An urban experiment: 100 movable chairs and an unexpected musical performance on the Tiber River

Monday May 31: Tiber walkway near Ponte Sisto, Rome
Sunday May 30, preview: MAXXI Museum, Rome
Produced in collaboration with Tevereterno

by Lisa Bielawa and Robert Hammond

During our year as two of the 2009-2010 Rome Prize Fellows at the American Academy in Rome, we were both struck by the beauty of the abandoned walkways and embankments along the Tiber River, and we were curious how they might be turned into active public spaces. These walkways were built between 1876 and the 1920s to control the annual flooding of the river that would regularly inundate the city. Although the embankments have served their purpose of protecting Rome, for much of the year the walkways are essentially unused by Romans and visitors alike.

The site reminded Robert of his early experiences as one of the co-founders of the High Line project. He realized that making the walkway into a vibrant social open space didn’t have to be difficult, complex, or expensive. An alternative to grand architectural and urban planning schemes would be to focus on two simple issues: seating and programming. Robert wanted to try an experiment: place 100 movable park chairs on the open space along the Tiber River and see what happens.

Lisa recognized the site as an ideal environment for her musical composition Chance Encounter, which was written expressly for performance in transient public spaces. Co-conceived with, and composed for soprano Susan Narucki, the 35-minute piece is designed so that a chamber orchestra arrives from all over the city, ready to play, and it is not prescribed where and how the audience should or might sit to enjoy the music.

The soprano’s sung ‘libretto’ is comprised entirely of utterances that Lisa overheard over the course of a full year of travel, in transient public spaces around the world, including Rome, Taipei, Anchorage, Salzburg, and Dallas. These captured phrases are organized into four song-arias: "Topos Nostalgia," "Drama/Self-Pity," "Nothing" and "Aimlessness Song."

Over meals at the Academy, we discovered our shared fascination with this site. Independently of each other, we had both even started thinking about different projects at this same site, and since our perspectives were so complementary, we decided to create a project together: Chance Encounter on the Tiber.

Robert was inspired by William Whyte’s studies in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, in which Whyte found that one of the most successful tools in creating vibrant spaces was the use of movable chairs. One of his most memorable findings is that people create ownership of public space by being able to control where and how they sit in the urban environment. We combined Whyte’s methods with the composition Chance Encounter which is specifically designed to break down the conventions of concert music: assigned seats in fixed rows, performers on defined stage spaces, paid admission, and fixed, ritual attention.

We partnered with Rome-based the organization TEVERETERNO, which produces cultural events that promote the potential of Rome’s Tiber River. Founded and directed by artist Kristin Jones, a former Rome Prize Fellow, TEVERETERNO uses public programming, dynamic planning and community outreach to protect and revitalize the urban waterfront on the Tiber. Hosting our work on their adopted site, the ‘Piazza Tevere’ (est. 2005), on a central section of Rome’s river between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini, Chance Encounter on the Tiber was the sixth in their series of annual, site-specific cultural programs on the Tiber there. Our project culminated with a combination of the two ideas – chairs and performance – on the Tiber River on Monday, May 31. We placed the chairs on the river in the morning and left them there all day to see how people would use them, and we gave two musical performances in the early evening.

On Sunday May 30, there was a preview of the project at the opening of Rome’s new MAXXI Museum (Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo) designed by Zaha Hadid, which was open to the paying public for the first time that day. MAXXI is the largest museum of contemporary art in Rome, and one of the largest new buildings in Rome in decades. In many ways, this space could not be more different from the Tiber River site – in a city whose public spaces are largely Baroque piazzas with Classical ruins in sight, Hadid’s building is a striking anomaly. When MAXXI offered the opportunity to try our joint experiment in Hadid’s piazza, we realized this was a chance to see how the project would unfold in two radically different urban settings.

As we were hoping, the sounds and sights of the chairs and performances at both sites were beautiful in a unique way. It succeeded in revitalizing the largely unused urban space on the Tiber and enabled people to participate actively in the opening of an important new institution.

To us, the process was just as important as these two performance days. Many people had told us that it is impossible to get anything like this done in Italy in the several months that we had, but with TEVERETERNO’s guidance and the support of Pino Fortunato and his company Fortunato Productions, we found excellent Roman collaborators who proved them wrong. However, as with any urban project, there were complications:

TEVERETERNO’s extensive network on the ground in Italy and specifically in Rome enabled us to obtain approvals from a series of government entities. There were some setbacks and some wonderful surprises. A large swath of the Tiber has been leased to a private events company to put over 100 vendors and restaurants on the walkway. We only discovered this setback three weeks before our event. It meant that not only would there be no room for our project, but several blocks would be entirely privatized with commercial activity. Balanced introduction of food and drink vendors can bring people to under-used urban areas. However, we believe that giving over the entire space to privatized bars, restaurants and shops is not the way to make a truly vibrant, open public space. In fact, many of these restaurants and street vendors actually block the view of the river.

While we are critical of their use of the space, the vendors themselves turned out to be incredibly generous. They agreed to hold off setting up their operations until June 1. The regional government gave us a final approval in the form of a letter that lists 23 governing agencies that had to sign off on our authorization to use the site.

Although the walkways often flood for several weeks in the middle of winter, this has been one of the rainiest years in decades, and the Tiber started to flood the walkway again in April. Just a week before our project, it receded below the walkway. We were lucky to have a group of 15 enthusiastic volunteers who not only helped us move the chairs and music stands down the stairs, but undertook the unglamorous task of washing down the stairs.

Robert had originally intended to use the movable park chairs that one finds in public spaces all over the world, from the French manufacturer Fermob. He got a few samples in different colors and settled on red. On the High Line they use grey and Bryant Park uses green to blend in with the grass, but on the Tiber, Robert wanted them to stand out so they would catch people’s attention. Fermob could not deliver the chairs in time, so we found a similar black and brown chair at IKEA for a fourth of the price. To get a glossy, weatherproof finish, we had them painted at an auto body shop, using a color called Corso Rosso – Italian motorcar racing red.

Even before we had our final approval, we started testing chairs on the site. The biggest surprise for Robert was that the red chairs alone were not enough of a draw to attract people from the bridge and streets above down to the banks of the Tiber. We realized that the crucial difference between our site and many of the sites that Whyte studied was that his sites were high in pedestrian traffic but largely unused, whereas our site was unused but extremely low in pedestrian traffic. The chairs alone could not overcome most Romans’ preconceptions of the Tiber as an undesirable space. Sometimes bicyclists stopped and used the chairs to rest, or people ate lunch while sitting in them, or groups of teenagers would sit and smoke, but many chairs remained empty during the day. We always knew that both seating and programming were essential to this experiment, but this experience underlined the importance of the combination of the two. If the goal is to make a site into a vital public space, programming is needed to draw people into the space, and the chairs keep them there by making the space “sticky.”

On Saturday May 29, while testing the chairs on the Tiber, we stenciled “chance encounter” and edition numbers of 1-100 on the back of each chair.

The Italian and American musicians came together for rehearsal for the first time on Friday May 28, practicing both inside and outside the museum and in the gardens of the Villa Aurelia at the American Academy. Lisa led the rehearsals in two languages at once. A special challenge of rehearsing Chance Encounter is that the composition requires the musicians to break into two groups that play a fair distance away from each other, without amplification, over the sounds and movements of the crowds, and throughout the performance the musicians actually move between these two locations. There was no way to prepare them fully for the special complications of performing in this way – moving in and through the crowds, listening for cues across great distances over the sounds of people, traffic, and flowing water. In addition to these various unknowns, soprano Susan Narucki arrived from San Diego just five hours before the first preview performance at MAXXI.

On the morning of Sunday May 30, before MAXXI opened, we set up the 100 red chairs all over the sunny piazza, and as soon as people entered, they began moving the chairs into the shade. Throughout the day we watched the chairs follow the shade lines that the building and trees made. Unlike the Tiber, this site had abundant pedestrian traffic that allowed the chairs to work their magic: couples kissed, families created picnics, teenagers hung out and talked. The previous day at MAXXI, when the museum offered free admission to pre-registered guests, the piazza was only used as a backdrop for photos and as a way in and out of the museum. With the chairs, the space became an active communal space. Their glossy red color popped against the monochromatic white piazza and building.

We rehearsed that day in the auditorium of MAXXI, where the musicians could do some final work in private with soprano Susan Narucki for the first time. Then we sound-checked the two groups out in the piazza, where the chairs were already in full use. It is unusual to have to rehearse in a space already fully inhabited by people, who were getting a true ‘insider’ view of the process of putting the piece together. For the performances the musicians were dressed casually, just like members of the public, and as they crossed the space, it was hard to tell they were part of a performance until they started playing the instrument they carried casually throughout. Kids and old ladies alike picked up the chairs and gravitated toward the two groups of performers. The sound of the musicians outside the MAXXI was superb, with the soprano and half of the instruments underneath Hadid’s extended overhanging gallery, and all of the sounds reflecting off of her curved glass and concrete shapes.

On Monday May 31, we set up the chairs early in the morning on the Trastevere side of the Tiber, next to the Ponte Sisto (Sixtus Bridge).

The musicians arrived for sound check at 4 PM and promptly had to hide under the bridge because it started raining. By 4:45 PM we had limited time to try putting one group of musicians on the bridge itself, and one down on the bank. It quickly became clear that, with the added sound of crowds and traffic noise, and with the great distance – vertical as well as horizontal – it would be impossible for the musicians to hear the cues they needed. We moved both groups down to the bank, separated by a fair distance, and the sound was much better. In the end, Lisa felt that this arrangement was better anyway, because it framed a space on the riverbank that became a bustling piazza.

Although the musicians were casually dressed and always mingling with people and entering from different stairs, they were actually following a strictly choreographed set of instructions, mapped to absolute time. Their watches were synchronized to the second to ensure that they entered the musical composition at their particular assigned time.

The 6:30 PM audience was informal, chaotic – many were on their way home from work. They used the chairs in a broad variety of ways and set them in a variety of orientations – not always facing a group of musicians, but some in clusters or facing the water. On the periphery, people continued conversations or reading while listening to the music. They did not feel compelled to behave like a concert audience, but felt free to walk around and hear the piece from different locations within the space, which is really a wonderful way to hear the piece. People also gathered on the bridge and upper walkway, watching and listening from above.
The 8 PM audience was a concert-going audience – more formally dressed. They moved the chairs into a half-ring facing the soprano and behaved more like they were at a traditional music event, using the chairs to create an outdoor concert hall. It was interesting to see that different groups of people were able to take the same musical piece, and the same chairs and spatial environment, and create two entirely different experiences. This was one of the most satisfying manifestations of the spirit of the project.

Poster Distribution: We had posters up in selected neighborhoods of Rome, but we did not feel that they were effective in bringing people to the events. We would have needed citywide coverage over a longer period of time, which turned out to be prohibitively expensive. We might have been better served if we had put these resources elsewhere. Happily, the Italian news and arts blogs were much more effective at getting the word out, and cost nothing.

Tiber Foot Traffic: Without some kind of programming, the red chairs alone on the Tiber site were not enough to make a dramatic impact on the usage of the space. Although passersby used the chairs, and some came down from the bridge, there is simply not enough foot traffic already on the walkway.

Duration of Chair Experiment: Because our approvals were finalized so late, we were only able to start testing chairs the week before the performance. Perhaps if the chairs had been on the site for a longer period of days, people would have begun to use the space differently even before the performances.

Stench: One of the major deterrents of our Tiber River site is the stench of human waste on the stairs. Anyone who wanted to come down to the site had to brave this gauntlet. Regular cleaning of the stairs would be a prerequisite for any future plan on this site. It is worth noting that on the days that the chairs were on the river, people showed increased respect for the space. This means that in the long term, regular use of the site would aid in keeping it clean.

Wind: Although we had tested the site for all kinds of noise – traffic, people, river water – at different times, we did not anticipate that the higher winds that evening would have such an impact on the sound, carrying all of the sound downstream. We ended up needing to move the groups of musicians closer together than planned to hear each other. Of course, it was pleasant to have the breeze to mitigate the heat.

Libretto only in English: We translated the libretto – all of the overheard sentences that Susan sings – into Italian, but we only had room for one language in our otherwise bilingual program brochure. Some of our Roman partners talked us out of using Italian, in favor of English, because they felt it would make the project more international. However, the majority of the local Italians who happened upon the performance did not speak English.

Alternative Urban Planning: Over the past several decades, planners have proposed expensive architectural interventions as the primary means of activating the public space along the Tiber River. We demonstrated that a viable, low-cost, high-impact alternative exists.

Partnerships: As two Americans with minimal contacts in Rome, we never could have navigated the political and logistical landscape of this project. Tevereterno , the Blue Chamber Orchestra, Fortunato Productions and, of course, the American Academy in Rome all helped us meet the various challenges that arose.

Italian Press: TEVERETERNO’s Italian pro bono press agent Sara Resnati secured dozens of announcements and listings on Italian news and arts blogs, including Italian Vogue, and a front page story in Rome’s largest free daily newspaper. This ended up being the most effective means of getting the word out.

Website: Even though neither of us is fluent in Italian, we made the decision at the beginning to create the website in both English and Italian versions. In looking at the web traffic, we could see that most of the hits on the site came from Italian addresses, and the most-viewed pages were the Italian-language ones.

Music at both sites: Since Chance Encounter is always presented without amplification, the sound of the piece always mingles with the sounds of the site. The two very different spaces resulted in dramatically contrasting sonic experiences, both successful: the sound at the MAXXI was clear and surprisingly vivid, while the sound at the Tiber was part of a texture that included the flowing river, surges of traffic, and wind.

Italian and American musicians: Susan Narucki and the string players of Brooklyn Rider came from the US for the performance and joined with the Blue Chamber Orchestra from Rome. The local musicians helped to spread the word about the performance, and helped to root the project in the community of Rome, while the American performers, who had performed the piece elsewhere in the US, brought their deep experience with the piece. Their enthusiasm for the collaboration and for the piece was evident in their faces and in their performance.

No chair theft: The most common warning we heard from locals ever since Robert began talking about the movable chairs was that Romans would steal the chairs instantly, or throw them into the river, even though we planned to remove them at night. Even though the chairs were often unattended for the several days of testing and performance, not one chair went missing.

MAXXI preview: There was such a buzz about the opening of MAXXI that having a preview there helped us spread the word about the project in general. It also gave us credibility among Romans and city officials.

Chairs in MAXXI piazza: The chairs helped enliven Hadid’s austere piazza, encouraging people to behave in ways that Romans behave in the more familiarly-styled piazzas of the city. On subsequent visits to the museum, we have noticed that the piazza tends to be deserted even when the museum is crowded. The museum’s president even inquired about making the movable chairs a permanent part of the piazza.

Documentation: One of the great ways to see what worked and didn’t work was to view photographs afterwards. The experiment was so fleeting and was happening in so many places at once that it was impossible for us to see its dimensions any other way. The time-lapse video encapsulates a full 12-hour day of chair use and performances in several minutes. Another unexpected surprise was that so many passersby took photos of their own during the testing and the performances. In retrospect, it might have been interesting to host a Flickr photo pool for the project so that these casual photographers could share their experiences.

In writing this summary, the two of us realized that we have different views of what we hoped would be the lasting impact of our project. Robert was less interested in what actually happened the two performance days, and more interested in its potential impact on the way people design, use and organize public spaces. He was happy that people enjoyed the benefits of having the chairs – kissing, eating, reading – but his real hope is that it might inspire some kind of lasting effect on the Tiber or elsewhere. His desire to write this summary was fueled by this more elemental desire to see the experiment have impact beyond these two days in May.

Lisa was, as always, guided by the belief that artistic experience can be transformative. Although she believes that different people have different degrees of responsiveness to music, just as they do to visual art or poetry, those who are moved and inspired by musical experiences can find their lives transformed by them. She also believes that this responsiveness is not defined by socioeconomic factors, and that it is one of her responsibilities as an artist to find new ways for people to have encounters with inspiring experiences. This was the premise of the composition Chance Encounter, which has had several other performances in other cities before this one. The movable chairs gave people an added sense of ownership of their own experience. One often thinks of composers as being in control of all aspects of a listener’s experience, in the controlled environment of a concert hall. But in this case the composer is not controlling how they listen – the movable chairs helped to give over control to the listener, enhancing the impact of the piece on people’s lives. It’s not just that they are not sitting in expensive, assigned seats – they actually have control over how they sit: Do they face the performers? Do they listen and watch the water? Do they walk around the space?

The ideas we explored in Chance Encounter on the Tiber inspired considerable interest in continuing the experiment in Rome and elsewhere.

The Venice Architecture Biennale has invited us to recreate a version of the project at the Italian Pavilion later this year, and we are currently seeking funding for this opportunity.

TEVERETERNO is also producing a short documentary on the project with Italian filmmaker, Renato Chiocca, which will be premiered at the Biennale.

MAXXI was so pleased with the project that Pio Baldi, the museum’s president, inquired about making the red movable chairs a permanent part of the piazza. MACRO Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Roma (another contemporary art museum in Rome) exhibited three of the chairs at the Festa dell’Architetura di Roma all summer and has made them part of their permanent collection. Although we knew this project would not be permanent, Robert hopes it may inspire the city of Rome to make the chairs a seasonal part of the walkways. He and TEVERETERNO are now in discussions with city officials about the possibility of having 1,000 movable red chairs on the Tiber next summer or fall for over a month, possibly incorporating new music written just for Rome.

The musical composition Chance Encounter will receive its Canadian premiere on October 3, 2010 in Vancouver, as part of the Music on Main Festival. The Festival’s directors are considering broadening the performance to include the movable chairs. We hope to find more sites and partners for this project, where movable chairs and musical performance can help enliven neglected urban spaces.

This was not just a collaboration between Robert and Lisa, but a project that relied on the talents and support of many.

TEVERETERNO: Kristin Jones, Lisa Lowenstein, Andrea Canapa, Carlo Ducci, Diane Roehm

MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo: Pio Baldo, Costanza Mazzonis di Pralafera, Beatrice Fabbretti, Annalisa Inzana

American Academy in Rome: Adele Chatfield-Taylor, Elizabeth Kogen, Carmela Franklin, William Franklin, Anne Coulson, Curt Sharp, Giovanni Cimoroni, Malcolm Drenttel, Titus Adkins

Comune di Roma – Assessorato alle Politiche Culturali e della Comunicazione; Regione Lazio – Assessorato all’Arte, Sport e Politiche per i giovanni

Fortunato Productions: Pino Fortunato, Angelo Marinelli, Renato Scattarella

Musicians: Susan Narucki, soprano; Brooklyn Rider String Quartet: Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello; Blue Chamber Orchestra: Enrico Blatti, maestro concertatore; Valerio Borgianelli Spina, contractor; Rossella Montanari and Miriam De Vero, flutes; Raffaele Covello, clarinet; Giovanni Cretoni, oboe; Andrea Camilli and Francesco Catania, trumpets; Remo Izzi, horn; Luigino Leonardi, trombone

Press: Sara Resnati, Christina Jensen

Documentation: Renato Chiocca, Marco Martinelli, Marcello Melis, Alessandra Luppino

Volunteers: Nathalie Sienkiewicz, Project Coordinator; Nancy Boyd, Lorenzo Gnozzi, Silvia Romualdi, Elena Tomassi, Gianluigi Misurelli, Matteo Zenardi, Eleonora Pieroni, Giulio Felet, Federico Faini, Federica DeFelici, Eleonora Gaspodini, Giulia Levi della Vida, Alessandra De Angelis, Tiziana Cannizzaro, Valentina Anselmi, Leocadia Ammendoia, Nora Bujdoso, Francesca Bifulco, Alessandra Capolei, Mike Beck, Daniele Feriozzi, Julia Rooney, Hyun Jin Ahn

Chance Encounter on the Tiber was made possible thanks to: Pershing Square Foundation/Bill and Karen Ackman, Amanda Burden, and Catherine C. Marron.

Joyce Menschel, Charles C. Butt, Joshua C. Klausner and Hyatt A. Bass, R. Martin Chavez, and University of California, San Diego.

Philip and Shelley Fox Aarons, Herbert Bielawa and Sandra Soderlund, Capalino + Company and James Capalino, Adele Chatfield-Taylor and John Guare, Bruce & Janet Flohr, Calvin Tsao, Alice Waters, and Bronson van Wyck

Leonard Barkan, Keith Baptista, Robert and Ina Caro, Stephan Jaklitsch, Martin Goldray, David Gordon, Todd Gordon and Susan Feder, William Jonas Hibsher, Kristin Marks, Mario Palumbo, and Darren Walker

Jessica Dalrymple, Yen Ha, Robert Kirzinger, Marc Kushner, Maline McCalla, Lisa Singer Moran, David Pagliano, Josh Sirefman, Cameron Smith, Eileen V. Green, Tara Morris, and David Sampliner

Special thanks to: Sandra Carraro

The musical composition Chance Encounter is a project of Creative Capital.

Design Observer - August 10, 2010

E Polis - Roma - May 19, 2010

Press Release (PDF English)

Press Release (PDF Italiano)

PressKit (PDF+Images)

Sara Resnati (Italian Publicist)
+39 02 89410320

Christina Jensen (U.S. Publicist)
+1 (646) 536-7864

Robert Hammond is the 2010 Garden Club of America Rome Prize recipient and Lisa Bielawa is the 2010 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize recipient.