The Unshakeable Moveable Chair

In Social Spaces, New York City, A Sense of Place by Jacob FordLeave a Comment

Design is a battleground, the two fronts each the respective and opposing answer to a question which cuts to the core ethics of a built environment, and that question is: who knows best? Designer, or user?

The foray is rarely so crisp, often muddied by designers who are users and clients who hire the designers but represent consumers but these are mere double agents and diplomats. Talking heads muffled by the excitement of cannonfire. We want a good clean war metaphor, and we want it now. Designer versus User, and we want to see the whites of their eyes.

I, your intrepid yet entirely impartial young reporter, write safely from the relatively D’d MZ of a WordPress-powered blog, but from here you can hear the screams at the Battle for Tumblr. Site designers feverishly code new features as the users hurl back blog posts about how much they want the old Tumblr back. Over at Facebook the war at this point has become sport: Facebook staff drop an annoyingly new feature upon the innocent users, and multitudes respond by rallying, strategizing, organizing, and deploying Facebook groups to talk about how much they hate Facebook.

But our war long predates the intangible world. In places, real places, all around the world, the real world, urban planners and architects fight the public to create great public space. War archives show William H. Whyte reporting bravely from the heart of battle: New York City plazas in 1988. In the spirit of minimalism or whatever, urban planners had determined that seating was no longer necessary to the act of sitting down and relaxing. Park users responded by inventing the subversive art of creative butt placement, and steps and ledges became the new seats. “It takes real work to create a lousy place” White wrote, and designers wasted no time in implementing sawtooth strips and crooked stones to return these sittable features to their original unusable glory. Visitors sat on them anyway.

When designers would consider allowing a place to sit, it would often be in the form of a bench, which White considered more useful as architectural decoration than as actual place to sit. What Whyte did find to be useful remains one of the few compromises of this long and tiresome war: the moveable chair. It allows the urban designer to flaunt her taste in color and form, while the user is granted the freedom to, even slightly, shift his environment. Amanda Burden states, in Objectified, that when a person sits down in a moveable chair, “they just move it so much, so it’s kind of their chair and it’s their place.”

Based on White’s coverage of the public plaza warfare, the city began making serious investments into moveable park chairs. It is here that the Fermob Bistro Chair became the iconic seating of New York City parks, beginning in Bryant Park. The chair, that great harbinger of peace, quickly spread across the city and can now be found even on the High Line, this reporter’s favorite public space and itself the result of a conflict between designers and users, this one very clearly won by designers.

When High Line Founders Robert Hammond and Joshua David showed up at a city planning meeting hoping to preserve a decaying rail line, nobody else was interested. Locals were presumably even offended that these two would want to stall development by forming an emotional bond with a rusted and abandoned railroad. Twenty years later, that piece of rotting infrastructure has become an icon of public space made beautiful. And scattered among its wider parts are hundreds of moveable Fermob chairs. In the war over design merit, public spaces are battlegrounds and memorials. They are the both war zone and the peace treaty. Yet whether designers are forming great space out of a community’s dead zones or users are challenging designers’ restrictions, a hope of compromise can always be found in the moveable chairs.

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