Postcard from ... San Francisco

Gazing out to sea, I took in the bold drama of the Golden Gate Bridge, uninhabited Angel Island and Alcatraz. After a morning of shopping, I wanted nothing more than to sit down at the water’s edge and take it all in. And, as it happened, my choices were as spectacular as the vistas.

“Seat” is a new installation of 65 unique chairs, designed by 35 artists, dotted along the waterfront at the Fort Mason Center, an urban park in the centre of San Francisco.

“This is democratic art,” said Topher Delaney, one of the curators (who 20 years ago also developed an outdoor chair exhibit for New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum). “There’s no admission fee and everyone has access.”

The Fort Mason Center attracts 2m annual visitors, both tourists and locals, with its mix of events, theatres, galleries, farmers’ markets, and “Off the Grid,” a popular caravan of food trucks. Yet for almost two centuries Fort Mason’s purpose had nothing to do with culture, entertainment or education. In 1776 the Spanish developed a fortified military base here and then in 1848, when California became part of the Union, the US Army took over. Later, through the second world war and into the Vietnam War, the Fort became a major point of embarkation for soldiers, before falling into disuse and being converted into a recreation area in the 1970s.

The Seat exhibition opened late last month and runs until May next year. While some exhibits resemble traditional chairs, many beg for new definitions of the term. Map in hand, I set out to sample them, Goldilocks-style. I stepped into “Bow Seat”, by Oliver DiCicco, sculptor and designer of musical instruments, who engineered his stainless steel and mahogany bow-shaped bench to emit chords activated by the sitter’s movements.

As I stepped out, a pair of eager five-year-old twin boys rushed in. “One of our goals was to create a family-friendly environment,” said Pat Kilduff, another of the organisers, “and what’s more family-friendly than an exhibit you can climb on?”

Or into. Not far from “Bow Seat” stands “Sent Forth”, a globe-shaped steel cage with curved benches inside. Conceived as a time-travelling airship by engineering firm Arup and Jefferson Mack Metal, its story is pure science fiction: after centuries of travel, it has malfunctioned and grounded at Fort Mason, where it now plays compositions using audio it gathered along the way. Triggering sensors by climbing aboard, I heard faint, otherworldly sounds emerge, an eerie mélange of what I assumed were lapping currents, gulls, wind, and other sounds recorded in the area. I hope to stop by after dark one day so I can see how the airship’s lights are choreographed to work in tandem with the sounds.

Making my way down a pier, I took a seat on one of the more political of the collection, architect Cary Bernstein’s “SToP,” an acronym of “swords to ploughshares.” A granite bench with painted red holes symbolising wounds, its inscription reads “1909-1962,” the period Fort Mason was a point of embarkation for US military personnel. As Bernstein put it: “Where you now buy arugula and see Sam Shepard plays was once the place where many soldiers left their homeland for the last time, never to return.”

“Band of Brothers”, the last stop on my self-guided tour, is actually three seats: a trio of salvaged 130-year-old eucalyptus trunks carved into immense chairs by architect Malcolm Davis. Eucalyptus trees, once prized for their speedy growth, are now notorious for flammability and falling unexpectedly, so they are being cleared from many public and private spaces. Davis calls them “beautiful pariahs” whose wood, he notes, could be put to better uses than filling salvage yards. Climbing on to one seat, I had to agree. Couples sat together comfortably in the other two Brobdingnagian chairs, all of us enjoying the songbirds’ serenading us from the Monterey Cypresses above.

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