The Nordic device

There is an approximately 15-meter-long black granite bench on the northern side of zone E. The bench is located exactly in front of Nasdaq’s offices, near 43rd Street. Zone E is possibly the least transited space in the whole of Times Square. The apparent lack of popularity of this zone could be attributed to the fact that, while I was there, a large part of the area was undergoing renovation. Zone E looks empty, with some located messy spots full of construction materials, workers, barriers, and scaffolding. Due to the height of the surrounding buildings, the area looks darker and colder than the other zones.

The northern side of Zone E, where the granite bench is located, is more interesting, at least for tourists. From the north side of Zone E, it is possible to capture good photographs of the buildings, billboards, and the general environment of Times Square. The northern side of this zone is surrounded by 43rd Street, by 7th Avenue to its left and by the Condé Nast building —also called One Times Square— to its right. The pedestrianized part of Broadway crosses the zone perpendicularly., The bench is located precisely between the right side of the zone and the right adjacent corridor.

Unlike the open spaces of zone E, this corridor is a bustling location. One of the main functions this bench has is to organize the space around, dividing both areas, zone E and the corridor beside it. According to one of the workers repairing the pavement, this zone will be equipped with some extra food kiosks and many tables to take advantage of the, currently, empty space. He had no clue as to when the renovation of this location would be completed. He just confirmed that they are working hard to have the space ready before Christmas. Meanwhile, the public open space of the northern side of zone E continues to offer great views of the surrounding area and provides visitors a place to sit.

To call this structure a “bench” is a bit unfair. This piece of furniture has more functions than just letting people sit on its flat, cold surface. In part because of its shape people interact with this object in a wide variety of ways. Let us first construct a small anatomical sketch of this embodied technology: the furniture consists of two components, each a rectangular structure of different size, the larger of the two is approximately 15-meters long, the smaller one, more or less, is 10-meters long. Both structures are adjacent by one of their sides. The shape of the smaller rectangle is flat and larger one is increases in size from one side to the other. It starts at the same level as the flat one but gets larger until its height is doubled.

Due to the different shapes and heights of this piece of black stone furniture, it is often continuously occupied. There are usually a group of bodies (with interchangeable individual participants —tourists— who are permanently arriving and leaving) interacting with the “bench” in different ways and positions. They are almost always in very close proximity to each other but without disturbing or affecting the interactions of those around. Below, there is a list of the six most common ways of using this granite bench:

  • Taking a seat on the flatter structure.
  • Leaning against the larger and irregularly shaped one.
  • Sitting on the smaller part of the longest rectangle but from the other side of the structure where there is enough.
  • Laying on the upper and higher surface of the element.
  • Standing on it for taking pictures.

In addition to defining the limit between zone and corridor, allowing people climb over its surface, providing a space for resting, chatting, eating, making a call, or taking pictures the bench serves other functions. This element was also designed to hide and store a complex, robust electrical system connected to the city’s electrical grid. A system composed of cables, circuits, alternators, screws, control panels, welding points and so on which was assembled to provide enough power for all the possible activities the zone of Times Square might host.

The “bench,” designed as a multifunctional structure, is a good example of Nordic design. It was also made to look good, a decorative element in the New New Times Square (see P26). The Norwegian firm of architects Snøhetta, the same company that from 2010 to 2017 was in charge of Times Square’s whole redevelopment process, is responsible for the design of the bench. This bench, made of black granite, is an object of sleek outlines and clean lines is that is both aesthetic and functional in equal proportions. Its minimalist shape inclusively proposes a broad range of affordances and modes of interaction.

The inclusion this device provides relates to its collective ontology, which is based on its capacity to produce difference, its multiple usabilities (see P22) as (i) a place for taking a seat, (ii) for sleeping, (iii) for storing stuff, (iv) for taking pictures, (v) for looking good… The multiple functions and meanings the “bench” has are related to its capacity to establish relationships. This multiple ontology is what Robert Rosenberger (2014), writing from a post-phenomenological approach, conceives of as a “technological agency.” Rosenberger, also working on benches, has explored the different stabilities [what I here call usability] of multistable [either multi-useful or ontologically multiple] technologies. 

At night, the black granite object starts to be silently disputed by tourists and the homeless. This last group is consolidated in The Square once it is dark. Slowly, one by one, the homeless people arrive in the area, especially around zone E, mixing with the other pedestrians. I saw many of them gathered in front of the bench, crossing the zone, under a scaffolding located near One Times Square, waiting for the best time of day —or night— to colonize the granite structure.  When it is late and tourists no longer predominate, the “bench” turns into a bed with a capacity for two or three bodies.

The next day, sometimes early, sometimes late, the soft and melodious voice of a policeman or a security guard wakes the sleepers and forces them to move on, away from not only the “bench” but from the whole zone until the area is once emptier and darker and it is okay for them to be there again. The transition between users, between homeless people and tourists, is pretty fast and smooth. The bench is rarely unoccupied and there is always something about the device which makes it come into being through a sort of relational stability based on its usability.

References

Rosemberger, R. (2014). Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches. Human Studies, 37, 369-392.