The site reminded me of my early experiences as one of the co-founders of the High Line project. I realized that making the walkway into a vibrant social open space didn’t have to be difficult, complex, or expensive. An alternative to grand architectural and urban planning schemes would be to focus on two simple issues: seating and programming. I wanted to try an experiment: place 100 movable park chairs on the open space along the Tiber River and see what happens. Where did this idea originate?
Over meals at the Academy, we discovered our shared fascination with this site. Independently of each other, we had both even started thinking about different projects at this same site, and since our perspectives were so complementary, we decided to create a project together: Chance Encounter on the Tiber.
On Sunday May 30 2010, there was a preview of our project at the opening of Rome’s new MAXXI Museum designed by Zaha Hadid, which was open to the paying public for the first time that day. MAXXI is the largest museum of contemporary art in Rome, and one of the largest new buildings in Rome in decades. In many ways, this space could not be more different from the Tiber River site – in a city whose public spaces are largely Baroque piazzas with Classical ruins in sight, Hadid’s building is a striking anomaly. When MAXXI offered the opportunity to try our joint experiment in Hadid’s piazza, we realized this was a chance to see how the project would unfold in two radically different urban settings. So much outdoor furniture is intended to fade away. Did you intentionally choose red to stand out?
The chairs helped enliven Hadid’s austere piazza, encouraging people to behave in ways that Romans behave in the more familiarly-styled piazzas of the city. On subsequent visits to the museum, we have noticed that the piazza tends to be deserted even when the museum is crowded.
The May 31, 2010 performance on the Tiber was informal and chaotic. People used the chairs in a broad variety of ways and set them in a variety of orientations – not always facing a group of musicians, but some in clusters or facing the water. On the periphery, people continued conversations or reading while listening to the music. They did not feel compelled to behave like a concert audience, but felt free to walk around and hear the piece from different locations within the space, which is really a wonderful way to hear the piece. People also gathered on the bridge and upper walkway, watching and listening from above.You are cofounder of the High Line, a project that also took an abandoned area and brought it to life. However, in Rome, you had far less time to turn this around. What was your biggest challenge last year?
While we are critical of their use of the space, the vendors themselves turned out to be incredibly generous. They agreed to hold off setting up their operations until June 1.
Although the walkways often flood for several weeks in the middle of winter, this has been one of the rainiest years in decades, and the Tiber started to flood the walkway again in April. Just a week before our project, it receded below the walkway. We were lucky to have a group of 15 enthusiastic volunteers who not only helped us move the chairs and music stands down the stairs, but undertook the unglamorous task of washing down the stairs.Your biggest surprise?Even before we had our final approval, we started testing chairs on the site. The biggest surprise for me was that the red chairs alone were not enough of a draw to attract people from the bridge and streets above down to the banks of the Tiber. We realized that the crucial difference between our site and many of the sites that Whyte studied was that his sites were high in pedestrian traffic but largely unused, whereas our site was unused but extremely low in pedestrian traffic. The chairs alone could not overcome most Romans’ preconceptions of the Tiber as an undesirable space. Sometimes bicyclists stopped and used the chairs to rest, or people ate lunch while sitting in them, or groups of teenagers would sit and smoke, but many chairs remained empty during the day. We always knew that both seating and programming were essential to this experiment, but this experience underlined the importance of the combination of the two. If the goal is to make a site into a vital public space, programming is needed to draw people into the space, and the chairs keep them there by making the space "sticky."
The most common warning we heard from locals ever since I began talking about the movable chairs was that Romans would steal the chairs instantly, or throw them into the river, even though we planned to remove them at night. Even though the chairs were often unattended for the several days of testing and performance, not one chair went missing.
While working on this project with Lisa, the two of us realized that we had very different views of what we hoped would be the lasting impact of our project. I was less interested in what actually happened the performance days, and more interested in its potential impact on the way people design, use and organize public spaces. I was happy that people enjoyed the benefits of having the chairs – kissing, eating, reading – but his real hope is that it might inspire some kind of lasting effect on the Tiber or elsewhere. Where are the 100 chairs now?
Earlier in the day I ran into Piet Ouldof, the High Line garden designer, who had been invited by the biennale curator to design a garden where the Arsenale meets the water. It looks like a slice of the High Line plantings transported to Venice. After Piet and our TEVERTERNO partners made some calls to the powers that be and 15 minutes before the second performance was supposed to begin, we moved the 100 chairs (with the help of many Biennale visitors) to Piet’s garden and had the final performance in Piet’s perennial garden.
Thirty of the chairs are now at the Fortuny Museum in Venice and we are talking about another set of them going to the Venice Guggenheim when they finish their renovations of their garden. MAXXI was so pleased with the project that Pio Baldi, the museum’s president, inquired about making the red movable chairs a permanent part of the piazza. MACRO Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Roma (another contemporary art museum in Rome) exhibited three of the chairs at the Festa dell’Architetura di Roma all summer and has made them part of their permanent collection.
Although we knew this project would not be permanent, I hope it may inspire the city of Rome to make the chairs a seasonal part of the walkways. TEVERETERNO and I are now in discussions with city officials about the possibility of having 1,000 movable red chairs on the Tiber next fall for over a month, possibly incorporating new music written just for Rome. All we need now is a sponsor to help underwrite it.You're now back at the High Line. What's next in store for that project?
Friends of the High Line manages the High Line under a license agreement with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. That means the gardeners, maintenance workers, greeters, tour guides, and bathroom cleaners - they are our employees. So we are busy getting people to become members of Friends of the High Line to help us raise the essential private funds to make sure the park is maintained at the high standards we have all come to love.
This effort will grow next spring, when we double the length of the park by opening the next section, between West 20th Street and 30th Street. The new section has some of my favorite features of the project. For example, there is the Woodland Flyover, between West 25th and West 26th Streets, where the grated metal path rises eight feet above the High Line, carrying visitors though a canopy of magnolia and sumac trees.
When this section of the park opens, it will bring the public to the doorstep of the last section of the structure: the High Line at the rail yards. It is still privately owned, and we are busy trying to figure out how we can get public access to that section of the High Line as soon as possible.
Bradford Shellhammer is a New York Times featured decorator, Parsons trained fashion designer, and old school blogger. He's Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fab. He created the gay blog Queerty (where he won a Bloggie) and has launched retail businesses for Blu Dot and Design Within Reach, where he also cofounded and wrote their Design Notes blog. He has appeared in a myriad of magazines and websites including The Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly, Cool Hunting, The Huffington Post, Paper, and ReadyMade. He's kept a personal blog for over a decade and lives in New York City. He owns 137 pairs of shoes and has a weakness for paisley, Paul Smith, and Scandinavian electro-pop.