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Why 4 Friends Carried A Cement Bench Up Runyon Canyon For A Single Day

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Seiya Bowser and Miles Metcalf have known Thomas Musca since high school. They say they help out Musca with his art in exchange for free food. (Kitty Luo/LAist)

If you hiked Runyon Canyon between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday, you may have noticed a curious new piece of furniture on the trail. You may have even sat on it.

The angular cement bench that users of the popular jogging and hiking spot rested on did not appear out of thin air. It was hauled up in a wheelbarrow earlier that morning by four friends from Santa Monica with toil and sweat.

The bench was Thomas Musca's newest installation. Musca is a recent graduate from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in architecture and a specialty in brutalist concrete, a stark, geometric construction style from the mid-20th century.

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"I love cement," he said. "I love concrete. I think it's incredible that you essentially can create any shape you want out of a mold and then just pour it and it exists in space."

The bench is one of a series of cement furniture pieces that Musca began working on when he came back from school this summer. He manufactures them with his company Cassius Castings and titles them simply for what they are: Bench, Chaise and Chair. Bench is the one that eventually made it up Runyon Canyon. It's only a couple weeks old and the first to be publicly installed.

Musca's concrete chaise is a part of the same series as Bench and shares similar design elements. (Nico Young)

"Instead of going into a firm to try to eventually become licensed and being a sort of an AutoCAD jockey for at least six years, I figured it would make a lot more sense to start building for the real world right now," he said.

For Musca, building for the real world meant building for Los Angeles. He said the city has too many unutilized spaces that could benefit from public seating.

"More permanent and more beautiful pieces of furniture in our parks and in our public green spaces can improve the way that the city actually functions," he said.

Musca points to his hometown as one such space in need of improvement. "Santa Monica, for instance, has very horrible, little Big Blue bus stops that are designed to be anti-homeless," he said. "You can't, like, lay down in it; you can't sleep at all."

At just over 4 feet long, Bench is not nearly long enough for someone to sleep on. Still, Musca designed the piece to encourage people to interact with it. "It's not a piece of architecture or design that's trying to prevent people from doing certain things on it."

Although 'Bench' is too short to sleep on. Musca encourages viewers to interact with the piece. (Kitty Luo/LAist)

Building a bench from solid concrete and then hauling it up a hiking trail is no easy task. To get the job done, Musca recruited Arden Lassalle, Miles Metcalf and Seiya Bowser, three friends he's had since his Santa Monica High School days.

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Arden Lassalle, Miles Metcalf, Thomas Musca and Seiya Bowser stand on top of Bench. The piece can withstand up to 8000 psi of pressure. (Kitty Luo/LAist)

The piece began as a digital drawing. Musca then constructed a reusable mold using thin-shelled, collapsible basswood and a fibreboard material. Once that was done, his friends helped him pour water and Rockite, a high-density, water-resistant, anchoring cement typically used to patch structural damage.

Musca uses fibreboard, plywood and basswood to make a reusable mold with collapsible inserts. He said it took four days to go from digitally drawing the design to producing it. (Nico Young)

They did five to six pours, but it had to be in fairly rapid succession because of how quickly the cement hardens. You can still see the layers of each pour in the lines of the finished bench.

"Rockite is kind of magical," Metcalf said. "You can feel the heat as it's curing through the wood of the mold, which is insane. It's like an oven when you take it out."

Musca's friends come over to help in the cement-pouring process. Usually, their assistance comes with a free dinner from the Musca household. (Nico Young)

Metcalf identified himself as the team's "Pourer #2." And Pourer #1? "That's always Tommy," he said.

On nights they worked together on Bench, the friends livened things up by turning them into sleepovers. "With the pouring, we figured 'OK, we need a lot of bodies to do this,'" Musca said. "We'd throw a mini party around these things, get people to focus for about an hour or so, then have some dinner, go crazy, and then sit on it."

Once the bench was completed, it was time to carry it up the trail.

A wheelbarrow is already prone to tipping over without having a 190-pound cement block to raise its center of gravity. So before they could begin their winding quarter-of-a-mile journey, the team anchored the bench with gaffer tape and metal conduit pipes for extra stability.

They began at the bottom of the trail, just a little past the gate at the end of North Fuller Avenue. Even with the extra hands on deck, the friends took short breaks, switching off on positions where the load was heavier to bear. His friends joked that they were trading their labor for a free Roscoe's lunch - Musca's treat.

The four friends prepare to haul the wheelbarrow uphill after anchoring the bench down. (Kitty Luo/LAist)

Toward the top of the hill, the slope flattens and L.A.'s sweeping cityscape comes into view. With great care, the friends tried a couple of spots before finding a suitable one where the piece wouldn't wobble. It sat just a little away from the hill's edge, but still in a place where it would be visible to hikers coming from all directions.

Musca said he chose Runyon Canyon due to its high foot traffic in the morning. "I like the idea of having it be seen by a lot of people in a location that they wouldn't expect to see it," he said.

He also picked the spot with its specific spatial qualities in mind - the trail leading up to Inspiration Point has a clear line of sight looking directly over the city, which helps him consider how his work can change and interact with the space.

Musca said wheelbarrowing was surprisingly easier than he thought it would be with the extra help from his friends. (Leo Dastur/Bairn Sweeney)

"I like the transparentness of the piece," he said, referring to the geometric openings in the bench that viewers can see through. The piece is a two-dimensional extrusion, which means that from the side, it just looks like a one-inch thick line bordering the bench's shape. "It's maybe one cubic foot of just mass when you're looking at it from the side even though it's, you know, gigantic. I like the idea of it kind of being part of this fluid kind of vantage point through the space."

And then there's the other bench. Next to Musca's piece sat another bench previously installed by the city. It's also cement, but painted over to mimic the look of wood. Musca said he intentionally wanted to juxtapose the two. While his first aim is to serve the city through concrete, he also wants to celebrate concrete by encouraging its placement throughout the city.

"Cement and brutalism are beautiful, both the material and the genre of architecture," he said. "They're overlooked and not seen as something that's delicate or comfortable, or transparent, and I'm trying to kind of combat these notions with this project."

To him, the city's bench embodies a widespread hostility to concrete as a material. "I'm not a huge fan of it," he said of the neighboring seat. "I mean, as a bench, subjectively it works well, but it's fake wood. That's how shamed concrete is. We can't even celebrate the fact that it's cement. It has to masquerade literally as fake wood, whereas this piece is proudly cement."

The pre-existing bench Musca placed his own next to is cement but painted to look like wood, which he believes to be a reflection of the West Coast's resistance to celebrating cement as a material. (Kitty Luo/LAist)

Musca said he sees a lack of explicitly cement buildings on the West Coast in general. "I think the most beautiful cement you see in the city is Lautner houses and a lot of the mid century modern houses, but you don't see a lot of new cement or concrete buildings in L.A. really at all," he said. "Often, they're kind of like translated through interior motifs of modern houses and contemporary houses, but it's kind of paying lip service to the material as opposed to celebrating it in full."

Musca admits that the resistance to using concrete may make sense when considering California's frequent seismic activity. "But you know, when you're dealing with the scale of furniture, it doesn't really matter," he said. In fact, when the Ridgecrest quakes hit, Musca said his existing pieces were stationed by his friend's pool, and they didn't move at all.

Musca said that they first shot the pieces by his pool when the Ridgecrest Earthquake hit. While the pool water sloshed around, his bench stayed stationary. (Nico Young)

Bench's time in Runyon Canyon Park came to an end the same day it started. The friends hauled it back to the gate where their journey first began. But there will likely be more projects like Bench in the near future.

Next up in Musca's series are a rocking chair and a larger, more publicly oriented bench that he'd like to install around town. These pieces will share a design language similar to the ones he has already created, Musca said. As for Bench, he hopes to install it in other temporary locations throughout the city, although he didn't specify where.

"I think that this lineup can help me push cement to the public realm, both professionally and as a kind of experiment with the city of Los Angeles," he said. "So yeah, this is kind of the first step of saying, you know, 'This is it. We're here. Expect more to come.'"

So the next time you come across a piece of brutalist, concrete furniture in L.A. that you don't remember being there before, you'll have a pretty good guess as to who put it there.

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