When human particles collide in the accelerator of the square, the public comes into being – as evanescent as an unstable element
When millions of women gathered to protest the election of Donald Trump last month, they met in squares. Such spaces find their purpose as condensers for the activity of the crowd, whether recreational, political or commercial (not that these are separable, here or elsewhere). Created to facilitate the functions of the state and to endow its rituals with a field of action, the square has an equal and opposite function as the incubator of its critics, even its demise. Squares are multivocal and, although they vary in quality, from the humble and irregular to the vast and grandiose (and the question remains as to what extent their design colours the activity that takes place therein), their character ultimately lies in their blankness. They are tabula rasa. Nazi rallies may be held here, but they are also places – need it be added? – for punching Nazis in the face.
When we say ‘public square’, however, we need to ask – who or what is this public? Who owns this space, what makes it public? With regards to the women’s march, women of colour, trans women and queer women strongly criticised its exclusivity. This is the essence of democracy: the ability to question power, and the power to do so. Just as state ownership does not guarantee the publicness of a place, the activity of questioning, of dissent, can make a place public. And that is why the square, like democracy, is so carefully controlled, so often under threat. Ever since 1989, Tiananmen Square has been patrolled by secret police, surveilled by cameras and – on the occasion of the uprising’s 25th anniversary – closed for ‘maintenance’. In London, the Occupy protests of 2011-12 were legally excluded from Paternoster Square, which, like an increasing number of ‘public’ spaces in Britain, is privately owned.
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Squares that are public can become private, and squares that are private can become public. Ercole d’Este annexed one of Ferrara’s public places and absorbed it into his palace as a courtyard. (He used it for the first modern performance of an ancient drama in 1486; today it is a public square once more.) Conversely, the residential squares of Bloomsbury were built by the Dukes of Bedford and policed by a private security force until public protest forced parliament to open them. What form of protest could have a similar effect today, now that the ownership of the square is covertly policed via CCTV and signs enjoin us to ‘enjoy this space’ with a list of subsidiary conditions in 10-point text?
But, although squares are megaphones for tyrants, the people may also speak back. The great city of Samarkand was rebuilt by Timur at the end of the 14th century and its main public square, the Registan or ‘sandy place’, was framed by a succession of three grand madrasas over the next two centuries. These educational buildings face onto the site of proclamations and executions, where the voice of the master was heard and his whip could be felt. Palace Square in Bucharest was the site of televised mass rallies under Ceaușescu: the last of these inadvertently broadcast the collapse of the regime when the crowd began to boo the president, who departed in a helicopter. He was executed shortly thereafter.
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Not only tyrants flee the square. Degas’ 1875 painting of the Place de la Concorde shows Vicomte Lepic and his daughters being flung by a centrifugal force from the barren yellow space behind them – scene of the execution of Louis XVI and, more recently, of barricades during the Paris Commune. The figures turn this way and that in confusion, and although the vicomte chews his cigar with Parisian sangfroid, the public square has become a terrifying void.
For Siegfried Kracauer, on the other hand, wandering Marseille at night, ‘On the deserted square something happens: the force of the quadrilateral pushes the person who is trapped into its centre. He is alone, and yet he isn’t. Although no observers are visible, the rays of their gazes pierce through the shutters, through the walls’. How he ended up here he does not know: ‘In this tangle of pictorial alleys, no one seeks the quadrangle. After painstaking reflection, one would have to describe its size as moderate. But once its observers have settled into their chairs, it expands towards the four sides of the world, overwhelming the pitiful, soft, private parts of the dream: it is a square without mercy’.
Source: Paul Louis
A Haussmannisation of the soul has taken place and, across Europe, the nascent science of psychiatry began to give this syndrome a name: agoraphobia. This fear of space has since been instrumentalised. Mies’s unbuilt scheme for Alexanderplatz presaged this trend towards the city of rapid circulation, in which the square dissolves in a series of blocks floating in traffic fumes. The character of such pseudopublic space tends to force the subject into self-seclusion, a manufactured depression given form by spaces that can seem joyless but for the buzz of acquisition.
Commerce is not necessarily the end of the square. One of the rare instances of an open-air souk, the Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh is a maelstrom of pickpockets, tourists and hawkers. Its name literally means ‘assembly of the dead’; nevertheless, it retains a vitality lost by the hypersanitisation of places such as Times Square. Never really a square, and renamed to advertise its most famous occupant, this intersection has shed its function as an aggregator of illicit sexual practices to become a shopping mall watched over by sky-high masks of gurning celebrities.
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In the relatively rare instances of High Modernist public squares, the representation of the bureaucratic state takes the inevitable form of the grid, such as Mies’s plaza in Chicago; alternatively, there is the vast administrative prairie of Brasília. (The success of Seagram Plaza, as observed by William H Whyte, seems to have been an inadvertent aberration.) On the other side of the Iron Curtain the square was a parade ground and site of rallies – a Prussian urbanism inflated to represent mass society. Many Soviet squares have since been defused with billboards, or, in the case of Alexanderplatz, had huge department stores dumped in their centres.
In the face of such enclosure some advocate a turn to Siena. But appeals to ultramontane remedies are bizarre in a world lacking papal processions. The consequences of such retrograde conceptions of the square can be observed in Seaside, Florida, the eerie New Urbanist setting of The Truman Show; one can hardly imagine any sign of life disturbing its central semi-octagon, unless perhaps a gang of Rotarians is moved to violence by a discordant floral display.
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Source: Ars, NY and DACS, London 2017
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Some would have us look further back than Rome. The agora decoupled from the religious functions of the acropolis in the fifth century to become the locus of commercial and political activity. The first planned agora, built in Miletus at the beginning of the fifth century, was a perfect rectangle, and this shape persisted throughout the Classical world until the decline of the forum at the end of the Roman republic. The activity of the public would henceforth be enclosed: play in the amphitheatre, law in the basilica and governance in the palace.
Can the public square be remade as an organic whole? Of course, it never was. Slaves had no voice in the agora and women were confined at home. But the public square remains a place of possibility – this is what its emptiness can mean, just as long as we remember that it is marked by unseen striations. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc brought these to light in its brief occupation of New York’s Federal Plaza. Although it has since been removed, the space is still partitioned by invisible barriers.
Benedetta Tagliabue embt, Plaza Ricard Viñes, Lleida, Spain, 2010
The public square’s defining quality is its emptiness, but at the same time it is replete with objects – benches, trees, lamps, statues, fountains and hot-dog stands. These may pose as simple functional or decorative objects, but in many cases they fulfil ulterior purposes – statues represent the ideology of the state, the fountains on Trafalgar Square were intended to deter protests, however unsuccessful they may have been in this regard – and the hefty benches that increasingly populate our cities double as security balustrades to deflect car bombers. Benedetta Tagliabue’s square for the Catalonian city of Lleida makes no pretence to vacancy. Instead it swirls with labyrinthine-patterned paving, benches and planting. The curvaceousness of the design inevitably recalls the master of 20th-century landscaping, Roberto Burle Marx, but Tagliabue adds a PoMo twist, shattering the confident holism of the Modernists into a more fragmentary and rather richer environment.
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Emergent Vernacular Architecture, Tapis Rouge, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2016
The lack of public space may not be the most pressing problem of slums, but – despite apologists arguing for the existence of a ‘distributed’ public space of doorsteps, alleyways and the like – overcrowding inevitably denies the pleasures of the square: the availability of larger spaces for children to play, the slightly more expansive vista and the possibility of relaxing with more comfort in urban space. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, London-based studio Emergent Vernacular Architecture designed and built such a space on the edge of an informal settlement in Port-au-Prince. The space takes the form of an amphitheatre, with infant trees planted to provide shade. In an attempt to answer the challenging question of the ongoing viability of charitable projects in such straitened circumstances, the project incorporates a well, the proceeds from which will be used to maintain the site.
De Urbanisten, Water Square, Benthemplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2013
The increasingly regular spectacle of St Mark’s Square disappearing beneath the water of the lagoon is one of the more picturesque indications of the challenges ahead for low-lying regions. But what if the square were re-engineered to ameliorate the consequences of climate change, rather than simply being their victim? Perhaps unsurprisingly, this question has been asked – and answered – by a group of Dutch urbanists. Since 2005, De Urbanisten has been developing what they call ‘water squares’, public spaces that double as drainage infrastructure, collecting and storing water during periods of high rainfall. This example at Benthemplein in Rotterdam occupies an irregular space between a college, church, youth theatre and gym. A sunken sports court offers recreation facilities to the students, and in very wet weather it becomes a deep pool fed by storm water from the wider area, while two shallower depressions – one with a central island of planting – fill more frequently with run-off from the immediate surroundings.
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LAAC Architekten and Stiefel Kramer Architecture, Eduard-Wallnöfer-Platz, Innsbruck, Austria, 2011
The integration of the square into the circulatory system of the city is a much-debated topic. Camillo Sitte’s 1889 artistic principles of town planning – which meant a re-emphasis on the sensory experience of urban space, not simply an appeal to the picturesque – advocated irregularity as opposed to the gridiron, intimacy rather than immensity, enclosure not exposure. One of Sitte’s particular bugbears was the central positioning of monuments in squares, which he believed interrupted the sensation of space. One such object – a monument to Austria’s liberation from fascism – occupies the centre of Innsbruck’s largest square, presenting a significant challenge to its recent reconfiguration, as does the huge Nazi-era public building to the north, whose form is echoed in the monument. There are also a further three monuments in the square: in order to tie the disparate elements together, the architects designed an in-situ concrete landscape of geological undulations. The flowing nature of the space certainly accords with the spirit of Sitte, and, curiously, also with Patrik Schumacher’s call for a parametric urbanism – indeed, it comes far closer towards suturing the city than Schumacher’s own incongruous designs.