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Spiral Setee



Designers: Ron Witte, Sarah Whiting

WW, the New Jersey-based firm, brought its distilled clarity vis-à-vis architecture to YAP. A finalist in the 2005 competition, WW created a giant foam spiral...the world's biggest bench.

Q&A with WW

MoMA PS1: Where was your firm before and after you entered the competition?
Ron Witte and Sarah Whiting, WW: In terms of what happened before and after, MoMA PS1 wasn't a shift for us. Our firm had already won a couple of competitions and we had been working on fairly large-scale projects, so in a sense we were late among MoMA PS1-ers. We had previously articulated a narrow-bandwidth focus in our projects: an interest in the architectural figure and how it constitutes programmatic and formal legibility. MoMA PS1 gave us a chance to play that through. YAP presents an unusually direct sense of what a project is supposed to do. For us, the competition's limits made it clear that there's basically one thing you can do. So we said, "We're going to make a bench. We're going to make the world's biggest, softest, blue-est bench."

YAP prompted us to act in a pointed manner. What happens if you have something as specific as a bench? How can its sinuous line produce legibility? How can a bench produce a public space as well as an event space through a single component? For our firm, the mandate of that synthesis was, and still is, interesting. We're selective about which competitions we enter—we want to be sure that our interests make sense in a given context. At MoMA PS1 we found a terrific provocation, a directness/bluntness that suited our ambitions.

MoMA PS1: Then how did you incorporate the music program into this idea of a bench?
WW: We didn't focus solely on the music. We were interested in the greater possibilities of the courtyard as public space, which included music, art, hanging out, etc. We thought of the bench as a slightly extruded graphic diagram, something like putting an Illustrator drawing on the ground and making it possible to sit on it. We were looking for something that would be able to stand on its own and yet be fleet enough to take over the existing space.

When you are handed a space as barren as the MoMA PS1 courtyard you are left with two choices: one is to be swallowed up by that openness and the other is to say, "I'm going to define what happens within that openness." We chose option two. We always choose option two.

Our project was an unabashed riff on Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, in which The Great Salt Lake is replaced with a large event, the edge of the land is replaced with the walls of the courtyard, and the basalt is replaced with blue foam. Spiral Settee is a linear scheme that, when folded back on itself, creates eddies, overlaps, and concentrations of activity. That was the dominant way of dealing with the crowd—on one hand, large and continuous, but on the other hand, allowing the creation of small groups of people for discussion, drinking, or listening to music.

MoMA PS1: Would you call it minimalism?
WW: Never. Despite our homage to Smithson, our interest in the figure has nothing to do with its essential geometric status, and even less to do with what it "says." We're interested in how the figure provokes open-ended consequences rather than how it revolves around some kind of perfected mathematical state. The spiral isn't singular; it is a compound figure. Acting synthetically, it supersedes form, program, and technology by supplanting their individual roles with the constant reverberations of relations among them. For us, there is a larger issue here, an instinctive reaction against seeing architecture as heading toward something that has to be either "simple" or "complex." These are, in our view, idiotic endgames, both of which produce catatonic public space. A giant blue-foam spiral is neither minimal nor complex. It is just a giant blue-foam spiral.