My fascination with benches started during a garden tour in the south of England in the 1970s. Each of those gardens had a bench. They were surrounded by shrubs, stood in an alcove formed by hedges, against a thick tree, or against the house’s outer wall. Each offered a view of the garden. Their small size and the attention given to the positioning of these benches made them a part of the garden. The variety of benches in gardens and parks and the care and attention given to detail inspired me to photograph them. Later on, I saw large benches, often placed alongside a spacious terrace or in the middle of a lawn. Whereas the positioning of the small benches made one want to look at the surroundings and point to something in the garden and their size was suited to intimate talks, the positioning of the large benches made them autonomous objects. Their placement and size directed the focus to the bench itself, reducing the garden to a role as a backdrop for small talk. Detached from their environment, as autonomous seating furniture for outside, I saw benches with designs ranging from the nearly un-sittable to stunning creations, and some were even officially commissioned as artworks.
When I saw a sign next to a bench that read "quiet, space, conviviality, cosiness" whereas the spot suggested no conviviality or cosiness at all, I became aware of how important the placement* of a bench within its surroundings is when it comes to preventing an outdoor bench from becoming a strange or estranging piece of furniture.
* Place, Space, and Placemaking
Place is differentiated from space. For example, in everyday use, one could talk about the best place for a painting. If someone wants to hang a painting in a room, one looks at the space: the walls, the furniture, the light, and then decides where the painting itself works best in combination with the room. In scientific theory, the term space often refers to the design of public space in cities. A square can be seen as open space in the city. It becomes a place when people regularly perform activities there, such as rollerblading or showing off their dolled-up dogs. The space has gained meaning as the place for those activities. It also attracts people from the neighbourhood to look at these activities. Even people who don’t go there will at some point come to know it as the place for those activities through hearsay. As a square, it has gained an identity and has changed from space to place. Placemaking (Borer, M.I., 2006) is a term in the design of public space. Through placemaking, designers aim to facilitate or direct the activities and behaviour of those who utilize the space. One usually involves local residents in the design process in order to achieve this. By contrast, placemaking can also be used to prevent the presence of certain users, behaviours, and identities. As a design strategy and tool, placemaking can be used to stimulate or repress certain forms of attention, interest, expectations, and receptiveness. How, for whom, and for which purpose a place is created is what M. Walzer (1986) calls the ’mindedness’ of a space.
The paradox of benches in public space
A bench presupposes the wish for, or at least the tolerance of, physical proximity to another person. This proximity requires some form of communication with that person. A bench is a quintessential piece of furniture for joint sitting. In a private environment, one can choose one’s company. Behaviour in public space and certainly in the city, however, is characterised by the presence of many strangers that can't automatically be trusted. People keep each other at some distance. Hence a bench is a paradoxical piece of furniture in a public space. That’s why one often sees that in spaces with multiple benches, there’s only one person per bench.
Since I discovered this paradoxicality, I became more curious about why a bench was placed somewhere. I wondered if the view was the reason for its placement and if its place influenced its use. I started photographing not just the bench but also its view.
In the Netherlands, landscape designers place benches as resting places for visitors in natural areas. In cities, they are often placed alongside a long road as resting places for pedestrians. I hardly ever took pictures of these benches because the intention for their placement is clear. I photographed benches that caught my eye with their design or whose placement was unexpected. In gardens, parks, or nature, the view was usually the reason for placing a bench. The simplicity of the design and material indicated that the important thing was not the bench but the view. The combination of view and bench made the spot a place, the purpose of which was to enjoy the surroundings. The small size of the benches presupposed a certain level of familiarity. City dwellers sometimes place a bench against their home or residential building, the view focused on the street. They make it a place by putting plants or shrubs around it. A spot with an unexpectedly wide view of the city can also become a place for a bench. In Asian countries, people often place a bench outside in a shadowed portico. Even if the view is nothing more than a limited part of the street or a car - perhaps their own - the placemaking for a small bench reflects a combination of intimacy and view just as in the English gardens. It is the urban way to be outside, enjoy the surroundings, and talk about them with company.
More surprising were the benches that were placed for a view in which funny (natural) phenomena occurred. But often I thought "why is there a bench?" I saw benches whose view could not possibly have been the reason for their placement, or ones that blocked the sidewalk, that had no room for legs, whose design bore no relationship to the environment, or whose view was dominated by garbage bins. Or a combination of all of the above. A place can become strange because the environment changes and the bench is still there. Or because the only reason for placing benches is that they are meant to be an advertisement. But my question arose mostly about benches that were newly placed by local governments.
Place as function
I asked two tourists in Amsterdam who were sitting on a recently placed bench why they were sitting there. They said they had bought a sandwich on the corner and they wanted to eat it right away. To the question if they found it a pleasant place to sit, they answered "No, all you hear, see, and smell is cars, but it is convenient for a quick bite." Eating on the street and snacking has become a habit when people visit a city centre or shopping mall.
It explains the ample quantity of benches and the garbage bins right next to them in those surroundings. The addition of a garbage bin, however, changes the bench from environment-focused to function-focused. The placement is now determined by the vicinity of places to get food and the presence of sufficient space to place and maintain a garbage bin. This is understandable in urban settings, but the bench-bin combination is also making a steady advance in rural environments. There, the functional character of the bin contradicts the placement of a bench as a place to enjoy the surroundings. Since no one would freely choose to sit beside or overlooking a garbage bin, the presence of the combination in nature surprised me so much that I made a bench and bin series. Placemaking aimed at joint enjoyment of the surroundings seems to have lost to placemaking as a facilitation for consumption. I then started to wonder why some benches in the city nearly almost have people sitting on them and others never do. Does placement make a difference in this?
Place as part of its surroundings
In a mall in Amsterdam-noord, a long strip of concrete folded along a storefront forms a bench. The storefront gives shelter in the back and the strip is sheltered. The length allows people to keep some distance from one another. The folded shape allows people to look in different directions. People sitting close to one another will sometimes exchange comments about the different things they see. One view is of a larger square, another of a smaller square and into the shopping street. There’s snack kiosk nearby, yet this bench is mostly used to just sit and look and sometimes to comment on what’s to be seen. There are often people sitting there, rain or shine.
On the Zaailand in Leeuwarden, there are rectangular benches with upper and lower seating areas, longer and shorter parts. In the middle of every piece stands a tree, sheltering and unifying the benches. These pieces are positioned on the side of the square but not all the way at the rim of it. The rim has cafés and restaurants with terraces. The precise positioning makes the furniture part of the square, preserving the open character of the square and the view over it. There are no garbage bins implemented in the design (a deliberate choice, I was later informed), yet it is clean. People sitting on these benches overlook the square, point at what they see, chat with each other, or use it as a resting place to do some reading outside.
What’s special about these pieces of furniture is that their placement is aimed at integrating them into the surrounding area and directing the view to that area, in the same way as with the small garden benches. Their design and size facilitates the desire to keep some distance from each other as strangers. It is a kind of joint individual enjoyment of the surrounding area. More extreme expressions of individuality and togetherness are seen in single and multi-person seating furniture. In Bilbao, I saw both types on a little square, positioned with a view of a fountain and with a wider view to streets. They offered enough walking space to passers-by and were surrounded by green shrubs. There were openings so that the street was also visible. The combination of single seats and seats for multiple people made it a place that encouraged joint delight in the surroundings. In the same city, there were also large rings as seats around trees. The trees provided shelter from the sun and centered the seats as a place. The addition of the occasional backrest made the ring into a bench, without an obligation to sit close to one another. A garbage bin was placed at such a distance that it felt separate from the seats. The repetition of those seats in the row of trees made the whole thing a place and a part of the square. In contrast, there is the placelessness of the collection of benches on a square in Chiang Mai - though it is a cheerful collection. Their positioning separates rim and square from each other, and their placement in a row does not make it into a place. In Bilbao, I saw once again how accommodating individual sitting can take a wrong turn. On a small square, single seats were placed so far from each other that they really took individual positions; their placement had no element of joint individuality. This turned the seats into useless clutter in this public space.
In 's Hertogenbosch, however, I saw neatly grouped seats of only single-person elements. They were positioned precisely: some were close to each other, others farther apart. The composition of the elements, the sturdy material, the placement on an elevated spot in the landscape and their orientation towards that landscape made it a place that merged with the environment and invited one to look at it and talk about it. During the short time I was there, two sets of two people came to do just that. In a not so attractive surrounding near a railway bridge stands a bench that nearly always has people on it during the daytime. Alone or with company. I asked the people who were present as I came along why they were sitting there. They answered: “It is a pleasant place, sheltered from behind and above, with a view of the crossroads where there is always something to see, and you sit just off the walking route. Sometimes acquaintances come along the walking route so you have a chat with them too.” They said they often sit there together at the same time of day. One of the men remarked that the bench itself was beautiful. He pointed to the sheet metal with decorative holes in it. When asked what they thought about the garbage bin, they told me: ”Well, it seems it has to be there. We don’t mind.” What they told me about the attractiveness of sitting there were all elements of place. A newly created sitting place on a small square in the eastern part of Amsterdam also showed these elements, combined with greenery and the possibility of choosing a bench. There are no garbage bins beside the benches. A man sitting there said to me, unprompted: “Isn’t it beautiful here?”
It makes me think that the attention given to the decision of where and how to make a place for sitting outside explains why some benches are used more and that this attention increases people’s enjoyment of the surroundings.
Benches as storytellers
Benches, their shape, size, and placement, tell a story about our desires, our relationship to each other and our surroundings, and changes therein. One category I made was that of the ‘pitiful’ benches. They are the broken, neglected, crippled and mended remains of once beautiful views, of ideals and expectations.