Anti-sitting devices 09.08.11

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This might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell," said the American urbanist William H Whyte, "but people like to sit where there are places for them to sit." As the population was flooding out of American cities and into the suburbs, Whyte hoped to revitalise sidewalks, plazas and city parks by offering people as many places to rest as possible.

But such is the modern planner's paranoia about drunks, youths, homeless people and other loiterers that places to sit are now under continual attack. Impromptu seats, such as window sills, ledges, planters and standpipes, are increasingly adorned with iron spikes to make them unfriendly to bums. Even designated seating is often now angled to make it unpleasant to perch for more than a short while or divided into individual places so that you can't lie down. These measures are the human equivalent of those needles that decorate urban facades to stop birds speckling them with guano or nesting. People are treated like pigeons.

Jonathan Marston has been photographing anti-sitting devices in his native New York since 2003. His images 
of deliberately uncomfortable fire hydrants, steps, plinths and exhaust vents paint a portrait of a restless city, the masses always forcibly on the move. These defensive measures, which are steadily turning the city into a bed of nails, are an architectural symbol of inequality, the product of a suburban mentality – an attempt to keep citizens upright. They're an ugly way to make city centres more attractive.

The artist Sarah Ross has come up with an ingenious and comical solution to this depressing fortification of space with her Archisuit, a wearable cushion-cum-tracksuit that turns any spiky bench into a comfortable bed. There are other hopeful glimmers of resistance. One isolated standpipe, seen in a corner of New York that eluded Marston's lens, is fitted with a little seat above which is the invitation: "Please be seated – rest, dream, this is New York."



Project for Public Spaces



Christopher Turner

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Places to sit are now under continual attack

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