has been proven increasingly significant to offer the public a place to pursue independent education, a place that is specifically earmarked to the cultivation of values such as intellectual freedom and life-long learning but also those directly related to the aesthetic realm such as creativity, imagination, and cross-cultural and cross-generational influences: the uses of libraries might be changing but their social functions seem to be resilient to the change. As non-commercial spaces, they complement the opportunities offered by public space in many cities and, unlike in most museums, there is no entrance fee to the library. Philosophical aesthetics opens an important approach to study this intersection of architecture, use, and social value but increasingly significant would be to study public libraries specifically as places that make visible the ongoing process of deliberation about everyday aesthetic values: how that which is valued is actively chosen and cherished by the community every single day. 

This paper explores recent developments in everyday aesthetics in the context of public libraries as the so-called third places of contemporary society. The award-winning Oodi Central Library (ALA Architects, 2018) in downtown Helsinki serves as a contemporary example that embodies many mainstream aesthetic values. It has won international recognition both for its architecture and approach to fulfilling its function (Public Library of the Year 2019; DETAIL, 2020; Project of Influence in 2020 by the international The Best in Heritage conference). Creating a sense of place has been the aim of involving the users in the development of the Central Library from the start: it has been described as a place that also shapes its community after its completion. This idea of community building is linked to the physical features of the place, how inviting and accessible it is, whether it offers places to sit down and relax, how the functions are arranged in spaces and what type of atmosphere is created as a sum of the place and its use. The intention has been to create a place to “hang out” and to offer space for more or less unplanned time for many different types of user groups. The location of Oodi in Töölö Bay area is aesthetically significant and its architectural values have been praised as representing inclusion in advanced ways. However, the paper points also criticism towards some of the recognized “third place” features of the venue, mainly its location and some negative consequences that its particular approach to inclusion has fostered.

“Curbside Cabanas and the Aesthetics of Impermanence”

Zed Adams

Department of Philosophy, New School for Social Research

Ray Oldenburg first introduced the notion of “third places” to identify enduring sites of communal life that exist in between home and work. Paradigmatic examples include bars, coffee shops, libraries, and parks. The permanence of such locations is an important part of his account: it explains not just how they foster and sustain communities that persist through time, but also how the communities that they inspire have concrete identities embedded in specific physical locations.

In this paper, I consider the question of whether third places must necessarily strive for permanence. This is not a question Oldenburg himself considers: he seems to assume that impermanence is incompatible with communal life. But his focus on the habitual dimensions of third places overlooks other sources of their appeal, especially their aesthetic dimensions. In order to give a broader account of what draws us to third places in the first place, I discuss the case of (what I call) “curbside cabanas”: the improvised outdoor dining structures that have emerged in NYC and other cities during the pandemic. These structures are manifestly impermanent; they are less than two years old and many are already in ruins. And they possess few of the habitual features normally exhibited by third places; one cannot rely upon them being open on a regular schedule, on having a regular clientele, or even continuing to exist. But they nonetheless provide us with a valuable test case for the attractions of communal life under pandemic conditions. Do they show that the notion of third places is more flexible than Oldenburg assumed, and that their appeal has a broader base than he recognized? Do these architectural innovations possess genuine aesthetic appeal that explains why we are building and using them? Or do they reveal instead that in the absence of genuine third places, we will sometimes accept counterfeits in their stead?The specific focus of this paper will be on the connection between permanence and aesthetic appeal. In the NYC context, this connection is best illustrated by the Landmarks Law, passed in 1965 to protect and preserve “designated sites [that have] sufficient historical or aesthetic merit” (Steinberg 2011, 952). Since its passage, this law has functioned to enshrine the idea that any interventions in NYC’s built environment must first and foremost do so with an eye towards permanence. The idea is that only structures that we can imagine making a permanent contribution to the fabric of city life should be considered valuable. (It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the Landmark Preservation Commission views NYC sub specie aeternitatis.) Curbside cabanas are thus a significant challenge to this idea. Through a taxonomic study of the various forms they have taken so far, this paper aims to critically explore the possibility of an alternative aesthetics, an aesthetics of impermanence. What are we valuing, and why are we valuing it, when we frequent improvised outdoor dining structures that are unlikely to make a permanent contribution to the cityscape?