As city folk, we rarely pay attention to the myriad street furniture around us, like benches and street lights. However, some have become iconic to the point of becoming synonymous with the city itself, like the K2 London telephone box and the Art Deco fixtures of the Paris Metro.
Here’s our pick of the best street furniture from around the world that go beyond utility to display a wealth of creativity that enriches metropolitan life.
Why have a simple bench when you can unleash the very limits of human imagination? Street seating can become a draw in and off itself, lending a deeper character to the city they inhabit, like the spectacular Vision Hill in Tianjin, China. Ringed by the towers of Tianjin’s High-Tech Zone, Vision Hill is an undulating hillscape made of bamboo strips.
The result is a charming juxtaposition of nature with modernity. Stairways and platforms provide the perfect surfaces to sit, clamber or simply traverse the square during the daily commute. Vision Hill has also become a gathering place to relax or enjoy live performances.
Done right, street seating can enliven a sleepy small town, like the Bränden Bus Station, Austria. Constructed beside an unassuming road, this grove of white metal rods incorporates wooden steps that double as seating threaded throughout. Each step on this spiralling staircase offers a different view of the surrounding countryside, while those looking at the bus stop from across the street get to enjoy the interaction of people, art and landscape, a true harmony of nature and artificiality.
Arguably the most famous street seating in the world is found in Tokyo’s luxurious Roppongi Hills. Nestled among the public art by famous artists dotting the development, the stylish street furniture are artworks in their own right. They include interior designer Uchida Shigeru’s ribbony “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”, a quirky free-flowing form that results from attempting to remove gravity from the object.
The best piece here is the glass armchair by famous artist and designer of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic torch, Yoshioka Tokujin. Inspired by how a piece of glass submerged in water loses its outlines and “disappears”, this chair, too, looks as if it vanishes when it rains.
Every city comes with unique challenges that are best addressed through fit-for-purpose solutions. One charming example is the food vending machine for stray animals, created for the ancient city of Istanbul, famed for its friendly attitude towards the many street cats and dogs. The tall box-shaped machine is activated when members of the public insert recyclable materials, like bottles and cans, into an opening at the top. Pet food is then released at the bottom of the machine, at a height comfortable for furry critters. A third opening is for liquids; people can share their leftover water which flows into a bowl beside the food dispenser.
Meanwhile in Brazil, the orelhão (‘big ear’ in Portuguese), the egg-shaped telephone hoods found in every city, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The iconic design, a familiar symbol of Brazil, was the brainchild of Chinese-Brazilian architect Chu Ming Silveira in response to vandalism. The elegant yet low-cost design uses acrylic and fiberglass to form a lightweight egg-shaped shell that is strong, light, resistant to sun, rain, and fire, as well as protective for users. Despite the rise of mobile phones, these beloved phone shelters can still be found throughout Latin America as well as in Africa and China.
One inexpensive and cheerful example is the colourful seating installations in Mexico City, courtesy of El Ultimo Grito studio. Using wooden planks, gaffer tape and recycled packing material, then decorated with stickers, the local community join in and shape the furniture in any way they like, so each installation has never been the same. The finished product often ends up utilised in unexpected ways, like a mini playground for kids, and drawing vendors together to culminate in a street party.
Tech to the rescue
High-tech solutions can enhance how locals shape the fabric of their city. As part of their “Build Your City” project, Rotterdam studio, The New Raw, invited residents of Thessaloniki, Greece, to bring plastic household waste to be 3D printed into custom street furniture. This interactive project encourages both a love of recycling and civic engagement in the cityscape itself.
Technology can also be used to solve any number of urban issues. In the era of COVID, public amenities require extra care for the health and safety of citizens. Designer Michael Anastassiades’ touchless drinking fountains, which first debuted in 2018 in London, do just that. Sculpted from highly-reflective bronze, these sleek monoliths reference the form of other great British street furniture, such as the red letterbox and phone box. As users approach, a sensor activates an arcing jet of water, which flows into a shallow basin. Besides drinking, the design allows easy refilling of water bottles, to reduce Londoners’ dependence on single-use plastic bottles.
In Penang, Malaysia, an assuming bus shelter has been launched, souped up with technology. The smart street asset includes excellent telecommunications infrastructure – in the form of small cells with high-capacity throughput - that prepares the groundwork for 5G implementation. A WiFi hotspot, it also come with phone charging facilities, alongside CCTV camera and panic button for enhanced safety. The whole structure is also powered via renewable energy courtesy of rooftop solar panels.
Slider 6: https://elultimogrito.website/mexico-df