In the late 1980s, when subway trains came about every five minutes at rush hour, Seattle sculptor Lewis “Buster” Simpson designed the more than 30 angular, granite seats that fill Downtown Crossing station‘s Red Line platform. He hoped they would give riders a sense of control over their T experience.
The chairs’ shapes and irregular placement pattern — some sitting alone, others facing or parallel to each other — create unique “sitting situations,” Simpson said recently, allowing visitors to choose whether and how they interact with their fellow riders.
“People sat back to back, depending on their attitude, or collectively,” Simpson said. “That’s the glory of the benches.”
But more than 35 years later, wait times are much longer, and riders are not finding much glory in the benches, or any part of their Red Line commute.
Which is to say: Even art is not immune to the woeful state of the MBTA.
As crowds packed the platform during a recent afternoon rush, riders — forced to make a quick decision or risk missing out on a seat entirely — scrambled to fill any space they could find, taking little time to appreciate, or even notice, Simpson’s social vision.
The granite seats, formally titled “Situations,” were among a half-dozen pieces of public art unveiled across the subway system in 1988. The collection, which included a mural of painted stripes at the Chinatown station and musical sculptures at the Kendall/MIT station, was designed to beautify the subway and enhance rider experience, according to then-MBTA general manager James F. O’Leary.
“While we hope the wait for the train is not long, this art will make that wait more pleasant,” O’Leary told the Globe at the time.
The wait for the train is now, in fact, long — longer than it was 30 years ago. In 1990, the T estimated Red Line trains ran about every five minutes in either direction, according to a report published that year.
More than three decades later, trains stop at Downtown Crossing about every 10 minutes, and often fall behind during peak times, according to data analyzed by the advocacy group TransitMatters. During rush hours in the first three weeks of June, northbound headways at times topped 20 minutes, with southbound waits repeatedly hovering between 10 and 15 minutes.
For some riders, the bulky, stone-hard chairs, which take up more platform space than the subway’s standard benches, are just another reminder of how long the waits have become.
During a recent afternoon rush, with headways approaching 20 minutes, Ingrid Romero sat wedged between the skewed back of her chair and the platform wall as afternoon commuters poured in — her legs stuck straight out like a pair of trusses, planted firmly into the brick floor, supporting Romero as she perched somewhere between sitting and squatting.
Romero, who lives in Dorchester, said she wishes the T would replace the “uncomfortable” granite with softer, wooden benches. She added that the hard, diamond-shaped seats are less accessible to seniors and those who may need to sit the most.
“I don’t even know what they are,” Romero said, laughing. “They try to look like chairs, I guess. But no, I don’t think they’re artistic or pretty, nothing, no.”
O’Leary, the ‘80s-era general manager, said in a recent interview the T should focus on bringing Red Line service back to speed, rather than replacing the art-benches with simpler seats that may fit more people at a time. He said the seats were a successful “attempt to just have transit become more friendly,” even if the context surrounding them has changed.
“It changes the environment,” O’Leary said. “It just instills a sense of pride in the operation and the stations, and I think that really does work. You don’t see vandalism, you don’t see the graffiti. The artwork’s generally respected by everybody.”
Joe Pesaturo, spokesperson for the MBTA, wrote in an e-mail that public art and design elements are “integral parts to shaping and defining the spaces through which people travel everyday,” and added that a new position, a chief of stations, will be filled this summer.
For Red Line rider Eric McLoughney, who grew up in Quincy and now lives in Cambridge, the seats have always been an icon of his commute into and out of downtown Boston — but slowdowns have stifled his enthusiasm for the art.
“I know it’s Downtown Crossing when I see the chairs,” the 26-year-old said, leaning into a chair on the northbound platform. “I used to love them as a kid cause they were so funky. But now I just wish there were more benches.”
He said the “cool shape” of the chairs alone wasn’t the problem; their odd angles make some uncomfortable. He pointed to the seat next to him, angled toward the wall and offering only a narrow, rhombus-shaped seat.
“It’s almost like it’s making fun of the way you’re supposed to sit,” McLoughney said. “Very few chairs have made such an impression on my brain.”
Simpson cut his chairs from three blocks of granite, each more than 8 feet long and 2 feet wide, according to blueprints that date back to 1976. Mindful of the high cost of the material, he devised a cutting pattern that would use entire stones and produce no waste, which resulted in the chair’s signature angles, he said.
Through the odd cuts, Simpson channeled what he saw as Boston’s culture of pragmatism, he said, while the choice of material recalled the city’s historic architecture. But despite the lofty aesthetics, for the average rider, “it’s a seat first,” he said.
Simpson said the MBTA has a responsibility to ensure reliable service and encourage locals to utilize public transit.
In some ways, though, the growing crowds are part of the piece, which Simpson always envisioned with the flow of ridership in mind. Not being able to see the entire sculpture at once through a thick crowd allows viewers to form and tweak opinions on the work over several visits to the platform, he said.
“I love to see them just jammed up with people,” Simpson said. “And then when the train comes, they’re all gone. And the people that are early for the next train get to see more of the composition. . . . I think it’s interesting to create a riddle for the viewer that isn’t always explained.”
A riddle that isn’t always explained, just like when the next train might come.