Art Takes a Seat on Alberta Avenue
While volunteering at my weekly shift at the Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse, my attention was directed outside to a new addition on the sidewalk. Situated directly next to the building was what I can only describe as two headstones joined by a massive concrete slab. I had an immediate negative reaction to the design of the benches. After taking a walk down Alberta Avenue I soon realized these new benches were everywhere, a new installation in my surroundings.
What sets these benches apart from others in the city is the artwork that has been etched into a granite slab on each side. The artist’s name and title of the piece appears on the inside of the seat. Placing benches in the area is a fantastic idea that compliments the efforts of the Avenue Initiative Revitalization. What I question is the stark design, especially when there has been such an effort to keep the area vibrant and inviting. For instance, the utility boxes have been painted to improve their appearance, so why scatter the Avenue with monolithic structures that liken to gravestones? The benches are out of place in comparison to the newly painted utility boxes (see photo below). I don’t find the benches particularly welcoming or even comfortable.
To get more information I spoke with Brian Van Sickle, Senior Urban Designer with the City of Edmonton. Van Sickle described the evolution of the project as one beginning with a focus on giving emerging artists a chance to showcase their work. Originally the project involved embedding the granite slabs into the sidewalk itself. A jury of seven individuals on the Edmonton Arts Council selected artists and their work. It turns out this concept had many practical concerns, including the installations being slippery, damaged, or worn away rapidly. The project was then re-adapted to use benches as a medium to showcase this art. Van Sickle described the benches simply as “vessels to hold art”.
During the process of selecting locations for the benches, business owners along Alberta Avenue were consulted. It turns out many businesses were reluctant to have a bench outside due to possible negative effects such as loitering and other unwanted behavior. To ease their concerns, the benches are not bolted down on the street, allowing them to be moved if a location change is required. If this project is successful and the installment of the benches is well received by community members and business owners, the hope in the future is to further develop the concept of benches on the street, including more permanent designs.
Whether we recognize their benefit, benches are an integral component of our urban landscape. A properly designed bench, placed in the right location, can be an asset for the street allowing passerby’s to rest in a public setting. Benches provide the opportunity for people to engage in a number of occupations: reading, waiting for a friend, people-watching, relaxing, or enjoying a snack. Benches encourage people to be present and engage in their environment. Therefore, bench designs should match this intended use, blending both function and appearance. As simple as the concept of a public bench is, it seems there is a lot to consider. The Project for Public Space outlines some specifics on bench design, placement and location.
There are some really innovative and unique design ideas out here. Take the CHITCHAT bench for example. Created by Dutch designer Teun Fleskans, it not only incorporates natural elements into the design but encourages users to share the space by balancing out the rocking bottom. The main focus of the design is interaction and connection between strangers.
Dominik Schwarz’ typoase is another excellent example of using simple natural materials to create a structure with an organic quality.
Lastly, this hydraulic bench created by Carmen Bogman and Rogier Martens is unique in that the design allows for users to control and manipulate their environment. This design has some obvious flaws but is certainly conceptually intriguing.
Kristi is an occupational therapist currently living in Alberta Avenue. She enjoys bike rides, making zines, mailing letters, and talking to neighbourhood cats.
Bench photos by Mike Otto. Tombstone photo by Chris Schieman.