Opinion

Philly Bench Brings Up Questions of Public Space

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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