Sweden is home to the world’s longest public bench. At 240 feet (around 72 meters) in length, the Långa Soffan (“long sofa”) was installed by the citizens of Oskarshamn in 1867 to overlook its rather unspectacular harbour, which opens toward the Baltic Sea. The function of this bench was not for passing time and taking in the coastal views, however; in times gone by it was rhythmically occupied by the wives of sailors awaiting their husband’s return from sea voyages. It allowed people to gather under a sense of common melancholy and collectively recall the smiles of their distant spouses before the ocean’s broad, blue canvas.
A bench, in other words, is an important civic statement. As instruments of assembly they provide a reason to stop and linger – occupying a bench in a public space is also a social recitation. Sit in the middle of the seat and you are signifying that you wish to be alone. Sit to one side and you’re inviting others to join – think, for instance, of the park bench scenes in Forrest Gump or Good Will Hunting. The bench is at once ubiquitous and often dismissed as a sub-par form of furniture, usually designed to be a variation on the same theme: four wooden planks bolted to an unabashedly efficient supporting frame.
In a satellite suburb of Stockholm, an innovative two-year-long initiative is attempting to challenge the status quo through intelligent competition and design briefs. The Kalejdohill project—located in Järfälla, led by creative director Andreas Angelidakis and developed in public-private partnership with three Swedish developers (HSB, Norra, and Stor-Stockholm)—has completed a series of open international competitions and local interventions in and around Kvarnbacken Park, a small patch of green surrounded by homes and businesses. Once-neglected, it now finds itself at the heart of a rapidly expanding urban conurbation with somewhere between 600 and 800 housing units posited for its immediate vicinity.
As the latest in a string of supra-spatial projects to take on Kvarnbacken—including “Desire Lines” and “Lights”—"SUPERBENCHES" has pooled together a collection of world-renowned designers in the spirit of experimentation. The design and construction of ten park benches, conceived by ten design practices, has been overseen by US-based creative director and writer Felix Burrichter. For Burrichter, this project is primarily a “community incubator” for “a new, diverse neighborhood,” which isn’t yet built.
The more immediate response among current residents has been enthusiastic. Following the construction of the "Procrastinated Entrance Gate" by Manuel García Sarafian in late 2016, they are by now rather used to stumbling upon interesting interventions in their local park. As the "SUPERBENCHES" were unveiled to the public at the end of last month, an entire hamlet of people turned out to the poetically incongruous tune of a brass band and a Swedish rap performance. They tried out their new benches, had fika in the park, and chatted awhile. In this part of Järfälla, the age-old adage that neighborhood investment encourages civic pride is both viable and thriving.
The "SUPERBENCHES" themselves—each, according to Burrichter, proposing “a distinct bench typology”—are radically different from their neighbors – and their introduction to the community is not the end of the story. While each will be in position for a year, local residents will be invited to democratically determine the long-term composition of their park; their top picks will remain as permanent installations while their least favorite benches, or the least used, will be eliminated. Heated competition and a prolonged testing period is certainly one way to actively encourage community participation. While every indication would suggest that its members will put forward strong opinions, these are five of our favorites.
Spring Break / Soft Baroque
Soft Baroque (Saša Štucin & Nicholas Gardner) have been inspired by "a YouTube video of an overweight man in a tie-dyed t-shirt bobbing back and forth on a kid’s playground springer to create a two-seater bench on springs."
What is a "SUPERBENCH"? Does it suit modern functions (USB charging stations and wi clouds), contemporary aesthetics, or foster conceptual dialogue? No. Being super is being ideologically pure but somewhat irrational with an element of fantasy.
Core / Philippe Malouin
Malouin has drawn inspiration from "the local topography, using natural aggregates to create an outdoor meeting place that offers a pause from the hectic everyday life."
There was no brand to design for, only the people that would interact with the piece, and the neighbouring park, which we are trying to vitalise. The surroundings were taken in consideration so that the piece would stick out sculpturally, yet would work with its surrounding.
Cushy / Hägglund & Gripner
Hägglund & Gripner (Märta Hägglund & Sanna Gripner) have designed an exterior living room, "translating the aesthetic and comfort of the home into public outdoor seating. Their work consists of a two-seater and matching armchair composed of metal mesh."
[Our work] is based on the round shapes and fluffiness of cushions to make it look comfortable and welcoming. With this design we hope that the people of Järfälla will experience a homely and welcoming atmosphere in the park.
Primordial Bench / Luca Cipelletti
This is a conceptual work made of "Shit Bricks" – a sustainable clay-composite of processed, odorless cow dung. "Formed as an L-shape, they are reminiscent of an archeological ruin in which only one corner of an ancient structure remains."
As a symbol of environmental sustainability and social responsibility, it introduces a new relationship between object and user. It cannot fail to provoke a response.
Aluminum Bench – Concrete Pétanque Terrain / Jonathan Olivares
This is a variation of Olivares "Aluminum Bench" project, "an industrial design based on a user-configured design app he developed for metal and glass fabricator Zahner."
A curved aluminium bench has been placed adjacent to a pair of redesigned boule courts that have been upgraded in concrete.
The Kalejdohill project is an invitation to inhabit the area of Kvarnbacken in Järfälla, Stockholm, prior to the construction of housing units. Kalejdohill consists of a diverse set of society-building activities that range from citizen participation initiatives to pop-up exhibitions, conferences, research and knowledge production.
Previous international design competitions as part of the Kalejdohill project have included: Login Gate (which called for proposals for a new entrance gate for) attracted 330 entries, the winning entry of which is now built); Inhabitant Zero (which has selected five artists to inhabit a small yellow house on the edge of the park and undertake research residencies); and Design a Story (which invited speculative proposals that used “story designing” as a tool for space making).