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Public benches in Philadelphia (image via veyko.com)

Is there such a thing as anti-public seating? We’re all used to the presence of urban furniture as an accessible public good, from benches to bike racks and bus shelters. But what happens when the design of these resources is actually anti-user? A public bench in a Philadelphia train station brings up exactly that question.

A wire bench at the 8th street train station in Philadelphia at first glance looks like a nice contemporary design object, perhaps some Frank Gehry spin off. Flat areas of usable bench are interrupted by crumpled segments of folds that look nice, but have more than aesthetics behind them. Aside from looking snazzy, what the design does is force a particular use on bench-users. Tumblr user Bthny writes,

The thing that struck me the most about these benches when they were installed is how they’re specifically designed to keep anyone from sitting on them in any way but an upright position. In doing so they’re effectively policing public space, letting homeless people know that they’re not welcome in 8th Street Station.

This is anti-public seating: the bench doesn’t just exist neutrally for us to use, it tells us how to use it. In this case, should the designer’s job be to stay out of the way and remain neutral, or is it permissible to shape public space so that it cannot be used freely? The most extreme example of this question presents itself in a satirical design for a coin-operated bench with raised and lowered spikes that prevent users from sitting beyond their paid allotment of time. Check out the video below, by designer Fabian Brunsing.

Blog Design With Intent has a round-up of anti-public seating that actually exists, including single-seat benches in Helsinki, curved standing benches in Oxford and another provocative art project, the “bench object”, which features two seat backs and no flat surface. Like the Philly bench, these objects aggressively shape our interaction with them, policing public space. It seems to me that particularly in the case of urban infrastructure, the job of the designer is to remove themselves from the use of the object as much as possible, to provide flexibility and multiple avenues of interaction. But in shaping public space, are these objects also helping to create a more usable, organized urban environment?

These benches are on the opposite side of the spectrum as Michael Rakowitz’s infamous ParaSITE, a portable, inflatable homeless shelter that inflates on runoff HVAC air. Rakowitz frees public space, expanding upon its use rather than limiting it. I guess the conflict is between anarchy and order. Should the design of a bench just stay out of the way, or should it force its own ideas upon our surroundings?

Note: the bench at top was designed by Veyko.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

8 replies on “Philly Bench Brings Up Questions of Public Space”

  1. In my local area teenagers sit on the tops of the backrests of the benches, with their feet on the seats. This has led to the wooden seats of the benches becoming really filthy, and so nobody wants to sit on them. Essentially the benches have become privatised by those who use them in this way.

  2. I’d find this argument more compelling if the topic weren’t subway stations. Parks should be open and free to divergent interpretation and use; subways should move people from place to place, and the existence of subway stations as a public space is secondary to their use. (Other modes of transport which are not ideal for the homeless include elevators). The designers here certainly limited the use of the benches, but they did so to make them more usable for a core stakeholder – lone commuters with tired feet. I don’t see how that’s surprising or a problem. There’s nothing wrong with design that forces a specific use upon people when that use serves the stated, democratically-determined purpose of the surrounding space.

    Crosbie Fitch’s comment on Design With Intent makes a good point, here, asking if “the use of benches by those needing a free bed doesn’t indicate a need to redesign the bench away from its inevitable use as a free bed, but a need to design a free bed”. There’s nothing keeping us from making nicer (read “more easily sat-in”, not “homeless-free”) subways for people who use the subway and also nicer free beds for people who use free beds.

    Relatedly, my favorite unusable bench: http://www.johannkoenig.de/inc/index.php?n=2,1,1&art_id=4&bild_id=940

    1. I like the idea that it makes things easier for the core group of users, but especially in the case of the Philly bench, the folds seem to make it less usable for everyone. There’s less usable space as a whole. I suppose the best design for commuters is long benches with seat dividers so laying down isn’t possible.

  3. The crumpled section does look neat. I guess a question to ask would be if the sittable space is the same as the bench(es) that preceeded it? If it is, then it could be considered a quirky designed element. If it isn’t, then it is likely a superfluous waste with anti-public space elements.

    1. That’s one of the points I was trying to make, I think. The crumple seems pretty superfluous, thought pretty. It doesn’t make for super great public benches if there could be more sitting space given the same amount of material. This one is form over function, but that’s not always a bad thing…

  4. My friend Richard, a metal artist and custom fabricator, designed and built the bench at the top. I dig it, and think it adds to the station.

    It’s not anti-public, it’s pro-rider. This bench could be used as Wat described as well. Benches do not have to be designed for sleeping to be appropriate, and this one is more about its artistic impact than policing space; that’s extremely different than the spiked bench also shown in the article—in some ways its exact opposite, as it is designed to be enjoyed on many levels.

    btw, credit for the crumpled Philly bench goes here: veyko.com

  5. “…The job of the designer is to remove themselves from the use of the object as much as possible, to provide flexibility and multiple avenues of interaction.” That is literally how that bench was designed. It’s a morph from sitting to leaning and back to sitting with consideration for hopping up onto (or resting your bag on) the middle section. It allows for wheel chairs in the middle, leaning, sitting on top, sitting sideways, et cetera.

    That said, I find Bthny’s comment oddly off base with regards to the design intent. As a sort of visual rebuttal, I have attached a photo taken from the following blog:
    http://littlefascinations.blogspot.com/2009/12/8th-street-urban-seating.html

    The Veyko SEPTA bench was originally blogged by Architect’s Newspaper which talks a little bit about the design process:
    http://blog.archpaper.com/wordpress/archives/13478

    And of course there’s more info on the Veyko website. Kudos to jron for supplying the credit info (and Kyle Chayka for updating.)

    http://www.veyko.com/custom/septa.html

    As far as the “homeless people can’t sleep on it” argument goes, it bears repeating that these are located on a subway platform where: 1) you have to pay subway fare to enter and 2) which is actively “policed” against homeless people sleeping anyway. @Will Brand, I also like Crosbie Fitch’s comment on Design With Intent.

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