Design-Build: If you build it, they will sit

Landscape Architecture students have created new, artisitically crafted outdoor furniture at Temple Ambler as part of a special design-build project.

Instances of new, artistically crafted outdoor furniture popping up around the Temple University Ambler Campus have students, faculty and staff buzzing about their origins. This wasn’t a case of spontaneous furniture generation after all.

The 13 pieces — a combination of chairs and tables — were developed with intention by the students in Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Rob Kuper’s junior design studio. Fresh off a highly successful showing at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show — Temple was awarded several top honors for the exhibit Nieuwpolders: Regenerating the Dutch Custom of Land Recovery — the students were tasked with a different sort of individualized design-build project.

According to Kuper, William H. Whyte — described by Wikipedia as an “urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher” — described several important components of urban design in his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

“Important aspects included water, food, trees and movable tables and chairs. It gives people within this urban spaces autonomy — they can choose where they want to sit,” he said. “If it’s sunny, they can move their chair into the sun; but if it gets too hot, they can move into the shade.”

While Whyte’s approach provided inspiration for the project, previous Flower Show efforts also played an important role.

“After the Flower Show in 2016, we felt it was a good idea to continue with a design-build project in the studio. By that point the ‘ahu towers’ that had been part of the Aloha ‘āina exhibit in 2012 had been decorating the exterior of Dixon Hall for four years — they were never intended to be outdoor displays and had deteriorated quite a bit,” Kuper said. “We had the students disassemble the towers, evaluate why they failed and redesign them to last up to 10 years. Rather than create 13 more ahu towers, we decided on creating something that adds to the outdoor spaces on campus this year.”

With that in mind, the students were given few limitations on their designs beyond their own imaginations and the basic fundamentals of what makes a chair a successful chair and a table a successful table, according to Kuper. The result has been 10 chairs and three tables. A group of painted furniture — cherry and red of course — sits in the plaza in front of Widener Hall while stained tables and chairs have created a gathering place in front of the Library Building. Next year could see additional pieces added to locations throughout campus, such as the front and back of West Hall.

“The students had to re-use pieces from this year’s Flower Show exhibit or past exhibits or they could use items that they acquired — legally — for free,” Kuper said. “In Engineering III, students learn about ‘anthropometry,’ the measure of the proportions of and dimensions of the human body and how they relate to the world around us. Beyond planning and building a movable chair or table, they had to take into account seating height, width and angle of repose.”
Each of the pieces include a tag similar to the plant identification tags used within the Ambler Arboretum to acknowledge the student that created the piece and the year that it was built. All of the pieces take a unique approach to basic furniture concepts. “The Flip,” created by Nicholas Moll, for example, serves multiple functions — a chair, a tabletop or a bench — depending on the way it is placed.

Landscape Architecture junior Dave Heckman decided to design and build a rocking chair, much of which is recycled from materials on campus.

“I used pieces from the VAWT (vertical axis wind turbine) that I worked on for this year’s Flower Show exhibit. The seat was made from pieces of wood from Temple’s Flower Show exhibit from two or three years ago while the back and arms are pieces of red cedar found near the old campus tennis courts,” said Heckman. “A project like this exposes students to aspects of the profession that they might not have a lot of experience in, working with lumber for example, or researching what makes a chair comfortable or a table sturdy.”

Rob Gladfelter also pulled materials from previous Flower Show exhibits. The metal cylinders that make up the back and seat of his chair were previously the “Aeolian harp,” in the Nieuwpolders exhibit. The harp had been made from recycled metal pipe to begin with making Gladfelter’s chair an instance of re-recycling.

“I read a lot about the ergonomics of chairs and then put together 3-D models in SketchUp until I settled on something that I thought would work well. The 3-D model was cherry and white and that’s how the actual chair became cherry and white as well,” he said. “This was a great exercise for expanding my interest in design beyond landscapes — usually we’re designing areas that chairs go into, not the chairs themselves. This was still a detailed design project, but it was outside of what we normally do. It makes you think about design in general in a different way and requires you to find solutions for issues that you didn’t even think about during the design phase.”

As he moves into his senior year, Gladfelter said the project also provides a fun campus legacy.

“Each of the pieces are so unique, which I think only adds to what makes the campus a unique location within Temple,” he said. “Having these movable pieces, it allows people to use a space in whatever way they want to. Hopefully it also provides some inspiration for someone who might like to try creating something like these pieces at home.”

Kuper now hopes that students, faculty and staff will put the new outdoor furniture to good use.

“I had a meeting with a student at Widener Hall Plaza and, while the (student-created) furniture had been set up, she chose to sit on a bench that had already been there. Yes, these pieces are artistic, but they are meant to be used,” he said. “It’s about trying to activate urban spaces and while the campus is part of an arboretum these spaces — between two buildings, sitting on brick — are urban in nature.  We want these pieces to add something new and enjoyable that benefits the campus.”