Unpleasant Design in the Hot Seat
There are probably a few things as uncomfortable as seating in public spaces. In most cases, the frosty punctured metal, inconveniently placed armrest, curvature of the seating and absent backrest makes sitting for longer than a few minutes improbable and lying down impossible (Image 1). This type of design strategy in the design world is known as “unpleasant design” or “hostile urban architecture”. It is important to note that unpleasant design doesn’t necessarily refer to bad or failed design, but rather the goal and designer’s intention to deter certain activities through the actual design.¹ In essence, design is used as a method of social control to influence the way we interact with public, semi-public and semi-private spaces, particularly targeted at individuals who fall within specific demographics.² In the case of the algid steel public bench, it is clearly trying to keep the homeless folk from getting a good night’s rest.
If one contrasts the seating on the streets of Manhattan (Image 1) with the public seating at the High Line (Image 2) it is evident that the only commonality between the two is their nomenclatures. Unlike the above-mentioned cold steel public seating, the warm wooden benches at the High Line are comfortable, practical, and, let’s be honest, really beautiful. This begs the question, are the benches at the High Line pleasant because of the demographic it caters to or because the designers wanted to create seating that would encourage spending hours reading and interacting with the environment for everyone?
The influence of demographics on pleasant or unpleasant design choices raises a lot of ethical questions and concerns regarding the approach to designing for public spaces in general. This leads to an even bigger question: what measures have been put in place to ensure that the design of public space is ethical? Perhaps, it is time for a design equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, “first do not harm,” to be put in place? If design continues to be utilized in an unpleasant way, temporarily patching up a problem (keep people from sleeping on public benches), rather than solve a problem (homelessness)³, the problem remains, the ethical questions grow and we are simply left with problematic impractical seating in beautiful public spaces.
¹Roman Mars, “Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture,” 99% Invisible (July 5, 2016), accessed October 1, 2017, http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/unpleasant-design-hostile-urban-architecture/
²Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic, Unpleasant Design (2012), chap. 1, Kindle.
³Mars, “Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture”