UW News

January 7, 2010

Bringing creativity to the banal: Students create benches tailored to their campus sites

A nifty way to make a bench more than just a bench: Give small groups of students in a UW landscape architecture class $400 apiece and five weeks to design, build and install their creations.

The last week of fall quarter, students in Daniel Winterbottom and Ben Spencer’s class in construction materials installed eight unique benches on the UW campus. Made of wood, metal and concrete, each bench is tailored for the site the group chose.

“It was a chance to bring creativity to something banal,” said Winterbottom, an associate professor of landscape architecture.

For the students, it was encouraging to see a project go beyond a drawing. “Lots of time when you’re a student and you design something, you don’t get to see it to fruition, so it was pretty neat to see our swing finished, and in such a short time,” said Kristi Park, a second-year student in the master’s in landscape architecture program.

Park and the other students worked with slim budgets, as public benches usually cost $2,500 to $4,000 apiece, including installation, said Winterbottom. Students also had to have their projects approved by Kristine Kenney, UW’s landscape architect, and Jon Hooper, head of Central Zone facilities. Funds for the project came from UW Facilities and the Department of Landscape Architecture.

The students learned about real-world issues, such as adapting a design when the site, materials or timing prove different than anticipated. “They were working in groups and had some stimulating conversations — that’s part of the real world, too,” Winterbottom said.

Park and colleagues Lori Tang and Brian Monwai were inspired by front porches in New Orleans where they participated in a UW design studio. At the UW, they looked for a spot that needed a front porch feel, eventually choosing a grassy plot in front of Terry residence hall. There they built a bench that sculptor Alexander Calder might approve of: six steel tubes bent like grass to support a smooth wooden seat which gently glides back and forth.

Other benches by Spencer and Winterbottom’s students:

  • Three lazy susan benches on the 15th Avenue Northeast side of Gould Hall. They swivel north toward Northeast 40th Street or south toward Northeast Pacific Street so people can watch for a bus or chat while facing.
  • A bench outside Guthrie Hall with interlocking fingers and instructions to “Move forward.”
  • A chaise lounge in Sylvan Grove — a place to write a poem.
  • A bench in front of the Music building that directs water to a tree nearby.
  • A bench in the arts quad with a seat that rises like a musical trill.
  • A bleacher-like bench in Denny Field that doubles as a bike rack.
  • A bench, also in Denny Field, with a movable back. Push it to one side to watch tennis, the other to watch ultimate Frisbee.

Spencer, an assistant professor of landscape architecture, said that the bench project will continue as students watch how their benches perform: whether they need paint or maintenance and how they actually get used.