“…the principal ornament of the city will arise from the disposition of the streets, squares, and public edifices, and their being laid out and contrived beautifully and conveniently…Leon Baptista Alberti VII, I, 134.
“The Measure of any great civilization is in its towns and cities and the measure of a city’s greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares.” John Ruskin
It was a hot morning in July, 2004, and we were staying a few days at the Hotel Franklin, a small hotel composed of several town homes cobbled together around Egerton Gardens in the Kensington district of London. Aimlessly walking about the neighborhood south of London’s famous Harrod’s department store, I was looking for stunning examples of early 19th century town homes. But what I discovered were a series of wonderful and varied residential late Georgian squares.
Euclid would have been pleased. One was an oval; another a square. Several were rectangular, and others were crescent in form. Only one seemed more medieval in origin, with an irregular shape but pleasant outcome. Questions immediately arose. How did these squares compare with recent New Urbanist squares built in the States? Why had the shapes and three dimensional qualities been chosen? What were the important underlying diagrams, dimensions and principles?
Other special residential squares came to mind as I crudely paced off dimensions – beloved squares in Paris like Henri IV’s Place Royale (now called the Place des Vosges) and the wonderful enclosed garden of the Palais Royal. Or the sound from the bells of ringing out over the piazza designed by Brunelleschi in Florence.
Questions to answer.
How did these London squares come to be? Was their design tied to these earlier French and Italian squares? What later I discovered was they represent a rich design and development heritage that traces back not only to the preceding century but several millennia.
As my interest intensified, I began looking for clues to the original influences as well as accurate measurements, both horizontally and vertically (height and mass). An inventory of characteristics began to build for each square.
Other questions arose: how, for instance, had the private sector interfaced with the great Lords who owned much of the 19th century real estate in the creation of such meaningful residential neighborhoods?
Had John Woods, Senior and Junior and their work in Bath that I remembered fondly be an influence? Or the “New Town in Edinburgh? And if so, what had influenced them?
And finally, why did it appear that important urban designers and theorists of the late 19th century chosen to somewhat ignore them? Neither Unwin, Nolen, Hegemann or Sitte included extensive diagrams of the districts and their intimate residential squares in their publications.
These authors were important sources for the New Urbanist movement in the United States and abroad currently recovering the art of City Building. The exclusion of coverage – even in The New Civic Art, begged for focus.
Bill Lennertz, executive director of the National Charrette Institute, recalled over dinner that the quality of the London Georgian squares and districts had led Andreas Duany, one of the key founders of the New Urbanist movement, to take Joseph Alfandre, future developer of the pivotal Kentlands community in Maryland, to London prior to the finalization of the plans for the Kentlands. This fact provided further motivation to dig deeply into the history of these squares.
The Knight Program in Community Building
The Knight Fellows program at the University of Miami has generously allowed concentration of effort while broadening the scope of the initial questions. Chuck Bohl, Director of the Knight Program in Community Building, and I peppered several of the best New Urbanist designers and developers with questions to get them to disclose, from their own work, their favorite and most beloved squares. Robert Davis, town founder of Seaside, Florida, added the suggestion that these top practitioners also pick their favorite antique “square” – one that predated contemporary planning efforts. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk added a third twist that helped a great deal in actually getting choices. The designer’s pick would be their “Pick of the Day,” thus reducing the gravity and seriousness of the question – suggesting on a different day the pick might be different. These beloved squares would, in turn, be measured and analyzed so the end product of the research would be a fairly broad look at residential squares and spaces from a New Urbanist point of view.
We would be looking for the underlying design principles. I remember Andreas Duany’s emphasis during a Placemaking conference in Atlanta: “It is always a mistake to copy. Always. Always.” We want to look for the underlying principles of putting together wonderful neighborhoods; we want to understand the various dimensional relationships and the related economics. Duany has often underscored the value of “kicking the tire” to determine what works, what doesn’t and why. Since residential squares and plazas should be a key component of the design of an overall neighborhood or district, Belgravia and Kensington offer an urban designer an opportunity to visit a large number of squares in a few hours.
Though there is a personal pleasure in actually measuring every thing that you see that is of value (Alberti reflected “I never stopped exploring, considering and measuring everything, and comparing the information through line drawings” from Book VI.1.), it takes time to do so. My hope is that the research data provided here will encourage others to “kick the tire” and have some confidence that a tour of the squares will not take as long as it would have without adequate measurement information.
“We are all stakeholders in the question of this earth,” observes Christopher Alexander, and the organizing principles of the City are important to all of us. The thought is simple. As our neighborhoods densify in face of the increasing energy and environmental pressures, we must be sure that the new or amended fabric of our neighborhood districts contain well sized and easily maintained greens and squares that can serve as both lungs and centers of focus for our neighborhoods. Our focus is on the creation and articulation of space.