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.

Certainly, there is something more to the communitarian ethos Badger leans on here than she lets on. Perhaps it’s the case however, that this is more indicative of a bygone nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberalism (such as Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement) that valued public works and artificially-engineered enclaves of “nature” breaking up the stark perpendicularity of the modern metropolis. To be sure, this was a progressive sentiment in its day. But today it’s all too often just a forlorn glance cast back at a time before predatory neoliberalism came and swept it all away — leaving all but the swankiest park facilities in various un-upkept states of disrepair and neglect.

Cosmonaut Gagarin straps himself into his chair (1961)

Cosmonaut Gagarin straps himself into his chair

Nevertheless, benches are powerful instantiations of the public spirit, the entrance of leisure and respite into space. They represent, in nascent form, humanity’s protest against the oppressive regime of gravity. “The idea of the conquest of the substructure, the earthbound, can be extended even further and calls for the conquest of gravity as such,” wrote El Lissitzky in 1928. “Our revolution demands floating structures, a physical-dynamic architecture.”

Indeed, the rocketship is but the furthest elaboration of the chair or bench to date, the highest expression of man’s desire to untether himself from the earth.  If there is any qualitative difference between chairs and rocketships, it is that the latter is not content to merely prop itself up. On the contrary, it aspires to depart the earth entirely — to free itself from orbit and set off into the starry expanse.

Charlotte Perriand reclining on one of her chairs, 1926

Charlotte Perriand reclining on one of her chairs (1926)

Yet the chair retains its value — not as throne or beanbag, as Colin McSwiggen would have it, in his half-antimonarchical, half-cardiovascular diatribe — as the most perfect embodiment of high-modern bourgeois individuality in design. McSwiggen thus misses the mark when, in tracing its origin, he equates the chair with hierarchy, idleness, and bone-bending contortion:

Ask any furniture historian about the origins of the chair and they’ll gleefully tell you that it all started with the throne…Some time in the Stone Age, probably between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago, high-status individuals in some cultures began to sit on small raised platforms, just large enough to hold a single person and with a backrest to support or frame the sitter. This was an effective way to designate elevated status among people who otherwise sat on the ground — much more so than stools, which lacked a back, and benches, which accommodated more than one person. The earliest evidence of these primitive thrones comes from figurines excavated in southeastern Europe, but single-person seats with a back were important status symbols in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well…[T]he throne-like properties of chairs and their resulting importance as class markers have been the key historical factors behind their rise. The general trend at most points in Western history has been that upper-class people sit in a certain type of chair — typically the crappiest, most damaging design available at the time — and everyone else tries to imitate them.

Far from being some curse we’ve inherited from the propertied classes, the democratization of furniture signifies not only the restless repose of humanity in seeking to assert its dominion over the universe, but also the continuous individuation of men and women within society. In this respect, the tubular, padded-leather creations of Breuer and Rietveld, Mies and Corbu, express the greatest achievement of the bourgeois epoch when it comes to decorum. Their chairs simultaneously evince an undeniable individualism (in their function, seating and sustaining one person) as well as socialism (in the sense that it is mass produced and distributed for mass consumption). And I mean “individualism” here not as a term of abuse, but as part of the old Marxian dictum that “the free development of each paves the way for the free development of all.”


3 thoughts on “Against gravity

  1. Pingback: Against gravity | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

  2. Absolutely scintillating, Mr Wolfe. Bumping into your blog is the best thing the worldwide web has provided me so far. A god-bestowed, truly.

  3. Pingback: The humanization of nature | The Charnel-House

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