After reading this book by the distinguished landscape architect Laurie Olin, I realized how certain rituals of sharing life in public out of doors have been made comfortable by centuries of design practitioners from antiquity to the present. This is especially so in Paris, where Olin first studied park and café life. In fact, Be Seated is three books in one: first, the narrative encompassing the history of outdoor seating down to current design practices—Olin’s and others; second, almost 50 years’ worth of his endearing, squiggly ink and watercolor sketchbook renderings, with handwritten commentary, interleaved between text pages, making his points actively visible. Finally, he includes photographs of contemporary parks, squares, and other public places. The effect is richly cumulative when read or studied in sequence.
Though Classical amphitheaters and low stone ledges encircling Renaissance churches and fountains made for early communal seating, paramount through time is the proliferation of benches and chairs, in wood, metal, or stone. As Olin says, “Almost all benches are really just stretched chairs.” On another page, his sketch of banquettes and Thonet bentwood chairs inside a Viennese café shows the inspiration for his juxtaposition of a stone ledge “bench” and Harry Bertoia chairs outdoors in New York’s Paley Park. In essence, the book is both show and tell. With his exquisite eye for detail and vast knowledge gained through an academic and professional life and travels on both coasts and abroad, Olin writes the story in a personal and thoughtful manner, highlighting both the places where people have “pleasure in one another’s company” and the designs that made them possible. Examples include an ornate garden bench designed by William Kent for Rousham Gardens in England, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s many-styled benches for New York’s Central Park, and Antoni Gaudí’s curvilinear seat wall for Park Güell in Barcelona.
This general discussion leads into Olin’s own practice—and that of other contemporary landscape architects—recalling his engagement in the recovery of Bryant Park (behind the New York Public Library) completed in 1991. Though this itself is history, he brings back vividly that period when the sociologist William H. Whyte advocated placing movable chairs in public parks. While this custom was long viable in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris (witness Olin’s many evocative drawings of his favorite garden), it was new to New York, where anticipated theft was a concern. Now those chairs contribute to Bryant Park’s enduring success. Olin takes readers step by step through other seating solutions, like the marble “pillow” benches his firm designed for the Washington Monument site in the nation’s capital, and arc-shaped slatted benches in wood around the fountain at Columbus Circle in New York.
I often sit reading on Sundays in Central Park and watch the parade of people going to and fro against a skyline of majestic trees. But now the experience will be forever enhanced by visualizing, through Olin’s words and sketches, my companionship with others doing the same, whether sitting on chairs, benches, or ledges, around the world.