How to Sit Better, and Other Questions

Five Questions for Galen Cranz, Professor Emerita of Architecture.

You’ve been working on ethnography and space. What are some examples of other cultures’ uses of space that we could learn from?

The English pub offers a wide range of ways to sit or stand while socializing. The English have barstools at perching height that support neutral body posture (thighs at an oblique, not right angle to the torso). They offer armchairs and nooks in a variety of configurations to support tête-à-têtes and small groups. Some can stand, some play darts. They have pub tables—high enough for perching rather than sitting at right angles, so the dangers of classic right-angle sitting can be avoided. The English pub provides a body-conscious model for sociability that we could emulate—assuming we can leave out the smoking and offer a wider range of drinks than alcoholic.

Are there examples of particular uses of space here in the U.S. that work well? 

The Oakland Museum of California has a wonderful outdoor amphitheater-like space used for music and dancing on Friday nights. People can watch from the street, sit and eat along the steps that cascade down to the dance floor, or dance in a beautifully balanced crowd of Afro-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians.

Your work on chair design received an achievement award. What is the most comfortable chair (not designed by you) that you’ve ever sat in?

So far, I have experienced four chairs that work: the 1928 lounge chair by Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, Peter Opsvik’s Capisco, Martin Keen’s Focal Upright, and Vessi Jalkanen’s Salli.

Some say that we shouldn’t be using chairs at all. What’s your take on standing desks, treadmill desks, and the like?

Movement is important, because of the metabolic research that has shown that without leg muscle movement the pancreas stops producing lipase, an enzyme needed by the liver to digest fats. Without it, undigested fats go into the bloodstream, setting us up for heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Any routine that gets us up out of our chairs often (as frequently as every 20 minutes) can work. Standing tires the legs; I’ve read research recommending standing only 15 minutes of each hour. Treadmills guarantee movement, but people have to get used to working while moving slowly.

What’s your opinion of Wurster Hall?

Wurster expresses the ideology of its time, known as Brutalism. In French, it referred to the use of raw (unpainted) cement. Feng shui experts contend that it is not an appropriate material for a center of creativity and imagination. Further, they usually suggest triangular shapes rather than squares to support the design arts. Given what we have (symbolism closer to prisons and old-style public housing), Wurster needs lots of textiles to soften our experience of the place and a huge brass espresso machine in the lobby, welcoming those who enter and sending a lively set of sounds and smells into the building. Repainting the metal doors and doorframes from black to fire engine red would also help support creativity.

From the Winter 2018 Play issue of California.
Image source: Galen Cranz: Marilynne; Chair: Cassina; Art by Leah Worthington
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