A table might provide a platform for discussion – but a standard rectangular table has a head (or rather, two), suggesting a hierarchical order despite its flat and open surface. A bench, on the other hand, may or may not have arms, or a back. As distinct from the chair, which emerged in many cultures to signify the seat of power, a bench is one of the earliest pieces of furniture which transcends status, and whose value is measured almost entirely by its use. A good bench is one that is well used. Whether your measure is the scratchy, adolescent declarations of 4eva love, doodles left by warring factions of kids, gentle undulations in wood made by penitent church-going posteriors, or brass-plaque dedications to memorialise loved ones in a favourite park or garden. Ubiquitous and un-revered, the “benchmark”, if you will, of a successful bench is arguably in its appropriation, which speaks to the generosity of its typology.
Superbenches – a recent study of the bench form – was a project that played with this public quality of benches, exploring the typology within the context of Kvarnbacken Park in Järfälla, Sweden. Järfälla is a lesser-known part of the greater Stockholm sprawl, a municipality to the north-east of the city centre, where, during the 1930s and 40s, middle-class homes were built for an imagined commuter population. Currently, the demographic in the area is in flux; with an 11 per cent immigrant population in the municipality, there have been some instances of friction in recent months. At the same time, the region is one of Sweden’s fastest growing municipalities, set to build some 800 new homes and a new metro station to serve 30,000 new inhabitants over the next decade. Change – social, spatial, cultural, and economic – is inevitable.
Part of this change is being overseen by Kalejdohill, a developer-funded arts-led programme, put together by Andreas Angelidakis and Maria Lundström and intended to usher in a new era. It is an attempt to knit together the nature of the existing infrastructure with propositional speculations of what is to come. If “developer-led” rings alarm bells, the provenance of its curators does something to allay fears: developers HSB Norre Stor-Stockholm has shown foresight and ambition in pairing Angelidakis as Kalejdohill’s creative director – a critical and perceptive practitioner working at the intersection of art and architecture – with Lundström as project manager, whose experience as creative director at Ikea Sweden (among other things) stands her in good stead for local engagement.
Located in a park on an historically significant but quite scrubby hill – reportedly a former Viking burial ground – in Kvarnbacken, the transformative programme includes an art and design strategy which aims to mediate between local communities, almost synthesising a new identity and narrative for the area – one which is inclusive rather than imposed. The mission is to give the area a stronger cultural identity, making it a place of local pride even before the new houses arrive. Superbenches is just one of its initiatives.
For this project, Angelidakis invited Felix Burrichter – a New York and Berlin-based curator, writer and founding editor of PIN-UP magazine – to select 10 international designers to propose benches for the park. The resulting benches – distinct in form, although essential in function – are intended as more than a smattering of variegated glamour to the otherwise unspectacular natural landscape; rather, they invite playful comparison and reflection, as well as use. When one comes across Max Lamb’s low, sinuous steel pipes – as if someone had squeezed so much silvery toothpaste across a lawn – just a few metres away from Luca Cipelletti’s unromantic cow-dung cuboids, one is forced to make decisions about where might be more pleasant to sit, and what kind of spatial occupation might be offered.
The benches are dotted along and beside pathways snaking through the park. Some, like Nigerian-British designer Ifeanyi Oganwu’s planar steel shell, provide sheltered moments of repose, while others tuck themselves into the bushy woodlands, offering unexpected contrasts in colour, texture and finish. Chinese furniture designer Naihan Li has composed a landscape of concrete and rammed earth, which will bed down into its local terrain as plants grow in, around and out of it. Dutch designers Scholten & Baijing’s take on the standard plank-and-metal-frame park bench, meanwhile, makes a contrast between painstaking craft – each panel is hand-airbrushed in various graduated hues, continuing the practice’s investigations into colour – and the wild, brambly and windswept terrain.
Others are light-hearted. Märta Hägglund & Sanna Gripner (the only Swedes on the roster) have produced a charming and recognisable version of the living room sofa; their Cushy couch and armchair, realised in steel mesh, symbolically claims the outside as a convivial extension of domestic life. The grape-hyacinth colour pop, the material choice that offers a surprisingly comfy degree of “give”, and the gently humorous skeuomorphism works in the design’s favour – coming to the lawn of your favourite museum or gallery soon.
Even more fun is Soft Baroque’s bouncing beauty; surely born from the simplest of sketches, the bench is a simple seat resting on two firm springs, as seen in children’s playgrounds but less regularly available for big kids. This offering is a joy, but made sublime in the mirror-polished finish of its seat; when the light is right, the sky and trees are gently reflected upon its surface, but then you sit down and the giggles begin.
More unconventional is Leon Ransmeier’s sculptural installation; from a distance, his folded metal works look like diminutive tents on the hillside. Approaching them, there is no obvious way to sit per se, but their geometry and materiality invite the visitor to lean, climb, vault over or even crawl through. LA-based Jonathan Olivares offers a more literal notion of playfulness; the bench is only part of his contribution, which comprises an old-fashioned boules court. The proof of its success was borne out when a tribe of local lads showed up just hours after the courts’ first unveiling, replete with carrier bags full of beer – add bowling and buddies, and you have a very pleasant afternoon.
The most urbane (and therefore, probably, my favourite) is London-based Canadian Phillippe Malouin’s contribution, again stretching the notion of “bench”, Resembling nothing so much as a fragment of London’s Barbican, Malouin’s Core is another standalone sculptural object; its rough-hewn concrete surface textured with pebbly aggregate on the outside, and ground down to a buttery-smooth finish on its ovoid interior hollows. It is here that I would imagine myself curling up, catlike, to survey the hilltop views to the surrounding neighbourhood; an intimate space to claim and contemplate.
So if, as Burrichter claims, the benches form a community engagement and incubator, how have the new arrivals been received? Culture-led development often cherry-picks those local or historical details which happen to be market friendly, while failing to properly appreciate the existing context. The Superbenches opening ceremony in May, however, was a delightfully bizarre (think Wes Anderson) afternoon, which seemed to show locals in full support of the project: children in pushchairs as well as curious elders, by now accustomed to finding new additions to the park, shared opinions with designers and developers over fika, to the beat of a moustachioed marching band and an incongruous cameo from a local rapper. The idea is that after living with this bouquet of benches for a full year, citizens will decide which should stay and which, if any, should go: which of these object will generate a special spatial conviviality and which might fail to bloom. The Superbenches project does not seem to have landed in a vacuum; it’s not a case of “If you build it, they will come”. Järfälla is a place already and Kvarnbacken Park is part of an existing community. However, reified by the project and the provocations offered by a diverse cast of designers, civic pride is running high.