The Humble Public Bench Gets a Dramatic Makeover

Boston prepares to debut 20 bench designs that re-imagine the experience of sitting on the street.

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Katsuya Arai

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.

Imagine, then, what the whimsical, inventive bench pictured above says about the city of Boston. The WA Chair – as designer Katsuya Arai calls it – was one of 20 bench prototypes selected this week in a design competition supported by the city and run by the Design Museum Boston. The winning designers have the next month (and $750) to fabricate full-sized versions of their "street seats," to be placed in April around the Fort Point Channel in Boston's rapidly redeveloping "Innovation District."

The benches will be installed through October, giving the city a glimpse of what the often-overlooked park bench could be when reconsidered through sustainable, beautiful design.

"I can see people walking around the channel and sitting on all 20 just to experience them," says Sam Aquillano, the co-founder and director of the Design Museum Boston. "It’s this very simple thing that’s often overlooked, and what could it be? It doesn’t have to be the cast-iron [bench] with wooden slats."

More than 170 groups from around the world submitted entries to the competition. All 20 "semi-finalists" are shown in the slideshow below (during the public unveiling on April 27, a selected winner and runner-up from this group will also be given cash awards). These benches were all sustainably designed, many of them using reclaimed local materials. And submissions from as far away as Georgia, Washington state and Italy have found ways to pay homage to Boston's shipping heritage (and the Fort Point Channel scenery), suggesting that the basic park bench could in any city be both infinitely re-imagined and locally distinct.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.