Results 1 to 9 of 9

Thread: The Subway-Platform Bench

  1. #1

    Default The Subway-Platform Bench

    Subterranean Modernity

    The last place you’d expect to find good design is the subway.

    By Paul Goldberger

    June 2004

    Functional, proportional, and comfortable, New York’s subway-platform benches are excellent public furniture. Made from wood, when one might resonably expect a more durable inorganic material, the benches are largely unscarred by their hostile environment

    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.

    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.

    Learn more about William H. Whyte:

  2. #2


    largely unscarred by their hostile environment
    I wouldn't say that, I've seen many a bench so filthy, and damaged I wouldn't even want to go near them.

  3. #3
    Forum Veteran krulltime's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Manhattan - UWS


    oh is no big deal. If I am tired of walking or standing up I sit. 8)

  4. #4


    Subway Benches

    Fabrikator | Friday, December 13, 2013 | Emily Hooper

    Thomas Balsley Reaches Destination with Landscape Forms

    The Transit Bench was fabricated in Landscape Forms custom project division, Studio 431. (Michael Koontz/Thomas Balsley Associates)

    Landscape architect Thomas Balsley has been shaping public spaces in urban settings for more than 35 years, from the Bronx to Dallas to Portland. Even at large scales his work underscores attention to detail, all the way down to the furniture that adorns his sites. As a resident of New York since the 1970s, Balsley is all too aware of the way public benches and seating function in densely populated cities. For Transit Bench—fabricated by Landscape Forms custom project team at Studio 431—he designed a seating option for busy pedestrian areas, like train platforms and street-side parklets, where movement engulfs stationary seating.

    “I started thinking of the aerodynamic aspects of transit and airline design, where the skin of the plane is an important structural component,” Balsley told AN. “I had the idea that this folded piece of skin could be the structure.” The bench, which rests on two sled base legs, is one solid form, made from a single sheet of stainless steel with laser cut perforations that suggest motion.

    Balsley modeled his design for the new bench in Rhino. (courtesy Thomas Balsley Associates)

    Based off his design for the Redline Bench (one of many products Balsley has designed for Landscape Forms), Transit Bench hones in on efficiency of form and material, something he hopes will become hallmarks of 21st century design. Wrestling to rectify an ongoing inconsistency in bench design—“Why isn’t the back as attractive as the front?” pondered Balsley—Transit Bench’s back extends 1/3 of the way down for a more balanced aesthetic. A skirt folds down to conceal the legs at the front of the bench. On the backless version of the design, the skirt wraps down over the backside as well.

    Rob Smalldon of Studio 431 took the Rhino design files supplied by Balsley and worked on them in SketchUp and SolidWorks. A sheet of stainless steel was laser cut in flat form, and sent to a press break to achieve its three defining bends. For simplicity and consistency, the same dye was used for all three bends. The legs are also made from one band of steel, as are the arms, which are bent to their preferred shape. “I believe some of the best designs are pretty simple,” said Smalldon, “but there’s usually twice as much effort to make it work.”

    Transit Bench’s back extends 1/3 of the way down for a more balanced aesthetic. (Michael Koontz/Thomas Balsley Associates)

    The legs are bolted to the seat panel to avoid heat deformations and ensure safety and stability. “With the bolted connection, you see rounded bolt heads but no warpage,” explained Smalldon. “It looks and performs better.” In all, the bench is made from four pieces.

    Transit Bench was designed in New York and fabricated in Michigan. Balsley was pleased with the outcome. “If it was a fabricator I wasn’t familiar with, I would have been there. But Landscape Forms is a top shelf company,” he said. “Our other stainless pieces with them have been extraordinary.”

    Balsley designed a seating option for busy pedestrian areas, like train platforms. (courtesy Thomas Balsley Associates)

    Copyright © 2003-2013 | The Architect's Newspaper, LLC

  5. #5


    Looking for a conversation piece? MTA to sell wooden subway benches

    Station stalwarts gradually being replaced by metal seats

    By Pete Donohue / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

    Thursday, February 16, 2012, 9:27 PM

    Those iconic wooden subway benches - which have served straphangers and the homeless for generations - now can be yours for a mere $650.

    The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will put decades-old benches up for sale as they are replaced by stainless steel models the authority is about to begin installing in stations.

    “Get set to enjoy the ambiance of the New York City transit system,” Mike Zacchea, assistant chief operations officer with the NYC Transit division, said.

    The Daily News reported Wednesday that subway managers are switching to the new metal design because they expect it will be easier and cheaper to clean and maintain.

    The wooden benches won’t be replaced all at once. They’ll be removed when stations come up for major overhauls, transit officials said.

    The MTA sells surplus material from an upper Manhattan warehouse stocked with spare parts and memorabilia, including train horns, upholstered express bus seats, vintage tokens, station signs and metal grabholds used by subway riders to steady themselves.

    The authority sells approximately $35,000 worth of memorabilia a year, Zacchea said. Customers include serious subway and bus buffs and people who are just nostalgic about a former neighborhood, he said.

    “It’s a bit of connection to the past,” Zacchea said.

    The MTA had a few extra benches a few years ago and sold them for $600 to $650, he said.

    “They’re sort of iconic,” he said. “They’ve been around a long time. They’re massive. I can see them sitting in a back yard being weathered for a couple more years and serving as a conversation piece.”

    © Copyright 2013

  6. #6
    Chief Antagonist Ninjahedge's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003


    The stainless look so.... comfy...

  7. #7
    Forum Veteran
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    New York City


    The grates on those benches will collect lots of nasty stuff

  8. #8


    Leave it to the MTA to use metal benches on elevated platforms.

    Winter frostbite and summer blisters.


  9. #9
    Forum Veteran
    Join Date
    Oct 2009
    On the Rails in North NJ


    Quote Originally Posted by LemSkroob View Post
    Leave it to the MTA to use metal benches on elevated platforms.

    Winter frostbite and summer blisters.

    I wouldn't be worried about Frostbite , the Summer heat is a concern. You can get 1st degree burns from a Metal surface...

Similar Threads

  1. Second Avenue Subway Project
    By NYguy in forum New York City Guide For New Yorkers
    Replies: 610
    Last Post: July 6th, 2016, 11:18 AM
  2. Farewell, Subway Token
    By Kris in forum New York City Guide For New Yorkers
    Replies: 16
    Last Post: March 27th, 2004, 11:17 PM
  3. World Subway Systems
    By TLOZ Link5 in forum Photography and Travel
    Replies: 5
    Last Post: March 6th, 2004, 10:55 PM
  4. New Subway Trains for NYC
    By Chris2005 in forum New York City Guide For New Yorkers
    Replies: 16
    Last Post: July 23rd, 2003, 09:55 PM

Tags for this Thread


Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts

Google+ - Facebook - Twitter - Meetup

Edward's photos on Flickr - Wired New York on Flickr - In Queens - In Red Hook - Bryant Park - SQL Backup Software