Picnic table styles vary. The basic principle is a table top with multiple seats. Subtle variation allows for a personal touch. Legs can be crossed, or traditional. Depending on the use, the seats can be fixed or detached, with or without seatbacks. ADA tables have extended tops where underneath a wheelchair can fit. Most are made of wood, sometimes painted, sometimes not. In some instances, wire mesh or perforated metal evokes a more institutional feel. Concrete tables are timeless and sturdy. Tectonically, there is potential for experimentation, especially with wooden tables. Structural systems are utilized, each as expressive as the other. You can see diagonal bracing, shear support, and different structural connections. Picnic tables are small structural expressionist follies, though this is not what makes them so special.
Some private backyards have picnic tables, but they are more commonly used in public spaces. Public spaces are dwindling; places to sit down and eat or converse are at a premium. Streets have been co-opted and staked claim to by late-capitalist pocket bleeders. Too often, one must buy something to experience a place. Benches offer some relief, but picnic tables offer what a bench cannot. Benches usually sit only three or four people linearly. A picnic table sits eight to ten people, and in a more conducive arrangement for conversation. Parks, usually due to a lack of desire or funding for design, often contain multiple picnic tables.
Planners try to arrange these prefab places into a sensible layout, and an AutoCAD block even attempts to help plan lines or arrays of them. The tables, acting as the ultimate adaptable design objects, are moved and rearranged by people in attempts to appropriate the structures to their needs. Perhaps they are moved closer to a car, or arranged in a circle to accommodate a large group. This empowerment, the ability of those who understand the reality of function for any given event, to organize the space and its components gives picnic table’s profound status as populist political statement. Often the people engaging have very little to engage with, and a park’s picnic table gives them something physically and politically. The image of a picnic table standing alone in a harsh, cold, concrete dystopia, as the last holdout of public space would be a striking cyberpunk narrative.
“Architecture is not simply about space and form, but also about event, action, and what happens in space,” architect Bernard Tschumi wrote in his Manhattan Transcripts, where photographs and diagrams are used to parse from traditional representation the functions or “events” that make architecture. According to Tschumi, the built environment is merely a “stage set” where protagonists act out a script. Picnics tables are these “stage sets.” Much like Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette, a realized version of the Manhattan Transcripts, the structures exist with no inherant function and no relationship with existing place. In this sense, they are pure architecture, unadorned and purely functional.
The political implications of Tschumi’s work parallels those of picnic tables. Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette challenges the existing social framework that defines contemporary urbanity by “transgressing the limits that history has set for it.” Like the political statement of the simple and elegant public picnic table, the Parc is organized via “space, event, and movement” in lieu of form. This lack of cultural and historical hierarchy activates both P de la V and picnic tables as agents of social empowerment. They challenge not only accepted planning tradition, but our entire political and social structure.
Tschumi would love the picnic table’s populist struggle against the capitalist hierarchy which makes our cities less accessible for everyone. He would applaud their lack of formal sophistication and low-brow functionality, as it challenges cultural hierarchy. He may critique the picnic table’s lack of spatial dynamo and inability to act sequentially. He would appreciate them as follies, but picnic tables do not challenge our perceptions of how space acts; the red deconstructivist pavilions certainly do. The beauty is that he could pick the picnic tables up, arrange them, and alleviate these deficiencies.