Beyond the final frontier


At last someone has opened an internet cafe that's not just for geeks. The design of Nutopia, says Jonathan Glancey, is as innovative as the technology it offers up on its sleek, streamlined terminals


Ever since Stanley Kubrick released his magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey people have dreamed of inhabiting the film's supercool interiors.

That was in 1968, when Nasa's own living spaces were about as glamorous as an electrician's workshop, but the movie sets still look good. They have influenced generations of designers from Tom Dixon and Mare Newson to Grant Mitchell, the New Zealander who has just put his stamp on London's newest internet cafe, the ethereally good-looking Nutopia.

Mitchell and his associates make the link explicit - the new cafe is, they say, 'challenging the imagination of its competitors with interiors that steal from Kubrick's masterpiece'. It also 'aims to provide a space where technology meets creativity in an environment designed to appeal to a style-conscious clientele". That claim, loosely translated, means that a group of talented young computer and design buffs have created the first convincing "cybercafe", a space that aims to match the dream of computer technology.

Mitchell, 35, came to England from Auckland 15 years ago. He studied the piano from the age of five, but trained as a graphic designer before emigrating. He liked the idea, of setting up some sort of work and meeting place where anyone could drop by, and was disappointed by the internet cafes that sprang up across Britain in the 90s. There was a mismatch, he thought, between what computers could do in terms of imagery, and the look and feel of internet cafes' and offices that revolved around computers.

So Mitchell teamed up with George Philippakos (Nutopia's IT director) and Toula Philippakou (its operations manager) to create a corner of the capital in which those willing to pay 5 an hour can disappear into a computer-generated virtual world while inhabiting a workplace that is itself about as close to cyberspace as you can hope to find.

The Nutopia concept will doubtless be copied, but Mitchell and gang intend to keep several steps ahead of their rivals. What they have between them is that all too rare mix of passion, energy, imagination and technical know-how. 'It's about imagining what we could do and could be" says Mitchell. 'The name Nutopia comes from a statement made by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1973. We announce, they said, the birth of a conceptual country, Nutopia. It has no, land, no boundaries or passports, only people". And this, more or less, is what Mitchell and co have set out to achieve in Covent Garden - a space where boundaries dissolve and it can be hard to tell what is real and what is unreal.

Karl Marx, after a few glasses of claret, might have liked working in Nutopia, for here, like nowhere else in London, all that's solid really does appear to melt into the air. By mixing old and new technologies - film projectors, slides, computer-generated imagery -Nutopia escapes the unthinking attachment to the new that distorts so much current thinking.

Low lighting levels, fish tanks, wires and cables hushed away are just some of the elements that help to make Nutopia such an airy and relaxing space to he in and work in. These, and the continually changing installations of furniture, fittings and art- works chosen by Mitchell and co. On display until the beginning of April are alight-emitting polycarbonate sofa by Ansel Thompson; a kinetic light sculpture made of three skipping ropes and a chromastrobic light by Paul Friedlander; and wall-mounted light panels by Jason Bruges that change as you move across or in font of them. These are inspired designs that connect the pop art world of the 6os with that of the 2000s and the promise of cyberspace.

The question that emerges and morphs in the brain after a mind- expanding visit to--Nutopla is this: why, given the ablity of computer programs to generate fantastic visions, are architects and designers incapable of realising such digital dreams in real space?

It's true that without computer modelling we would never have seen such brave and inventive buildings as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or Renzo Piano's Kansai International Airport. And yet, inside, neither building offers a breakaway sense of space. This is for one necessary reason: they are required to perform tasks - the display of artworks of many periods, the mass movement of people - that more fantastic configurations might only confuse. Except in the smoke-and-mirror games played in spaces like Nutopia, the cyberdream can so far only be seen on computer screens and in books.

Hybrid Space, a new book by Peter Zellner, a US architect who studied with Rem Koolhaas at Harvard, looks at the work of a dozen architectural practices worldwide. All are attempting to connect the real world with the virtual world, to exploit the computer's ability to create unexpected new forms through digital animation and complex algorithms, even to crossbreed biology and technology (very much a 60s dream; try not to think of Roger Dean's album covers for Yes). 'Their researches says Zellner, "are triggering a phase-shift in our perception and comprehension of space, materiality and time at the start of the new millennium."

Maybe. This is, of course, millennial and thus messianic thinking, although no less valuable for that. Many of the weird and wonderful spaces shown in the book are as unattainable, given existing building materials and technology, as the speed of light is for a spaceship, even the wonderful machines that moved so gracefully through 2001. That said, it is also true that Ludwig Mics van der Rohe, the 'great Prussian modernist, designed two remarkable glass skyscrapers between 1919 and 1921. These were to set the tone of many of the best office buildings of the 20th century, but at the time Mies conjured them, they were impossible to realise.

The mere fact that Zellner's architects are thinking about cyberspace is important. Architecture need not come to a full stop with bricks and mortar, steel and glass or even poly-carbonates and neoprene. At the moment, however, we will have to make do with subtly theatrical spaces like Nutopia. This gives us the feel of what we might yet achieve as computer design comes of age and we begin to see how we might create buildings and interiors as ethereal and happily uncertain as a magic lantern show. Or Mitchell's favourite interior, the Louis-XV-meets- supertech hotel room somewhere deep in hyperspace where Dr David Bowman, hero of 2001, arrives during the last reel of Kubrick's masterly exploration of future space.

Nutopia is at 42 SheitonStreet, London WC2.
Hybrid Space is published by Thames & Hudson, price 24.95.