Against gravity

Benches, chairs, rocketships

Image: Ilse Gropius sits in the “Kandinsky,”
a chair designed by Marcel Breuer (1927)

James Kopf recently alerted my attention to an article by Emily Badger addressing “The Humble Public Bench,” on the redesign of a number of public benches in Boston. “Benches: the new chair?” he asked.  

The WA Chair by designer Katsuya Arai, Boston (2013)

“WA Chair,” by Katsuya Arai, Boston (2013)

What follows are a few thoughts in response to this question.

Above, one can see the benches mentioned in the article. The sleek, aerodynamic appearance of the benches Badger describes is something I’m oddly familiar with, having worked in an office building down at 1 State Street in Manhattan. Outside the entrance to South Ferry, the nearest Metro station, there are a number of benches working along the same modular lines, albeit in a slightly more distended, elongated form. Every time I’d exit the subway walking toward the grim black tower where our office was located, I’d pass them:

The benches at South Ferry in Manhattan

The benches at South Ferry

In either case, the author of the article briefly glosses the social and ideological role played by benches in the urban built environment. It’s a serviceable enough treatment, even if it slips into rather shallow moralizing toward the end:

The public bench has long been a mediator between cities and their citizens. A pleasant, functional park seat communicates to pedestrians that they’re welcome to linger, to treat public spaces like communal living rooms. Just as often, though, cities have been accused of deploying intentionally uncomfortable street furniture, angular benches with unnecessary guardrails dividing them to dissuade homeless loiterers and overnight guests. This second class of benches communicates something quite the opposite to residents: Move along, you’re not welcome here. Continue reading