Leon Krier’s reminds us that “the form of the city and of its public spaces cannot be a matter of personal experiment. The city and its public spaces can only be built in the form of streets, squares, and quarters of familiar dimensions and character, based on the local tradition. Whether of grand metropolitan or intimate local quality, the streets and squares must present a permanent and familiar character. Their dimensions and proportions must be those of the best and most beautiful pre-industrial cities, obtained from and verified by a millennia-old culture.”¹ 

The squares of Georgian England reflect just such a rich tapestry of “dimensions and proportions,” of human action, government, ideology and economics – each square formed from a series of minute choices triggered by preceding history and attitudes. To trace the design antecedents of the English squares of Belgravia and Kensington takes us back to ancient Egypt, Crete and Greece.

Knossos 1500 B.C.

Egyptian temple precincts and royal residences as developed on Crete are some of the earliest examples of precedents. Functionally, these complexes were formed around protected and enclosed formal open spaces.

From a town planning point of view, however, we only begin to see randomly formed open spaces in early Greek settlements where temples are clustered together to form some sense of enclosed space, or Greek agoras formed to facilitate commerce and civic activities, but we find few examples of the intentional planning of exterior spaces where the space itself is primary. The Greek town of Olympia is characteristic of loosely formed space within the temple precinct. In the reconstruction of early Olympia,

Olympia, Greece

we note the randomness of the space itself as the little temples to various Gods are lined up on one edge of the precinct with only a casual relation to other structures and the resultant space formed between the buildings.

The history of formal residential squares in modern day Italy, France and England, however, springs from an additional foundation – the design of homes for the great patricians of Rome that developed during the early days of the empire. The concept of the formally cloistered, carefully proportioned and protected open space found public expression by the time of Vitruvius in Roman forums and market spaces and received due emphasis in his writings.

During medieval times, earlier formalized approaches to the organization of exterior space gave way to a more medieval organic approach where the next thing built reacted very specifically to what had been built immediately before. Squares as such were non existent in medieval communities as individuals and organizations responded organically to the introduction of each new civic and religious edifice. The creation of randomly formed open areas reflected ancient footpaths more than a robust spatial response to honor the special building or its occupant. Vitruvius’ concept of Decorum with regard to space and the special edifice had been long forgotten.

Palma Nova today

It was not until the early Renaissance that Vitruvius’ writings came back to the foreground, and town planning concepts of the ideal village or town were reawakened. Fortress towns such as Palma Nouva were created in idealized patterns, organized around carefully planned central and subsidiary squares. Much of Palma Nova today reflects the original Renaissance design. Palma Nova’s subsidiary squares are approximately 800 feet apart as the crow flies – not far from an idealized spacing, a subject to which we will return.

The internalized Roman atrium also reappeared in two story residential form in Renaissance Rome, Florence, Venice, Vicenza and many other Italian towns, and found

Palazzo Medici Ricardi Flickr

community expression in Brunelleschi’s Piazza di Santissima Annunziata in Florence, Italy. This idealized square which dates from the 15th century honored not only the religious (Santissima Annunziata) and the civic (in the Hospedale di Infanati) but also residential uses. Developed initially between 1419 and 1424 and refined during the century by both Michelozzo and Manetti, this square was an important precursor to the introduction of residential squares in both France and England.

Piazza di S. Annunziata

Approximately 197 feet by 246 feet (60 m by 75 m), the square creates horizontally a 4 to 5 ratio, and brings forward the important issue raised over 1400 years earlier by Vitruvius – the ideal proportions of outdoor spaces.



Imagine Medieval Paris

The impact of Italian Renaissance urban designs in Italy made a significant impact in Paris soon thereafter. From the standpoint of urban design, the French King Henri IV’s real estate speculation in the Marais quarter set the stage. The Place de Henri Quatre (the Place Royal as the King referred to it or the Place des Vosges as it is known today). This “Place” was the first formal predominantly residential square in Paris – literally bursting through the incommodious fabric of medieval Paris in 1606. It was an extraordinary departure from the organic and irregular form of the Marais quarter.

Place de Vosges, Turgot engraving

Taking perhaps a cue from both Italy and the evolving private “Hotels” of Paris with their formal and privatized Coeur de Honeur, it was initially three sided, the fourth side was added two years later. The square is approximately 465 feet (72 ancient toises; a toise being approximately 1.98 meters) dead square, surrounded by an arched arcade and uniform “pavilions” whose coded facades were possible designed by Metezeau. The south and north sides are punctuated by the Pavillon du Roi and the Pavillion de la Reine. The closure (height to breadth) ratios are quite low (approximately 1:9).

The Place des Vosges was the icon for the few public and formal squares which followed in Paris over the next 100 years. The arched first story arcade was repeated in a surface manner at Place Dauphine (1607), Place Des Victoires (1685) and Place Vendome (1702).

Inigo Jones

But more important for the history of English urban design, the Place des Vosges was in many ways the immediate precursor of the arcaded Covent Garden Piazza which was built in London (1631) and designed by Inigo Jones twenty five years after the Place des Vosges. Covent Garden, much like the  arcadedPlace des Vosges, burst into the medieval fabric of London, having only been preceded by the large formal and arcaded courtyard of the four storeyed Royal Exchange which had been built in 1566 along Flemish lines.

Covent Garden (1631)

Jones apparently drew further inspiration from his visit to the Piazza d’Armee at Leghorn (Livorno), Italy which was constructed around 1590, about which John Evelyn said ‘gave the first hint to the building both of the church and piazza in Covent Garden.’ Dan Cruickshank “A Guide to the Georgian Buildings of Britain & Ireland” (Rizzoli, New York, 1986) 20.

Livorno, 1590

1665 and 1666: Pivotal Events

The years 1665 and 1666 proved pivotal for later urban interventions in London. What transpired first was the creation Southampton Square by the Earle of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley. The square later was called

Southampton Square c. 1725

Bloomsbury Square. It was soon perceived as one of the wonders of England.

A word about the “Great Estates” is in order. Much of London today is still owned in fee simple by various Estates for some special service that was rendered centuries ago to the King. Rather than sell their interests when development occurs, many of the Estates lease development sites for periods of up to 99 years. This assures continuous income as well as a long term investment stance. Southampton Square was an early precursor to this type of enterprise on the part of the Earle.

 One side of Southampton

Versailles Cour D'Honneur

focused on the Earle’s low, one-storied, home which had been designed earlier by Inigo Jones. This form,  where a mansion, church or civic building is approached by an enlarged and public “cour de honeur,” had immediate and important precedents in Italy (St. Peter’s Piazza in 1656) and France (Vaux Le Vicompte in 1658 and Versailles a few years later).

 Two disasters struck right after the beginning of Southampton. First, the plague hit. By July, 1665, deaths were running over 1,000 a week. Then, in September, 1666, a great fire broke out destroying nearly 80% of the city – over 13,000 houses were burned. The result was a unique opportunity to create both a safer city and one that could mimic the success of Southampton.

 A few years were needed to regroup and respond to the serious need for better housing. A law was passed in the year after the fire regulating party walls, building heights (capped at four stories on the largest thoroughfares) and building materials to lessen the chance of wide spread fire. Soho Square began in 1681, the well executed St. James Square in 1884 and the overscaled Red Lion Square the same year. Then the Grosvenor Estate followed with Grosvenor Square in 1695 and Berkeley Square in 1698. 

On the Continent and Publishing Events in England

On the Continent, Paris was enjoying a burst of royal activity with the circular Place Victoires in 1685 and Place Vendome in 1698. The year after Vendome, Cardinal Guillaume Egon de Furstenberg, abbot of Saint Germain-des-Pres, added a “cour d’honneur” to his Palais Abbayial which later became the famous but tiny Place de Furstenberg.     

 Next, Colen Cambell published the first volume of Vitruvius Brittanicus in 1716; Leoni published the a printed version of Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture in 1716 and followed with Alberti in 1726. Elizabethan ways were being left behind, and Neoclassicism was substantially underway in the English isle. Two years after the Alberti publication, John Wood began Queen’s Square in Bath. Woods’s composition was well scaled (approximately 295 feet (90 m) square from face of building to face of building) and England’s first architecturally unified residential square. It was followed by another unified circular “square” (the Circus) in 1754 and John Wood’s Jr.’s Royal Crescent in 1767. These three assemblages at Bath had an enormous influence on the history of square design in London as well as Edinburgh during the ensuing years.

Bath - All Three Squares

Horwood Map 1794

Hans Place on Horwood Map 1794

 In 1770, Henry Holland proposed an entire “New Town” in the fields immediately east of London, and part of the area of our interest. The 89 acre piece belonged to the Cadogan estate, heirs of Sir Hans Sloane. Holland proposed a series of leases to the Cadogans, and with the help of his son, Henry Jr., outlined an ambitious plan for what has become some of London’s most sought after real estate.

 Holland planned his own mansion at the heart of the development. Before his Pavilion (since removed) would lay a square that would form a “cour d’honneur” approach to his home. Named for Sir Hans Sloane, the square Hans Place was shaped in similar fashion to Place Vendome in Paris – about the same length

Hans Place original fabric with added story

Hans Place original fabric with added story

but not as wide. Like Vendome, the corners were clipped. The general scheme was flanked with simple 4.5 storied Georgian townhomes made of grey brick (with rubbed bricks on the Jack arches) from nearby kilns. Only a few of these remain as the area was densified greatly during the late 1800 when the initial leases expired.   

About this time, four additional events transpired significantly alter the emerging face of Belgravia, Chelsea and Kensington. First, the great building act of 1774 reaffirmed prohibitions against the use of flammable materials on the exteriors of buildings (for example, no wooden cornices, miniscule and recessed window sash), while at the same time establishing four “rates” of houses. The latter provision coupled with structural directives, effectively created four ideal types of homes, leading to significant uniformity of appearance.

 Second, the architect Robert Adam came on the scene, lightening and transforming classicism with vigor and invention. Adam’s influence was temped by the academic focus of the other prevailing architectural eminent, William Chambers. Together, the laid the foundation for the refinements of the next century.

 Third, technical innovation led to the introduction of materials that could successfully clad the rather drab grey brick that covered most British facades of the era, and thus emulate the bright sparkle of Bath stone that had rendered John Wood’s work in Bath so appealing. Coade Stone was basically a manufactured stone of great durability which could be molded into refined shapes that formerly would have been supplied by carving (or planed if in wood). Arched doorway surrounds and sculptural reliefs were just some of the stock items in Mrs. Coade’s catalogue. Additionally, stucco had rarely been employed to this date, but new more successful compositions were being patented, and Robert Adam used Liardet’s mixture about 1776 in Hanover Square.

 Fourth, the great Estates, aside from Holland’s Hans Town development, produced a flury of Squares: Portman Place (Robert and James Adam), Statford Place, and finally the 3.5 storied Bedford Square (the latter making good use of Coade stone in the arched surrounds).   

These events and innovations set the stage for both the character and pace of development in London during the next century. 


¹A + U, Tokyo, Special Issue, November 1977, pages 69-152. Reprinted in: Architectural Design, volume 54 (1984), Jul/Aug pages 70-105. Also in: Léon Krier: Houses, Palaces, Cities, Demetri Porphyrios, editor, Academy Publications, London, 1984. With added sections from “The Cities Within the City II”, Architectural Design, volume 49 (1979), Jan pages 18-32; and “The Reconstruction of the European City”, Architectural Design, volume 54 (1984), Nov/Dec pages 16-22.

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