Gordon Cullen interrogates the future of our squares as a place of social exchange
Originally published in AR February 1952, this piece was republished online in May 2016
The market square at Stockton-on-Tees, c. 1840. That part of town where its social life is most fully expressed is usually marked by a column or cross. In this example the column truly marks a social place which is well served by architecture and floor.
The idea of the town as a place of assembly, of social intercourse, of meeting, was taken for granted throughout the whole of human civilization up to the twentieth century. You might assemble in the Forum at Pompeii 100 yds. by 50 or round the market cross, 10 yds. by 5, but you assembled; it was a ritual proper to man, both a rite and a right. Nor in the general way did you have to explain whether your motives were proper or profane. Men are gregarious and expect to meet. In all ages but ours, that is. Today, partly from hurry, partly from worry, partly from pressure of motor traffic, we are forgetting to meet, and the various kinds of policemen, in and out of uniform who direct our affairs, are busy making it impossible for us to meet, by making little gardens of such of our open spaces as are not already roundabouts, railing them round, ornamenting them into islands of rustic absurdity and then, if possible, locking them up.
The process goes on with remorseless good intentions day in day out. This article takes two or three very minor cases in out-of-the-way places of the market cross, the physical and symbolical meeting place of Western man, and shows the process at work jesuitically described as ‘creating amenities’ or ‘brightening up our towns.’ It might with much more sense be called ‘wiring up the cross,’ which in cases like Honiton it literally is. A most unchristian activity with which the moneys and good intentions of Festival year should never have been connected.
The town centre at Chudleigh
The town centre at Chudleigh shrinks to an island site collecting behind its barricade the civic ornaments. It floats in a sea of neutral tarmac quite divorced from the surrounding buildings. What feeling of congregation, of belonging, is there here? None. The cyclists huddle up against the railing like sea birds round a lighthouse.
Two examples of the Focal Point as it should be. In the past neglect of the Focal Point has not entailed its destruction.
For hundreds of years the traditional meeting place was not threatened with obliteration by anything more dangerous than a hay-wain. But today neglect does mean obliteration. Why?
Picture of Lacock’s focal point.
Drawing of Lacock’s focal point.
Lacock succeeds where Chudleigh jailed partly because, being a recess, it stood a better chance of surviving. This little scene in all its simplicity is just what FOCAL POINT means, though it lacks one essential element, a floor. At present it would be more correct to call it ground. It is neutral and does not succeed in welding together buildings, cross and street as the sketch tries to do.
Because the motor car demands first, a pedestrian-free permanent way; second, a smooth surface; third, vast open acreage for parking lots. The first neutralizes the space for use, the second destroys the character of the space by introducing a neutral floor, the third eats up all unfenced urban openings for car-storage. There is a fourth danger which has nothing to do with traffic and that is the deliberate attempt by what one might term the ‘eternal prefect’ mentality to prevent natural assembly.
At its worst this outlook regards assembly as synonymous with idleness (hanging about at street corners) but often it springs from no more than a distaste to have the steps of the cross worn out by loungers. Actually most steps are all the better for loungers, ‘loungers’ being the expression of distaste northern puritans use for anyone who has the time to sit or stand around enjoying life.
The scene at Bremhill
The scene at Bremhill might be a hundred or a thousand years old. It is the archetype of meeting places, church, cross and tree. A common scene? Yet how many others can you recall and how many will there be in ten years’ time?
Consider the cross at Melksham, standing in a place outside the church, not as you might suppose on the main traffic artery (as at Chudleigh) but in a dead-end off it. The perfect enclave. What earthly reason is there why a backwater in a country town should be flooded with a sea of tarmac and the pedestrian area reduced to a tiny fenced-in island floating like a piece of flotsam in the ocean.
The result is to turn a meeting place outside the church into a traffic artery, a place into a street. Surface the whole area with paving or other durable material and it will regain its lost character. It will also warn cars that they must share the floor with pedestrians and consequently go slow. They can still park there, Sundays, for church.
Square at Melksham
Details of the square at Melksham
Another traffic island, at Melksham, set in what is really a square; instead of the houses, cross and floor forming a ROOM, the sea of tarmac has blown this conception sky high and we are left with the devices of garden craftsmen. The paradox of the scene is that this is a cul-de-sac, believe it or not there is no through traffic. Having lost the day to the road engineer the amenity committees decide they must hot up the immediate vicinity of the cross with the kind of motifs that warm the heart of the modern municipal officer (and placate his conscience he’s artistic really, you see)-the gardenscape in all its contemporary inappropriateness- crazy-paving, dry-stone walls, triangles of lawn and idiot chains. The lowest ebb of the great English tradition of gardening.
Overleaf another example, Honiton, is shown in more detail because it happens to be a text-book example of the process at work, the process which is turning ‘town’ (with all that means of variety of contact) into ‘street’ and street into fast-traffic lane. A text-book example too of the prefect mentality. Honiton is the linear town par excellence. Its main street, a charming street, is flanked by shops, banks and pubs.
But right in the middle, in the centre of the town, there is an enclave flanked by large trees. It is formed by buildings of the same architectural importance as the main street and in the centre is St. Paul’s Church set back from the road. The cross stands in front. The site is a gift.
Plan of Honiton
Honiton in 1924
This is how it looked in 1924, a simple and unpretentious place open to the pavement and allowing the surrounding buildings to tell. If a little bleak and a little too shy of using its grass and shady trees, it does constitute an appreciable break in the street and provide a Focal Point.
Honiton in 1960
The surrounding buildings could be made to form something in the nature of a square by a new rearrangement of the floor pattern. The new surface would continue across the road (acting as a zebra crossing) to link the buildings each side of the street and thus form a square, the only one in a ribbon town of great length and no depth. With proper development this might be used to give the town a centre which it hasn’t got. A square here, if only a miniature one, would create the equivalent of a market place and break the high street’s boring linear form.
Honiton in 1960, seen from above.
Seen from above the whole layout shows the outdoor room through which traffic might pass. The traffic has to slow down (a good thing) while crossing the square; the flow is not impeded otherwise. The street is more friendly, the church becomes a real place of meeting, the cross a genuine focal point and a ribbon town gains a centre.
The scene at the moment is not aimless but is made to appear so by the confusion of floor surfaces and changes of levels. Having created a ‘place’ then the subtlety of the placing of the buildings round and behind the church will become apparent and not appear as a jumble. The floor surface will be continuous but change in texture where there is a carriageway. This will have the effect of sorting out vehicles and pedestrians and also indicating to the motorist that if he wants the centre of Honiton, this is it. But it is also the centre for the people of Honiton and not just a bit more arterial road.
Sketch Honiton’s centre as seen from point ‘A’ on the previous drawing.
This sketch shows the centre as seen from point ‘A’ on the previous drawing. It shows the view at right angles to the direction of the street and is made from an already existing but derelict yard. A vista at right angles to the main road it makes the one accent in the street and one that all town, but particularly the linear town, need.
But, this is what in fact happened (for Festival Year). A railing has been deliberately erected to cut off the street from the square to destroy the square in fact and leave only a churchyard and a street. The actual focus of interest, the steps of the cross around which people congregate, is decisively isolated by concrete posts and flower beds.
It is just as though a notice had been put up ‘Commit no nuisance,’ but this nuisance is the perfectly innocent one of sitting around chatting, or standing on the steps at weddings.
Honiton in 1951