Benches in parks, train stations, bus shelters and other public places are meant to offer seating, but only for a limited duration. Many elements of such seats are subtly or overtly restrictive. Arm rests, for instance, indeed provide spaces to rest arms, but they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in anything but a prescribed position. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as “hostile architecture,” or simply: “unpleasant design.”
Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, co-editors of the book Unpleasant Design, are quick to point out that unpleasant designs are not failed designs, but rather successful ones in the sense that they deter certain activities by design. A bench which fails to be comfortable and flexible, for example, can still be a successful design … if the designer intends for it to be an uncomfortable place to spend long periods of time.
Unpleasant designs take many shapes, but they share a common goal of exerting some kind of social control in public or in publicly-accessible private spaces. They are intended to target, frustrate and deter people, particularly those who fall within unwanted demographics.
Street furniture is one of the most common subjects of unpleasant design critiques. The limitations built into urban objects restrict activities, denying a potentially complex range of uses and interactions. Beyond dividers and armrests, some benches are mounted so high that a sitter’s feet will not reach the ground, making them uncomfortable after a short period. In other cases, shared seats are barely benches at all, just slim slats to stand and rest against.
Of all these bench designs, there is one masterpiece in particular that stands out from the crowd. The Camden Bench is a highly refined work of unpleasant design, impervious to essentially anything but sitting.