Subterranean Modernity

The stout and utilitarian subway bench may be one of the best pieces of design in New York’s public realm.

The centennial of the New York City subway system this year has engendered a lot of nostalgia about the glories of the past, from the old wicker seats to the elaborate mosaic station signs. Most of the talk centers on how warm and gracious these elements were, the implication being that in today’s harsh bureaucratically driven underground environment we can’t possibly do things as nicely as we once did. Nonsense. Not only is it better to sit on a hard plastic seat in an air-conditioned car with an electronic sign that lists every stop than to sit on a wicker seat in a stifling car that is marked only with its final destination, but I’m also more comfortable on subway platforms than I once was. Why? Many of them contain a piece of furniture that I think is one of the best things in New York’s public realm: long solid benches constructed of red oak, beautifully designed and surprisingly comfortable, which have been in the subways since 1980. Nobody pays much attention to these benches, but they’re absolutely wonderful.

Most public seating in large cities is rigid, inflexible, and generally uncomfortable. For years William H. Whyte, the philosopher-king of urban public space, argued that loose movable chairs encourage social discourse and create a more relaxed environment. But transit bureaucrats have tended to ignore his advice in favor of the reality that fixed furniture is easier to clean, manage, and keep track of. Nobody can say that New York’s subway benches are flexible in the manner of Whyte’s ideal chairs—they are so solid and heavy that they make a park bench seem light by comparison—but for all their massiveness they exude an almost domestic air, more like a sofa than a church pew. What is more surprising is that when you sit on them, they even feel more like sofas than church pews. They look hard but feel soft. It is the opposite of the molded plastic seats in subway cars, which look soft and feel hard.

There is something surprisingly modern about the subway bench. For all its solidity, it seems to consist of floating planes—the solid seat and slightly angled back piece are the main ones. It is De Stijl on steroids, although what it really reminds me of proportionally are the old Knoll platform sofas from the early 1950s. These sofas were upholstered, of course, as well as lower and visually much lighter, but there is a distant resemblance to these subway benches, and I find it oddly comforting. Midcentury Modern morphs into subway furniture—not in a self-consciously retro way, but in the form of something tough and utilitarian.

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The dark finish on the oak gives the benches a depth and resonance that serve as a counterpoint to the light, almost floating modernity. The design is a variant of a model created by the Port Authority in 1973 for stations on the Path transit line and for waiting areas in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The first ones were made by the Hudson Design Service in Jersey City, and they seated four people. Later the design was stretched to ten feet to accommodate six, which actually made the proportions better. At that length it looks sleek instead of stubby.

Since 1987 the benches have also been manufactured by Theodore G. Bayer & Sons in Pennsylvania, which estimates that it has made roughly 4,000 of them. Since 1997 the benches have been made with high dividers to demarcate the six individual seats, a gesture that may provide users with a sense that they are occupying a small piece of dedicated turf, but that really exists to make it impossible for anyone to lie down across the length of it and sleep.

Part of the pleasure of this object is the surprise of seeing wood in the subway. Years ago there were wooden benches in the subway, but they were clunky, uncomfortable things with none of the visual appeal or comfort of these. (I remember some of them painted blue and chipping badly, looking like forlorn benches in the dugout of an old Little League baseball field.) Given the pressures on the subway environment, you would expect that if there were any public seating, it would be made of galvanized steel or of some impenetrable new synthetic. I continue to wonder why these wooden benches haven’t been chipped away at. Why haven’t they worn down or been carved up? I’d like to think that it’s the power of the built environment—that if you give people a public realm designed with respect, they will treat it with respect. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I choose to believe that these benches prove the point.

There is another reason these benches work in the subway. Most benches are fairly useless as far as multiple seating is concerned, for the reasons Whyte explained long ago. You can’t move them. They work much better for individuals than groups. Two people can converse with moderate comfort on a bench, but it is awkward for more. Park benches often function as borders along pathways, defining the line between walkway and lawn, as much as usable seating. On the subway, however, the turf is simple, the need is clear, and people are more likely to be alone—certainly more likely than when they are on a relaxed stroll through Central Park—and so benches make perfect sense. When you sit on a subway platform, you are not looking to communicate. It is you and your anxieties—or perhaps you and the New York Post—not you and someone you’re looking to have a leisurely chat with.

These wooden benches are not coy or cute. That, in the end, is why I like them most of all: they are not trying to take us somewhere else, to turn the subway into a theme park of sweet design. They are tough in a New York way, but they are not nasty in a New York way. I like that balance—strong, accommodating, and sturdy but not severe. Not many pieces of design could be described that way, and the last place I would have expected to find one of them would be a subway platform.

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