Sleeping in Public
Temporary architectural installations should instigate activities that would be otherwise unthinkable. Sleeping in Public is a behavioural oasis, a test-bed for social interactions that are normally discouraged. Unlike the ‘defensive architecture’ of spikes and barriers found in the surrounding city, this installation is permeable, transversable and comfortable. Taking the form of a communal daybed or overscaled park bench, it provides a platform for public sleeping. Raised off the ground and shaded by palm trees, an undulating deck invites visitors to make themselves at home, to close eyes and activate other senses, or lie prone and do nothing at all.
In 2016 Other Architects was awarded second place and received a high commendation in the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) inaugural Summer Architecture Commission competition. The competition sought proposals that activated the outdoor sculpture garden of the NGV International, in Melbourne’s Southbank Arts Precinct. Entitled Sleeping in Public, Other Architects’ design was one of five proposals shortlisted from a total field of 93 entries by emerging and established Australian architects and designers.
Often disguised as artwork, coffee cart or pop-up stall, the temporary architectural installation is in fact a particularly nimble form of public space. Materialising in the park, square or garden, the installation momentarily disrupts reality, inviting us to occupy space more freely, playfully, thoughtfully, or collaboratively than we otherwise would. Even the innovative structures that Melbourne has played host to in recent times - from colourful vaults to kinetic roofs and carbon-fibre canopies - are in fact public spaces in disguise, elaborate stage-sets for experiments in public programming, open space, participation and civic generosity.
“It is a mark of success in a park or public lobby, when people can come there and fall asleep. In a society which nurtures people and fosters trust, the fact that people sometimes want to sleep in public is the most natural thing in the world. But our society does not invite this kind of behavior.”
‘Sleeping in Public’ in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander et al, Oxford University Press, New York 1977, pp 457-459
Sleeping in Public engages in this experiment more directly. Equal parts beach, dune, sundeck, bassinet and amphitheatre, our proposal provides a leaping-off point for imagining a more inclusive, hospitable and flexible public domain. Halfway between furniture and building, sculpture and infrastructure, the scale of the object is purely speculative, its intended activities invented, its contours interpolated from ergonomics manuals. Located within the gallery’s walled garden - a place of unusual quietude and calm - Sleeping in Public creates an island within an island. Here, behaviour that might otherwise be deemed suspicious, rude, naive or lazy can be trialled within a protected enclosure. But the project’s aim is not just to encourage exhausted gallery visitors to snooze, sprawl and slumber. We invite Melbourne’s public to wonder why something as natural as sleeping is widely stigmatised and to question the absence of rest places in the city around them.
The main element of this experimental platform is an undulating circular deck, 18 metres in diameter, made of timber battens curved to provide different gradients for reclining. In what would be a world first for a structure of this size, the battens are screw-fixed directly into a CNC-milled plywood lattice, which is in turn supported on a standard scaffolding structure. Carved out of the deck is a square space that ensures level access for people of all mobility types, and acts as a gathering space for talks and events. Inset into the deck at regular intervals are 13 mature palm trees that cast a patchwork of deep shade, while spray nozzles attached to the trees condition the environment and lights high in the fronds create shifting moods. Concealed beneath the deck’s surface, speakers broadcast immersive and soothing soundscapes designed in collaboration with an audio designer. The effect is subtle, the volume low; you’ll need to lie close to hear it. Finally, surrounding the deck is a ringed enclosure also made of vertical battens. The battens dip and rise, curating views of the surrounding garden, creating moments of privacy and defining openings and entrances. All timber components are intended to be easily reused or recycled, the scaffolding returned and palm trees repurposed after use.
Whereas most temporary architectural installations promise to dramatically alter their environments, our proposal was attuned to how the NGV’s garden is already used. Gathering the scattered crowds that spend summer days dozing under the trees, Sleeping in Public offers a much needed refuge from the busy gallery. And while other pavilions are merely backdrops for performances and events, Sleeping in Public proposed to influence the NGV’s summer program, providing a series restful, hedonistic and contemplative events for children and adults including meditation classes, sleep therapy sessions, lunchtime siestas, long talks on esoteric subjects, bedtime stories, slumber parties and dream recitations.
Other Architects’ second-stage competition proposal was developed in collaboration with Melbourne architects Anom, with expert input from Cantilever Consulting Engineers, Dolby Laboratories and MIC Projects. A full-size prototype of a portion of the undulating timber deck was produced by Anom and artisan steam-bending timber workshop The Timber Benders. In November 2016 Sue Ewert and Don O'Connor, founders of The Timber Benders, tragically passed away. We are honoured to have had the opportunity to work with Sue and Don.