The Ultimate Democratic Symbol of Municipal Incompetence

There is a powerful symbol that a city is hopelessly behind in accommodating the inherent desires of citizens to use their public space. It is also a veritable whistle-blower.

As symbols go, I would understand if most people regarded it as unsightly. If we employ the principles of Danish Design it may be practical and functional but falls far short of elegant.

More than just a symbol of a dysfunctional municipality, this object is also a useful tool utilised by citizens all over the world. It’s a weapon in the ongoing struggle for respect and visibility in the urban landscape. The citizens using it are usually unaware that they are activists. They are merely figuring out solutions to personal needs.

This object is an unlikely hero. No one spends much time thinking about its design origins or cares much when it breaks. Another appears from somewhere, anywhere.

When you start to see them, you can’t unsee them. There are variations in the design but little heed is paid to such details. It is in its element when it ignored and simply used.

This is it, citizens. Your powerful weapon of silent, subconscious protest. Your faithful ally in the struggle against municipal incompetence:

It’s a slow day at the Old Shop in Egypt. Bring a chair. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen

The dorky plastic chair.

You’ve seen them. Odds are you’ve sat on one. The odds are actually pretty spectacular considering that there are estimated to be billions of them in existence. A billion in Europe alone. One Italian producer cranks out ten million a year. They cost around 5 bucks and they take one minute to make as three kilos of polyproylene beads are shoved into a mold and heated. Repeat ad libitum.

Some cities have skatestoppers. Others, like Beirut, have human stoppers — at left. Citizens respond with dorky plastic chairs. Photos by Mikael Colville-Andersen

All this focus throughout history on chair design as the pinnacle of human creativity and then this shows up some forty-odd years ago. Without a patent or any clear design origins. Anonymous and care-free. Some call it the Monobloc. Others the Grosfillex Resin Garden Chair. Billions of humans don’t call it anything.

If you ever travel along the Sunshine Coast Highway, in British Columbia, Canada, you’ll see the chairs placed at bus stops along the entire route. They’ve been there for years. And still the authorities haven’t invested in bus shelters and seating. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen

Personally, I have always despised them — until I started noticing them everywhere I travel. Literally everywhere. Okay, I still despise having to sit on one but I’ve gained enormous respect for them as a valuable tool in places where policymakers have neglected public seating — as well as the ultimate symbol of citizen activism — however subconscious.

They are truly global. Context-free. Ubiquitous. Omnipresent. Serving the needs of homo sapiens — urban and rural — everywhere. Beauty in the ugliness.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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