Places That Work: A Chicago park bench

A curving bench dominates the pocket park next to the Chicago Temple, at the corner of Washington and Clark. The first time I walked by it, I realized that this piece of furniture is a masterpiece, psychologically speaking.

Research tells us that we flourish in places where we feel in control, and this bench provides all sorts of options.  I’ve seen people arrange themselves along its length when they want to make eye contact with others OR NOT, knowing, instinctively that connections can happen when we catch each others’ eyes. These eye-links can read minds. For introverts, though, continuous contact can be unpleasant; and even the most extroverted of us needs a little alone time once in a while. But no matter what your preferred “interaction alignment”, you can sit at some point along the bench and experience it.

The bench’s design helps its users control how far they sit from others, aided by a few arm rests along its length.  Preferred interpersonal distances differ from situation to situation, culture to culture, but the unsegmented lengths of bench provide the same advantages that wheels on chairs do—the possibility to create distance.

Unfortunately, the home of the bench, a compact park, is vegetation-challenged. This deficiency of nature, however, is somewhat compensated for by the wood of the bench.  Seeing furniture with birch veneer and a clear finish, notes David Fell in his recent dissertation, may provide many of the same stress reducing benefits as exposure to leafy nature does.

We generally prefer curvy shapes to more rectangular ones. In fact, those who participated in a recent research project by Dazkir and Read felt that rounded furniture (shown to them as images) created a more relaxing environment than rectilinear shapes.  Of course, personality and culture make it difficult to extrapolate from this generalization to a single person’s response to the undulating bench near the corner of Washington and Clark. But the curved bench makes an otherwise bleak Chicago pocket park a comfortable space, filled with psychological possibilities.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at sallyaugustin@designwithscience.com .

Sally Augustin’s previous post in this series was about Holland’s Sidewalks.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized

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