Exhibit Review: Street Seats
"Soapbox Derby at Mt. Tabor,
or hunting down the exhibit by Design Week on redesigning city benches.
Either of those take your fancy?"
I was sitting in Dallas drenched in sweat from walking miles in humid weather for breakfast BBQ tacos when this text came in. A friend and I were making plans to hang out for the upcoming weekend, when I would be back in Portland. It had been a while since I had one of those. I was excited to both catch up and to do something that reminded me of "home." Work has taken me away from Portland a lot this summer. Travelling elsewhere is fun, but on my "layovers at home" when I'm not behind on laundry or other errands, I like to do things that are unique to the PNW. The kind of things that remind me I don't just pay my rent here - I get to live here!
Both the Soapbox Derby and Portland Design Week's Street Seats installation fit my "Only in Portland" mandate. Though the Soapbox Derby has been on my "Portland Must" list for years, I opted to hunt down some benches. After seven hours of airline travel the day prior, I liked the idea of something that got me moving, that we could do at our own pace, that wouldn't be insanely crowded, and with forecasted weather near the 90s could potentially put us near shade (read: a bar) if things got too hot. So, this past Saturday we put on our walking shoes and set out to look for places to rest our feet.
Street Seats: Urban Benches for Vibrant Cities
The goal of this installation is simple: local and international designers were invited to reimagine the public bench. After what I can only imagine was a competitive review process 15 benches were selected. The benches are installed around the World Trade Center Portland and near the Salmon Street Springs along the waterfront. I think the installation opened recently and they appear to have events through October. So, local friends or friends who plan to visit - I think you've got plenty of time to check them out for yourself!
Look. I'm not a designer. I'm not really creative. But, I am someone who works in those realms and thinks deeply about user experiences - especially when they seek to merge creativity, function, and accessibility. In fact, it is often my job to critically assess the effectiveness of experiences so that they can be further refined and improved. The friend I was hanging out with does a lot of the same. So, while we were excited to see the finished designs, I think we were also a bit excited to flex some professional skills. Here are some things we noticed.
What Worked for Us and got us thinking.
- We found ourselves stopping and really examining benches using cool materials in new or unexpected ways. One bench embedded bits of reflective material into its stone so that it could light up at night. Another took an old washtub and filled the basin in to become a whimsical seat. Finally, the most comfortable bench was one that used rubber bands to form a visually stunning and relaxing street seat.
- Though fluid designs, accentuating curves and flat spaces for sitting, appeared the most inviting, we enjoyed the creative challenges posed in benches that defied the norms. One bench - created in collaboration by designers in Portland and in Japan, was almost entirely upright. It encouraged leaning, climbing, and provided a space for bikes.
- There was a clear trend in bringing natural elements back into an urban landscape. Whether intentional or not, almost all of the displayed designs offered some commentary on the natural world in an unnatural environment. This was reflected either by material use (local woods, reclaimed materials) and in inspiration for design (ferns, river rock, watershed).
questions we had and where we wanted to know more.
- Of the 15 benches on view, only 5 of them motivated us to actually try sitting on them. Many benches were so beautiful, but either didn't look comfortable, were a bit confusing, or weren't inherently clear to us that they were a bench! One bench had a grassy plant growing out of it, with wood and concrete designs surrounding it. We thought it was an extension of the existing landscape before realizing it was part of the installation.
- I don't know how long the benches are to be on the street but I believe they were only recently installed. Yet, questions of durability immediately came up. One wooden bench had rough edges that didn't seem to be treated. How would it hold up in inclement weather? Benches made with concrete or fiberglass already showed cracks and scratches from general wear and tear.
- Safety was also a concern. Look, going back to work for a hot minute, I do a lot with children ages 0-5. In particular, I do a lot of observations of children doing play-based activities. Some of the benches - including one that was designed to encourage play - had exposed screws and narrow gaps for little ones to get their fingers stuck in. Other benches had rough wooden edges ripe for splinters. Several of the concrete benches were scorching hot in the midday sun. I'm not saying that the designers didn't think through these things and plan accordingly. Maybe they did! I just would have liked a little more knowledge about that. This is, after all, an exhibition about creative problem solving.