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Diary of a Closed Year: Benchmarks

Time to talk benches with Dan Pearson, the designer of our new garden.

Certain things seem easy, but are not. A gin and tonic, for example. But 9 out of 10 gin and tonics being served in London bars each evening are not made as they should be, whatever the brand: the glass will be too narrow, too tepid, the lemon too slick, too much tonic, too little ice.

Or pitching a tent. You have to judge the light to which you will wake, the dampness or dryness of the grass, and the direction of the wind.

And one thing very hard to get right is a garden bench.

For several years I have been photographing benches in gardens and streets. It began in Sidmouth where twenty-seven identical benches step up the hillside over the sea. In 1800 Chateaubriand once wrote of Rome as a city in which the dead outnumber the living, and fantasised that in the night the dead took turns to glide into sarcophagi. In Sidmouth, the benches outnumber the living.

Why, I wondered, do we fill our parks and beauty spots with benches?

What upsets me, I think, is the delusion by which a designer, or parks manager, thinks that putting in a bench is a solution. A solution to what, exactly?

The late Zaha Hadid presented her (rejected) design for the High Line in New York as an astro-turf tree-less walkway with the words ‘A tree is what an architect puts in a space when he doesn’t know what to do with it’. True, and a bench is what a landscape architect puts into a space when he does not know how to bring it to life.

In Vauxhall Gardens – in the 18th-century a place of indolent booths, a pleasure garden which was a celebration of sprawling and gazing – you can see the two extremes. A concrete slab designed by an architect. Looks good on a plan but has anyone ever sat here? And at the other extreme a bench carved by an ‘artisan’. Only an impulse towards ‘artisan chic’ could create something this ugly.

So, here goes, some rules:

  1. The setting is more important than the bench itself. We can all put up with a naff bench if we are watching the sun set on purple hills. A bench must be in the sun. And it should look at something.
  2. The closer a bench is to plants, the more attractive it is. Indeed, you want to share a bench with plants. My favourite bench in this sequence is at Stavordale Priory in Somerset.
  3. A bench must be of a warm material. Architects like concrete, or marble, benches. A marble bench can work in Italy: the most elegant park bench I know is a late 18th-century marble bench in Villa Giulia in Palermo. But that’s like an ice cream on a hot day. In Clapham Common Tube Station are old wooden benches. The wood is so polished by commuters’ skirts and trousers that, for a second, the commuters’ rumble pauses.
  4. Don’t impose how people sit. A bench must work for 1, 2 or 3 people. To sit, slump, or sprawl. In parks this is a problem as benches have fixed handles to stop rough sleepers.

We have a donor for our first bench: Evelina Children’s Heart Organisation, a charity who would like somewhere for parents whose children are being operated upon, or monitored, and for families whose children sadly lost their battle with congenital heart disease,  at the Evelina Children’s Hospital, to sit, and rest. But, generously, they want this bench to be for everyone.

Gardens are unique in this telescoping of emotion. Benches too.  We are always startled when the dates on a plaque add up – or, rather, add down – to someone who was too young.  But gardens are unique in the re-giving of life. We see the words of a memorial, and a child splashes into view; for a moment, a burst of blossom can make the rutted world new again.

It’s a lot to ask of a bench. But it can be done.

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