Are you as excited as I am about the new ‘Don Draper’ bench in midtown New York? It is a recently unveiled piece of public art created to celebrate the acclaimed AMC TV show, Mad Men, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York, and surely an ideal selfie-spot for any fan. As I wait on the edge of my seat for the final episodes to air over the coming weeks, I am wondering how inviting this bench might be? Situated on a public square in front of the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, it does look rather dapper, as well as roomy and comfortable. Promising you the opportunity to become a part of the Mad Men world and its desirable lifestyle, this piece of art expresses the essence of the show: Not only by paying tribute to its iconic character and opening sequence, but also by masterfully promoting itself. After all, advertising is what mad men and women do best. Buying into the glam and glitz, fans indulge in the consumerism that rose to international heights in the postwar boom years.
But what happens if an individual is unable to join the capitalist frenzy? Is social distance equated to spatial distance? Is it fair to assume that this ‘public’ art is for ‘everyone’ or are there perhaps members of the public that are less ‘desirable’ occupants of this space and its bench? In summer of last year, several articles in the press, such as this[1] and this one[2] in The Guardian, discussed the impact of anti-homeless architecture designed to repel such ‘undesirable’ groups from using street furniture and to prevent anti-social behaviour. In his article, Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm[3], the architectural historian Iain Borden questions this desire to control the character of a public space. He explores issues of ownership of public space, the right to use it, and how it may be used. These articles explore the notion that public spaces are designed to determine people’s actions[4]. Furthermore, even in our mass-communication age, marginalized groups such as homeless people are simply not part of the picture: they are very rarely represented in the media and thus rendered invisible. Since they have no buying powers, their ‘desired actions’ seem to be to stay out of sight and off the public architecture. Given the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people in New York alone, this discrimination is striking in its invisibility.
A recent initiative in 2014 in Vancouver invited homeless people to use specially designed public benches. As I am preparing for my first trip to New York, I am wondering how likely it is that homeless people will be welcomed on this particular bench in Manhattan?

– Sigrid Preissl

 

[1] Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Just the Latest in ‘Defensive Urban Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/12/anti-homeless-spikes-latest-defensive-urban-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[2] Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 13, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[3] Borden, Iain. 2005. “Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm.” In What Are We Scared of?: The Value of Risk in Designing Public Space, by Charles Landry, 20–33 and 44. London: Cabe Space. pp. 22-23, 29.

[4] See Borden and Quinn.

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