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That humble emblem of street furniture, the public bench, is often taken for granted – especially in the long winter months. But come summertime, there’s nothing more essential. This ubiquitous piece of democratic urban infrastructure is truly for everyone (except when it’s not), providing a place to rest your legs while running errands, to read a book in the sun, to watch your dog play in the park – and, of course, to incessantly check your phone while doing all of the above.

These four recently created bench installations around the world are both utilitarian and aspirational. They are beautiful places to take a load off – and they propose new ideas for rethinking the bench as a conversation starter, a community builder, a tech-integrated experiential installation and more.

Counterbalance in Venice, by Snøhetta
public bench by Snohetta in Venice

This asymmetrical see-saw of a seating installation by Snøhetta is part of the Time Space Existence series programmed by the European Cultural Centre to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. It welcomes the public until the end of November at the Marinaressa Gardens, situated between the biennale grounds’ Central Pavilion and Arsenale. “Built of locally sourced pine, Counterbalance is purposefully unstable,” the firm explains, “offering shifting sensory experiences of the park and the larger city.”

The precarious nature of the experience – influenced by how many people take up each wing, their comings and goings shifting the sense of balance – reflects the perilous condition in which Venice, always at risk of flooding, perennially finds itself. To design the piece, Snøhetta worked with the structural engineer Jay Taylor, of MKA, who also helped inform the approach to its interesting joinery. Their iterative process explored “geometries and tectonics” as well “narrative and the poetics of a garden installation.”

Palaver, in Venice, by WXY architecture + urban design
Images courtesy of WXY.

Another great bench at the Venice exhibition of Time Space Experience is Palaver, designed by WXY (with SITU, Design Trust for Public Space and (Un)Common Public Space Group). Reminiscent of some of the generously spirited, undulating seating that the firm has created in its public projects for New York and elsewhere, it takes its name from a word meaning “extended discussion, usually between persons of different cultures” and from the type of large, shady tree in African societies under which these conversations typically take place. The Venice installation, explains WXY’s Claire Weisz, offers a pilot to prompt other towns and cities to create their own “social seating” moments, “encouraging conversations among fellow travellers, city dwellers and strangers alike.”

Daydreamer in South Bend, Indiana, by Daily Tous Les Jours
public benches by Daily Tous Les Jours in Indiana

Luminosity, movement and play are all a part of the oeuvre of internationally renowned Montreal studio Daily Tous Les Jours, which has brought musical swings, interactive pavement and mobile sun-blocking umbrellas to cities around the world.

With Daydreamer, a “sculpture series” permanently installed in South Bend, Indiana, at the end of last year, the practice is orchestrating a magical jam session: The trio of slowly rotating public benches, which accommodate up to four people at once, are accompanied by a gentle original sound score. The pieces are finished in Canadian white oak and feature a powder-coated aluminum arch that is LED-illuminated to emphasize their movement. The idea, of course, is to bring a novel, creative sense of community to a public place, a moment of pause that re-energizes everyone at once.

A Solar-Powered Bench That Spins Ever So Slowly, in Victoria, Australia, by ENESS
public bench by Eness in Australia
Photo by Ben Weinstein

This delightful – and delightfully named – artwork by Australian studio Eness comprises softly rounded, petal-shaped benches topped with solar panels. These elements generate the power that allows the benches to slowly spin day and night. Made of roto-moulded low-density polyethylene (a recyclable polymer), and permanently installed at the National Gallery of Victoria, the pieces provide all the treasured analogue pleasures of sitting on a park bench, while their integrated technology exposes the sitter to a gently shifting view of their natural surroundings. “The intention,” the firm explains, “was to create a work that innovates within the area of public realm by being functional, sustainable and one that inspires a different way of interacting.”

Four Public Benches with Social Spirit

These four installations around the world imbue public seating with new forms of interactivity.

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