„Almost feels like the math-building on our campus”

18. August 2023

We visited Cape Town from March to mid-April 2023. During this time, we conducted qualitative interviews with hosts, politicians, and representatives of civil society initiatives, in order to understand spatial conflicts around Airbnb. The field trip also provided insights for the project’s quantitative analyses, such as heatmaps that graphically represent the spatial distribution of Airbnb listings. Looking at the heatmap for Cape Town in our office in Berlin, two hotspots where Airbnb listings are concentrated became apparent: one is prominently located near the coast, while the other, along the urban promenade, is less pronounced. But why? Are not both places highly attractive for tourists? After a few days of walking through the city, it became clear to us: the building structure in each location is very different. Multi-story houses are lined up along the coast, with many flats that could potentially be offered as Airbnb rentals. In contrast, the neighborhood in the trendy street with shopping opportunities and cafes is characterized by one- and two-story single-family houses, offering fewer options for Airbnb rentals.

Many of the impressions we gathered during our six-week field trip went beyond the research questions we pursue in our project. During our first few days in Cape Town, our main goal was to find our way around the city and to absorb everything new. At the end of the first week, we had a meeting with Tanja Bosch, professor for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, who supported us throughout our time abroad. Feeling a bit exhausted from the abundance of new experiences, we looked for a place to get a coffee on campus after meeting Tanja. The building we ended up in unexpectedly gave us a sense of “being at home.” “Almost feels like the math-building at TU Berlin,” we thought. The railings, the large windows, “even the tiles are the same,” Simon remarked. We were also reminded of other German university buildings in Rostock or Bielefeld. They were probably all built during periods of educational expansion. The fact that such a familiar feeling can arise far away from our actual home, solely because of the character of a building, is one of the most fascinating experiences we brought from Cape Town back to Berlin.

The field trip thus invited us to engage in theoretical reflections on space, which of course go beyond university spaces. They also affected our perception of the Airbnb accommodations we stayed in during our trip. Therefore, we would like to invite you to join us on a little imaginative journey.

Imagine you are in a foreign country, South Africa for example, just like us. Similar to many other millennials and members of Gen Z, you find hotels to be somewhat impersonal. So, it’s obvious that you book an Airbnb. Among many options that somehow seem generic and maybe a bit cold, one offer catches your eye. The colors are warm and soothing, the view overlooks a hill, and the reviews are consistently enthusiastic. So, you book it and look forward to a nice stay. You are excited to escape the cold Berlin winter for a few weeks. On the day of your arrival, you find yourself standing in front of a gated entrance. In a box, you find the key. You open the gate, and your path leads you up a staircase covered with the blossoms of the tree that looms overhead.

You open the door, and a room unfolds before you that you have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before. Not this exact room, of course, but rooms like this! In catalogs, on television, in movies. The colors, the furnishings, and the arrangement speak a language. In their proportions and symmetry, they convey a sense of familiarity and security. You see yourself sitting by the window on a rainy day, sipping tea and reading an old book; throwing yourself onto the bed after a breakup or the death of someone important to you; sitting in the small kitchen with friends, and so much more. These are not experiences you have had here, but you have seen them so many times in various media, in rooms so similar, that they could very well be your own experiences.

In the CRC, we often discuss how places are a particular kind of space (or spatial figure) to which people ascribe an identity. When we entered some of our accommodations, we became, in a very practical way, acutely aware of how this identity can also be artificially created: through the symbolic power of design.

Author information: Simon Pohl and Christina Hecht are sociologists and work as researchers at the CR1265. In the subproject C07 on the platform economy, they focus on spatial conflicts around Airbnb, a platform between global marketization and territorial containment.