We spend our life, it’s ours, trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench,” wrote Samuel Beckett in Texts for Nothing.
A free bench. There’s something hugely attractive about the idea of a free bench. It suggests idling, the whiling away of a few minutes. And, paradoxically, it is an item of urban furniture that can embody an idea of a welcome loneliness as well as welcome company. In England people tend to get quietly upset if someone sits beside them on a bench, it spoils their solitary moment. In the Mediterranean, benches are social spaces, places where the elderly sit and talk and watch the rhythm of urban life.
The bench is the most archetypal item of furniture. Before there were chairs, or even tables, there were benches. The very name is inscribed in our language — a judge sits at the bench, quality is benchmarked, the word “bank” derives from the benches once used to trade from, Parliament has its front, back and cross-benchers, while football subs might come off the bench. But the bench we’re concerned with here is a very particular type, the public bench.
Seats have been around in cities for millennia. The builders of Renaissance palazzi built stone seats into their walls as a gesture of generosity towards the public, while church porches and lych gates had benches which provided shelter and refuge to the homeless, to travellers and even to criminals escaping the law.
It was only as recently as the 19th century that the public bench became a symbol of the civic city.
The bench suggests the city is a place in which we can belong, without having to consume, that it is not the alienating metropolis of myth but a place capable of welcome and generosity.
In Edinburgh’s Princes Street there is a bench with a brass plaque stating simply, “Remembering J.C.H. Who was often tired.” It’s a delightful moment.
For others, the tiredness might be more profound, the bench closer to a home. It has always been a haven for the homeless, a place to sleep.
Laurel and Hardy, the indomitable losers of the Great Depression, articulate this idea in their 1932 film Scram! The pair are charged with vagrancy. They plead not guilty.
“On what grounds?” asks the judge. “We weren’t on the grounds,” replies Laurel. “We were sleeping on a park bench.” One of the critical roles of the bench is that it offers this refuge. While there is a bench, you haven’t yet reached the rock bottom level of the ground.
The bench is a versatile thing. It converts easily from a place to sit to a place to sleep. But increasingly that is changing and benches are being built to discourage rough sleeping, with extra arms and dividers, the kind of thing seen in airports and stations. The curious universality and classlessness of the bench has also made it a synecdoche of contemplation in the city. The memorial plaques on benches effectively anthropomorphise them, suggesting that we are sitting with the ghosts of all the others who have sat there before us. It is an extraordinary thing, for example, to sit in the Victorian seaside shelter at Margate, Kent, on the bench on which TS Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land. You feel the harsh sea wind and a chill penetrates your bones while you peer out at the sea and the big Thanet sky. Some of that existential Modernist angst seeps into your soul.
John Lanchester’s novel Mr Phillips, meanwhile, features an executive who has been laid off and, unable to face his wife with the news, spends a day on a bench in Battersea Park contemplating the meaning of life and encountering a tramp who may, or may not, be a performance artist.
Once you start looking in literature and the movies, benches crop up everywhere. From the magical surrealism of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to the dim sentimentalism of Forrest Gump, the bench is ubiquitous. Nowhere more so than in the spy genre, where the park bench is the venue for the surreptitious meeting, the dead drop or the traitorous encounter. It is a public place. Safe. Precisely the essence of the bench, a moment of respite.
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the bench looking over at Manhattan through the looming web of the Queensboro Bridge had to be added in by the production team as the view from the actual pocket park wasn’t quite right. That is the film’s defining moment, a realisation of the grandeur of the city from the humble park bench — it became the film’s poster.
The bench is a vantage point for the city and, in a way, it melts into the metropolis, a small piece of “cityness”. So much so that its actual form becomes anonymous.
Try to draw a park bench from memory and it’s surprisingly difficult. There are myriad bench designs, each vaguely different but each also vaguely similar. That, I suppose, is the point of an archetype. That is not to say there aren’t wonderful exceptions.
New York’s Central Park, for instance, provides a fine survey of changing tastes in benches. They start with the rustic timber log examples conceived by the park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted and carry on through to Robert Moses’ more functional but very elegant 1930s designs.
Boom time for benches was the mid-19th century. The industrial revolution had made the manufacture of cast-iron cheap and easy. The material lent itself to the outdoors and to the complex modelling adored by the Victorians.
The extraordinary Egyptian-themed examples inspired by the neighbouring Cleopatra’s Needle on London’s Embankment, with seats resting on camels and sphinxes, are among the most enjoyably overblown.
On the opposite side of the river stands another set of benches, their cast-iron ends formed into the shape of swans (although with the very strange modification of lions’ feet).
The contemporary equivalent to these elaborate designs is the statement bench — from London’s temporary benches in the shape of open books (seen across the capital last year) to Studio Weave’s undulating, colourful 2,000ft bench for Littlehampton, in West Sussex, a generous civic design which deliberately encourages sleeping or sunbathing. It is the very ubiquity of the public bench, its presence in our consciousness as an archetype and its representation of urban life which makes it so appealing to artists and designers as an object to play with and subvert.
Indeed, the bench and, perhaps in particular, the park bench, has become the symbol of the democratic city — of free, accessible and equitable public space provided by the city for its citizens.
It is a place to be private in public, a small space in the melee of the metropolis where it is acceptable to do nothing, to consume nothing, to just be. A truly free bench.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Photographs: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos; Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters; Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty; Interfoto/Alamy; 4See/Eyevine; Paramount/The Kobal Collection; United Artists/The Kobal Collection; Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos; Stephen Burrows/Alamy; Lutz Bongarts/Getty Images
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