“People now want to be comfortable when they sit on a bench,” said Erik Prince, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, in a session on urban furniture at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. “It’s no longer about making benches uncomfortable for vagrants and the homeless.” In a tour of the humble public bench’s past — and its potential future — Prince, along with Jane Hutton, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Harvard University, and architect Robyne Kassen, Urban Movement Design, explained how a shift in public furniture design may reflect broader societal changes and could be leading us towards healthier, more inclusive public spaces.
Prince said some contemporary benches, like the one Stoss just hand-designed and fabricated for The Plaza at Harvard University, provide a “new organization of social space” (see image above). These “more ergonomic” benches allow for “multiple functions, like stretching, playing, and lounging.” These new functions are only made possible through a revolution in design practices, like 3D modeling and fabrication. Some of these new benches are designed to be inherently flexible, with “changeable forms” that can create a “new sense of community.”
The History of Public Furniture
Hutton said the many types of benches throughout history have offered unique ways of sitting and interacting with the surrounding environment. “Different materials and inclines generate different social realities.” Benches can either be “solitary or social, exclusive or inclusive.” While they are often “invisible in the landscape,” public benches are actually central to our appreciation of landscapes, as they “organize the scope and our scoping strategy.”
In the 14th century, Tuscan civic benches were built into plazas, enabling small public spaces to form for “theatrical or tribunal purposes.” These benches helped “convey the sense of civic action and stimulated popular use.” They were about half a meter wide, so you couldn’t sleep on them.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, communities started creating the “rustic twig bench,” which reflected a “transcendental, natural philosophy.” As an example, “crude” benches in Central Park, NYC, worked with a “pastoral ideology.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, garden chairs started to be mass produced. Carved wood chairs, which were never comfortable, were now made out of iron, with “intricate plant and animal motifs.” Hutton said these were “very uncomfortable,” largely because they were meant to be “show seats when not occupied.”
In the 1860s, the first comfortable, mass-produced, iron garden chair was created, along with a low-cost folding chair, which was iconic in the military arena and also featured prominently among colonizers in Africa and Asia. These light-weight garden or foldable chairs were soon available for rent in public parks. In the gardens of Versailles, there was a garden chair with a fold-able back.
The Central Park settee, one of the first designed, stationary public benches, was made with a mix of iron handles with wood slats. “It was just under relaxing,” Hutton added. From then, there was a proliferation of “benches in street furniture.” None were particularly comfortable because then the thought was “you should hold your own posture, not rely on the chair.”
In the 20th century, there were experiments about the human figure and ideal reclining positions. Furniture studios examined “free-form ergonomics,” exploring how a mix of “rigid and contoured” cement and fiberglass could be created to create an ideal form. This era led to some of the “iconic chaise lounges” that populated Garrett Eckbo’s “modern landscapes for living.” Marcel Breuer created his famous lounge recliner. Later, Panton explored the use of plastics. “These were for play and pleasure.”
For a period of time, public benches were purposefully made uncomfortable in order to deter unwanted elements. “They were defensive or deterrent furnishings.” But today, Hutton said, the shift is towards more comfortable and relaxing public furniture, which even enable “splaying in public,” a posture once only allowed in the “medical or residential spheres.” There’s now a potential for “new positions in public spaces.”
Ergonomic Positions Made Possible by New Technology
With 3D modeling and fabrication, new possibilities like Stoss’ benches for Harvard are now possible. The bench, Prince said, has “numerable, inter-changeable seating positions,” which were mapped out using the software program Rhino, with a Grasshopper add-on. “We use parametric modeling tools.”
There are 17 benches, made up of 7 types, each with similar ergonomically-sound geometries. Some have high backs, some have low. Some are upright, while others are low-to-the ground. Prince said Stoss “applied rules to the types.”
Each bench type was created as a 1-to-1 prototype to “incredible precision” using advanced fabrication technologies. Getting all the joints to meet properly required an incredible attention to detail.
The wood used was found in one of Harvard’s depots. Leftover from a new Renzo Piano-designed building, the “temple-grade cedar wood” was Alaskan first-growth forest wood. While he said they would never usually use wood like this, it was local sourcing of reusable materials in this instance.
The Bench That Boosts Your Health
Robyne Kassen, an architect and yoga instructor, said a bench or chair changes your body as you sit in it. She said we are “constantly becoming our bodies,” so a chair or bench has significant impact.
Sitting at a computer all day long — and not getting up to move around — is the health equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Spending all that time in one position is particularly dangerous, given we are “always training our bodies and they are becoming. We are the filters through which we experience the world.”
Our nervous system — a key part of how our bodies experience the world — is also taxed all day long. Blinking, loud signage affects our nervous systems. Too much stress from the built environment can damage our sympathetic systems’ flight or fight response. Our para-sympathetic system, which enables relax and release, can then get out of balance, causing illnesses.
To maintain health and well-being, “we must nourish our para-sympathetic system,” which she said involves sitting at your “zero point” for a period of time during the day.
To enable the public to reach their zero point more often, Kassen and her team created Unire/Unite, an installation in a plaza near the new MAXXI Museum in Rome. The plaza’s benches are made of wood frames covered in “concrete canvas,” a special material that has concrete on the inside and canvas on the outside. The material was invented to help with water conveyance in infrastructure projects.
The installation features an “infinity system,” which enables visitors to take on a variety of body positions and do yoga-inspired exercises meant to “activate, strengthen, cleanse, and balance the mind and body.” Here’s Kassen’s zero point:
The plaza was purposefully designed to be accessible to everyone, with pathways of recycled rubber and low access points that enable even visitors in a wheelchair to transfer to the edge of the benches. “This landscape, play, park, space enables 66 different positions,” said Kassen.
In contrast with the 14th-century Tuscan plaza-bench or the purposefully-uncomfortable iron garden chair, these zero-point-inducing benches clearly reflect today’s obsessions with comfort, technology, health and well-being.
Image credits: (1-2) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (3) Park Bench by William Merritt Chase / Wikipaintings, (4) Central Park settee / Central Park Conservancy, (5) Panton Chair / Wikipedia, (6-8) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (9) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily, (10) Unire/Unite / Urban Movement Design, (11) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily