by John JervisJun 23, 2021
Public seating has always been an important urban issue. In many ways these particular urban artefacts have been a battleground for differing concerns. With the growing presence of hostile architecture in public spaces, these deliberately uncomfortable seating options prevent people congregating in large groups. Though they are beneficial to physical health as they provide a place to rest, especially for those with limited mobility. The London Festival of Architecture’s City Benches competition, in many ways draws one’s attention to a wide range of possibilities on what public seating could look like. This competition is part of the festival’s yearly activities, highlighting the importance of public seating, especially in a post-pandemic world. For the 2021 iteration, the benches look at a few different aspects of what public seating is meant to do. From bringing people together to revealing stories about the local area and sustainability, the nine winners challenge the views of our built urban environment and act as conversation starters.
Fairytales on street corners
Evoking a sense of whimsy and quirk, A Cuppa by The Mad Hatters draws an immediate reference to Alice in Wonderland’s Tea Party, where the fundamental concept of time is challenged. This bench invites everyone to pause and have a cuppa, a quintessential British activity (that many consider a cathartic ceremony) that unites people from different cultures and communities. Ornamented in playful patterns and bold colours, the exaggerated scale of the teacup and saucer is a light-hearted addition to the city's urbanscape.
Till we meet again
During the pandemic, city streets were empty, the spaces usually occupied by groups of people and communities to socialise were bare. Even when these cities began to reopen, the importance of social distancing transformed how these spaces were used. The Friendly Blob by Jelly Collaborative and Plant Yourself Here by Lisa McDanell Studio, both look at this new social norm. The Friendly Blob encourages people to meet at a social distance and discover the public spaces that London has to offer. The bench is a miniature adaptation of the Square Mile, encouraging visitors to explore and learn about the architecture of the city, while motivating people to look after their physical and mental health. Lisa McDanell’s bench attempts to make itself a more sociable space. Plant Yourself Here features two reclined seats that face each other, as opposed to a regular straight bench, encouraging visitors to interact while maintaining physical distance. The convex form allows users to recline, and look up at the sky while smelling the scented plants embedded in the structure.
Memories of the world that was
The past year has seen a change in our daily routines. Sobremesa by Pebble Haus tells a story of the time spent relaxing after a meal to drink coffee, and engage in ideal conversation. The bench is made of jesmonite and coffee extracted from residual grounds sourced from local coffee shops, allowing for a space where one can interact with friends, literally, over coffee. This intervention also references the business that suffered during the nearly yearlong closure. Quick Getaway by Ex Architectures with Flu-or Arquitectura cites another activity that many have not been able to partake in, travelling. Specifically travelling as a form of care especially for those who reside in dense urbanised cities such as London. There the bench creates a holiday inspired oasis, providing a respite and prompting memories.
Narratives of the city
London has a lot of stories to tell, some historical, some cultural. A set of this year’s benches adapts these stories of the city into street furniture. Nick Green’s Do you care about your city? takes fragments of urban litter, such as coffee cups, plastic bottles, takeaway packaging, and seals these within concrete and resin, to create a litter-filled-terrazzo. It is a contemporary take of the old idiom 'London streets are paved with gold'. By encasing the garbage in concrete, Green is also reminding us that litter is not temporary and has a lasting impact on our streets and environment. It Takes Two by 10F is also made from Blue Dapple panels and 100 per cent recyclable materials. The blue is a reference to the historic colour of public amenities in the City of London. It is the same blue as the historical placards seen on the building and the decommissioned police phone boxes that are still present in the area.
Paying homage to the history of material and exchange in the City of London, Conversation by NVBL with Webb Yates Engineers and The Stone Carving Company is inspired by 19th century courting chairs. Celebrating stone, its craftsmanship, and its natural architectural qualities, the bench is a prototype to advocate the possibilities of reintegrating stone design in architecture. Made solely from stone offcuts, the design is meant to highlight natural durability, structural integrity, sustainability and beauty of using stone. The stone pieces interlock in a specific order of assembly, connecting and supporting each other, that can be easily disassembled when required.
Sohanna Srinivasan’s Monuments to Mingling, created in collaboration with Joyce and Joyce Joinery and A Small World, is inspired by Aldgate’s rich architectural history and diverse contemporary identities. The three-set furniture references the East London Mosque, Aldgate Pump and the historic Roman gate, in a playful fusion of styles, remixed to encourage conversations across different communities and age groups. In addition, each bench celebrates a milestone in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, the dates of which are engraved in Latin, in a nod to the area’s Roman past.
The winning designs were selected by an expert jury, that looked for designs that encouraged passers-by to pause, rest, and once again make the most of the city and neighbouring Aldgate. The competition is part of LFA’s mission to support London’s architectural and design talent, enthuse and engage with the public, and find new ways to look at familiar places.