“Make sure you get a red chair. There are only 100 of them. It’s part of the experience.” That was how an American tourist helpfully explained it to new arrivals as they made it down the long set of embankment stairs at Rome’s Ponte Sisto. The experience in question was “Chance Encounter on the Tiber,” an urban revitalization plan combined with a musical performance composed expressly for outdoor public space. It all went down in two performances on the river walkway on the evening of Monday, May 31. The previous day saw two previews of the project at MAXXI, as part of the opening weekend of Rome’s newest contemporary arts museum. Cosponsors for the event with AAR included the Comune di Roma, Regione Lazio, the Associazione Tevereterno, MAXXI, Creative Capital, and Fortunato Productions.
The project, a collaboration between current Academy Fellows Robert Hammond (Landscape Architecture) and Lisa Bielawa (Musical Composition) turned a section of the walkway along the Tiber River into a vibrant social open space. To make it all happen, Hammond and Bielawa focused on just two simple means: movable seating and musical performance.
The seating consisted of one hundred movable chairs, purchased from IKEA, repainted bright red, and numbered. You saw them well before you could hear a musical sound. Lisa Bielawa composed the music for twelve instruments. Performing her piece “Chance Encounter” was American soprano Susan Narucki, the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet from New York, and Rome’s Blue Chamber Orchestra. The soprano’s sung ‘libretto’ is comprised entirely of utterances that Bielawa overheard over the course of a full year of travel, in transient public spaces around the world—Rome, Taipei, Anchorage, Salzburg, Dallas and beyond.
The project is inspired by William H. Whyte’s studies in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), in which he found that one of the most successful tools in creating vibrant spaces was the use of movable chairs. One of Whyte’s 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. The project combined Whyte’s methods with artistic programming that is also 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.
The “Chance Encounter on the Tiber” project actually began several weeks prior to the late May performances, with experimentation in chair placement and documentation of how people interacted and used them at different times and places.