Archive for the ‘Seating’ Category

The Menil Collection, Houston, TX

May 24, 2015

On a recent visit to Houston, we had a chance to visit the Menil Collection.

menil hallway


It’s a low-key, expansive space, all on one level. Most of the galleries and other public areas are filled with natural light. Wood floors are comfortable to stand on and add visual warmth. It’s one of Renzo Piano’s more successful museum buildings, I think. Best of all, admission is free, thus eliminating a major barrier to access.

menil label_2

I had two major beefs. First, the labels are tiny and low-contrast — virtually unreadable unless you get right close up.

menil no seating

Second, the Menil has a bad case of We’re An Art Museum, So No One Gets to Sit Down. Galleries were woefully short of seating, for no good reason that I could see except It Clashes With the Look.

If it weren’t for these two fundamental access issues, the Menil would be an excellent museum in terms of visitor experience.


Brutalism has its charms

May 5, 2014

Washington, DC is a city of many, many museums. However, most are closed by the time the working day is over, and none are usually open at night, except for movies or performances. For the daily comfort and pleasure of the average working resident, museums matter a lot less than streets, public spaces, and buildings.


HUD building 1

One prominent, even historically significant, building is the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. From the neighborhood of Southwest, you see it brooding over the highway that divides that quadrant from central Washington.


HUD building 2

Designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968, it’s ugly and forbidding in a way that’s all too common among federal buildings of that era. Some of the ugliness derives from the Brutalist exterior: slabs of stained and weathered raw concrete. Mostly, though, it’s simply an ugly, awkward design.



HUD building 3

However — also like many buildings of that era — it has a saving grace, from a pedestrian’s point of view: you can walk under it.


HUD building 4

Pretty much the entire sidewalk level of the building is a giant arcade. An ugly, dark, and severely utilitarian arcade, but in a city of hot summers and frequent precipitation, any shelter is better than none.


HUD building 5

One unintentionally comic touch, in the plaza facing 7th Street, is a cluster of donuts or flying saucers. Originally, Breuer left this plaza completely bare of seating, shade, or any other amenity for pedestrians. These elements were added in the 1990s with the intention of providing something for people to sit. In my anecdotal observation, they are never used.


HUD building 6

The building does yield one pleasant secret, however. On the west side, tucked in between it and the next building over, is a small green park-like area that should provide a bit of relief from the summer heat. Such spaces are too rare in Washington. This one is even accessible to people with limited mobility.


Freer Collection, Washington, DC

April 5, 2014


The Freer Collection is one of the smaller, quieter museums in the Smithsonian complex. The galleries are refreshingly uncluttered.


Freer gallery with seatingq

 Some have seating.


Freer no seating 

Many do not.


Freer courtyard

The museum is built around a graceful courtyard, which offers eye relief as well as a tranquil outdoor space in good weather.


 Freer bench with arm rest

A few galleries have benches with arm rests — a feature that enables visitors to stand up and sit down more easily.


Freer wall label

Wall labels are adequate, for the most part, although the body text size should be larger for true accessibility. The labels should be more brightly lit too.


Freer bad label

One gallery had labels that were designed and hung in a truly maladroit manner — small type, low contrast, poorly lit, and well below eye level for most visitors.


 Sackler label

Meanwhile, an exhibition in the adjoining Sackler Gallery had well-lit, high-contrast labels at a good height. There is no reason the Freer could not do the same. 

Pedestrian Arcades: Good enough for the Renaissance

September 14, 2012

Summer here in San Francisco has been foggier than usual, which gets me thinking of our looming rainy season–which in turn puts me in mind of a great idea from the Renaissance that we encountered on a  visit to Italy a couple of years ago: pedestrian arcades.

They are a common feature in public buildings from that era, and work very well at their intended function of protecting people from harsh or inclement weather so that they can go about their lives, errands, and business in comfort. They function in rain, in sun …

… and often come with built-in seating. A brilliant example of human-scale design. I often wonder why more buildings in the Bay Area don’t have them. After all, it rains here about half the year, and at other times it can get quite hot and sunny, especially outside of San Francisco proper.

Instead, we have overhead structures that don’t effectively keep off the elements, such as this porous faux-overhang at the De Young Museum (viewed from beneath):

Union Square in SF also has shelter-like structures that provide no actual shelter. Puzzling.

Guest post: Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

January 9, 2012

Our friend Dotty DeCoster, a dedicated and thoughtful museum visitor, recently visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia and sends this report:

“We went up to Victoria for a few days over Christmas weekend and among other visitations and ramblings about town, visited the  Royal Museum, which is right on the waterfront next door to the Parliament Buildings (for B.C.).

“This museum remains what I think of as the quintessential natural history/provincial history museum.  I do not understand why the dioramas here are so much more lovely and interesting than those in other places — and I’ve seen dioramas in many, many places.  But they are.  Perhaps it has something to do with the way that each one is treated separately, based on its theme, and each is uncluttered while containing just the right number of exemplar artifacts?  I really don’t know.  But they are wonderful.  New to me was the ‘undersea’ display — one is in a model (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea style) undersea module.  It is a treasure, with interactive displays built in.  (The older displays have been added to with nearby hands-on opportunities, games, and activities.)

Ocean Station, Natural History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“But best of all, this museum has seating in every single display, along with devoting all of their “wasted space” (really well lit view corridors) to seating.  It is truly comfortable to be in this museum, to take time at each display.  The model town and the amazing space devoted to northwest coast native artifacts are not quite so well endowed — which is to say that there is seating, but it is not quite so integral to the display cases, and they were designed expecting people to climb stairs (but there are ways to avoid this).

Old Town, Modern History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“The museum has an inexpensive cafe, lots of restrooms, and a whole wing devoted to a comfortable seating area which serves as a living room for visitors to Victoria, whether or not you pay museum admission.  There’s also a store, but we didn’t have any trouble avoiding it.

“In terms of displays, although I like the whole museum and admire the taxidermy, the most important exhibits (in the sense of world wide interest) are certainly the Northwest coast native (aboriginal, I believe, is the Canadian term) collection.  The collection is extensive, inclusive, and well interpreted.  Low light, of course, because they are actual artifacts, not copies.

Kwakwaka’wakw Masks, First Peoples Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“Take your time, then go find a seat and rest, then come back.  It’s a lot to take in on one visit.  Escalators serve the exhibition floors.  (I like this — you can peek at things as you go from one floor to another.)”

Thanks, Dotty!

(Note: Photos were downloaded by me from the museum’s website)


MOMA: Oh, not much, just visiting some Abstract Expressionists

November 22, 2010

The current Abstract Expressionist show at MOMA in New York has, I am pleased to report, a bench in just about every room of the exhibition.

What interested us, apart from an apparent change in attitude with regard to seating at MOMA (from almost none to more than adequate, at least for this show), was one particular pattern of use that we had not seen before.

Many visitors sat in order to gaze at the work more closely, and/or to rest. But some used the bench as an opportunity to interact with a handheld device.

From what we could see, these were not audio tour players, but smart phones or Blackberry-like devices. Users seemed to be checking messages or texts, or actually texting in at least one instance.

Are these simply visitors who are unable to be out of touch for more than a few minutes? Or is it another form of leaving the room and chilling out – changing gaze and focus not by looking out of a window, but into a window? Or both?

MOMA New York – Please be seated in front of the Monets

November 16, 2010

On a recent visit to MOMA in New York, we were pleased to discover that the gallery with the huge Monet water lillies had seating once again.

The water lilly seating went away when the museum was redesigned and rebuilt a few years ago. Now it’s been restored, and visitors were using it eagerly on the day we visited.

MOMA seems to be doing better on seating in general. More on that in a future post.

Worst Seating Award: Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

October 12, 2010

Palazzo Grassi is a museum of contemporay art in Venice, Italy. From the outside, it’s a classic Venetian palazzo fronting on the Grand Canal. The interior has been extensively remodeled into a series of classic White Cubes displaying a major collection of minimalist and conceptual art.

Here is a photo of the only seating in the whole place:

That’s it: two padded cubes in one room of a huge five floor museum. A grim denial of the frailty, or even existence, of the human body. Talk about suffering for Art.

On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of competition for these cubes. We were two of only about a dozen visitors in this heavily promoted museum – in a city that gets tens of thousands of tourists a day.

Venice, Italy: City as Museum

October 5, 2010

The city of Venice can be overwhelming. It’s visually stunning in ways I did not expect from descriptions and photos.

Its setting on a lagoon lends it a downright luxurious sense of light and space.

And, with no motor vehicles or even bicycles present anywhere, it’s a city made for walking, strolling, and sitting.

Of course, tourists are everywhere, crowding the ancient streets, many of which are now lined with tacky shops rather than practical stores selling day-to-day goods for the vastly outnumbered residents. And from an accessibility perspective, Venice can be tough.  There are countless bridges crossing canals of all sizes, which means you’re out of luck if you are mobility impaired. 

However, one thing Venice does have is places to sit. Plenty of them.

There are church steps everywhere, and benches, and wharves, and steps leading down to water, and just plain inviting spaces with stunning views (and quirky contemporary art).

Turn a corner, and you’ll find yourself in a small, quiet square.

This particular square, like many Venetian spaces, featured a lovely public amenity: a fountain with drinking water.

With its layout and most of its architecture basically unchanged since around the 18th century, Venice gives meaning to the overused term “human scale.” It simply feels good (of course, we were there before the winter rains began). From a visitor’s perspective, Venice is in many ways one of the most comfortable cities I’ve ever been in.

Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University – Part 1: Seating

March 9, 2010

The Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford is one of our favorite art museums in the Bay Area. For starters, it’s free. It’s in a beautiful location. The building is great – a successful late 20th century updating and expansion of a lovely early 20th century classical temple of art. And it’s got seating everywhere. Atrium and lobby benches…


Chairs to lounge in and look out over campus…

Gallery seating that’s appropriate to the art (i.e. Barcelona chairs in with 20th century art)…

Comfortable sofas with arms…

Small benches placed here and there, making best use of limited space…

And places to hang out outside in the abundant Palo Alto sun.

Altogether a most comfortable, welcoming space.

Next up: Cantor Center’s use of light and space.