March 22, 2013

What is a chair?

A consideration of democracy & seating within public spaces. 🪑

“This might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, but people like to sit where there are places for them to sit.”
- William H. Whyte

Consider for a moment the function a typical chair provides.

A chair functions mostly as an inanimate object made of four legs, a seat and a back.

A chair placed inside a home allows someone to sit at the dinner table and eat with their family. A chair allows them to fall asleep while watching the newest reality TV show. A chair provides a place from which to watch the YouTube from. And, for those who may be vertically challenged, a chair provides the needed vertical boost when trying to reach those hard to reach places.

Now, consider for a moment the function the same chair provides when placed out in an urban environment for the broader public to use.

A chair instantly transforms from an inanimate object into an agent of spontaneous exchange— a conductor of social interaction, if you will.

A single chair in an urban setting provides someone the opportunity to sit and people watch; it lets a passerby, young or old, take a break and catch their breath before moving on. A chair provides a place for someone to eat that slice of pizza they just bought from the local pizza joint. A lonely chair provides an outdoor office from which to access free wi-fi; and a single chair gives a place for a mother and her son to stop, sit down, and have a lesson in shoe tying.

A single chair allows for someone to no longer be simply a passer-by in an urban space— it allows them to become a resident of that space.

When you provide a pair of chairs a place is created where two friends can sit and chat. Two chairs provide a space where two people can watch other people together. Two chairs create a makeshift lounge for someone to put up their feet and relax, or allow for a ‘larger’ outdoor office to be constructed complete with a desk and a chair.

The real magic begins to happen when you provide three or more chairs.

When you provide three chairs you drastically change the way people interact with the space they occupy, more importantly though, you change the way they interact with one another.

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Three chairs provides a dining room set for a pair of lovers to have an early evening outdoor dinner. A series of chairs creates the location for the next championship chess match between two elderly men. Three chairs provides the setting needed for a poetry reading, the beginnings of theatre seating for the next big performer, or the impetus for a much more interesting game of musical chairs then a single chair provides.

But what about benches, surely they provide the same functions as chairs do?

Let’s think about democracy, choice, and the act of participation in the context of seating in urban spaces.

When you provide someone a bench, bolted to the ground, you’re essentially saying:

“sit here, look this way” 👀

That’s it.

The only choice a person is given when presented with a bench is whether to sit or not— they no longer have a choice: the choice of whether or not to sit there and stare at the brick wall that the bench is pointing at, or a choice to stare at the ongoing construction while they eat their lunch. Someone who sits on a bench certainly doesn’t have the easy option to move if it starts raining or if the sun becomes to hot to sit under.

There is very little choice available while sitting on a bench.

Provide a chair to that same individual, in the same location as the bench, and you immediately provide them the choice to be an active participant in the democracy of the street.

No longer is the choice solely to sit or not— the choices of location, direction, use and function all become instantly available to them.

That individual can now choose to sit close to others, or far away. They can sit in the sun or in the shade. They can face north, south, east or west; and they have the freedom to re-adjust their seating, even if only a few inches, to become more comfortable.

Think about the last time you sat down in a chair.

Whether a stool, office chair or a dining room chair at your favourite restaurant— you most likely adjusted its placement when you sat down. Now imagine, for a moment, if that chair were to be bolted to the floor and how uncomfortable you’d feel. How limiting would that be?

The same experience applies to the street.

By providing a chair, over a bench, in an urban space a sense ownership of the public realm is immediately bestowed on any individual who chooses to sit. By choosing to offer chairs in public, people are transformed from people passing through into residents, and more importantly, citizens of that very same space.

While at first glance, when simply walking by, it may appear that all seating choices are created equal. However, when a moment is taken to better understanding the offerings that each provides it becomes easier to understand that there is an underlying, yet sometimes hidden, democracy in seating within public spaces.