The rise of stadium seating

I’m tall. In the most literal sense, I often look down on people. But in the past few years, my giraffe’s-eye view of the world has increasingly come not when I’m standing, but when I’m sitting on structures you might call “stairs,” were it not for their leading directly into a wall.

These stairways to nowhere are known as stadium or bleacher seating, after the plank-like wood or metal seating in old-school stadiums. Stadium seating has become increasingly common around the globe—in a certain type of interior space. You won’t find stadium seating at a small-town library, say, or at an office with a business-professional dress code, or at a greasy spoon with more regulars than Yelp reviews.

You’ll find it at, for instance, upscale coworking space NeueHouse, Brooklyn “design space” A/D/O, and WeWork locations from Bellevue to Bangalore. It’s at the Los Angeles office of a subscription-underwear startup and the London office of an advertising agency whose ethos is “being unreasonable.” The new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has it, as does a wine bar inside Chelsea Market. There’s stadium seating at a coffee shop on the “coolest block in America” and also, an ocean away, at a Bratislava bookstore-cum-cafe whose press images show a young woman in oversized, cuffed, light-wash jeans sitting by a coffee-table tome of fashion photography. A coffee shop in Edgewater, New Jersey, population 12,044, has jumped on the trend—proof that even in suburbia, nothing suggests “cool” like stadium seating.

In the 1960s and 1970s, modern versions of the kiva—the circular, sunken stone structure with tiered bench seating that Puebloan American Indians built for spiritual and social gatherings—began appearing in open-plan schools. Kids loved the kiva, analogous to stadium seating, because it was climbable and inherently social. Educators loved how it functioned as a school’s town square, accommodating everything from planned events to playtime. Now, progressive companies—whose goal, much like that of schools, is to facilitate productivity while maintaining, ideally, at least a facade of enjoyment—have come to embrace it for many of the same reasons.

Stadium seating, says Mark Lamster, the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News,has become “a standard trope of standard office design.” With no divisive walls or hierarchically stratifying closed doors, and with no task-specific designation, it represents transparency, autonomy, and flexibility—all traits that define the modern office. It creates “light and a suggestion of openness that is, overall, positive,” Lamster says. Anything a worker does on it, from observing a lecture or taking a call to eating lunch with colleagues and pretending to do work, happens in the public eye. 

As Nikil Saval writes in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, the idea that coworkers might “run into each other by chance, and, through the sheer friction of their sudden meeting, combust into a flaming innovation became sanctified as the key to company culture.” And stadium seating is, to many companies, a key to those chance meetings