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Public spaces are big topic on urban planning. On one hand they are seen as what measures the success of the project and their spacious employments indicates how thoughtful the project is implemented. On the other hand however they are feared for their unpredictability as to how the public like it the cruelty with witch they can tear down a whole project after implementation. With planners and designers public spaces and especially public squares are a sort of love-hate relationship of a special sort.

Still these spaces are what most people talk of beside the famous monuments and icons if they talk about the city and further more those are the spaces people interact with, use and activities take place within. Both locals and tourists sit in the restaurant on the square and drink a coffee, sit on the bench and read the news paper or simply stand over there by the pillar to wait for a date. It’s the place to be, the place of orientation and a space to get involved.

Numerous books have been dedicated to this subject and have more or less successful captured and presented the various different aspects of public space. Two of the very famous ones are definitely Camillo Sitte’s Der Staetebau nach seinen kuenstlerischen Grundsaetzen (City planning according to artistic principles), 1889 and Alan Jacobs’s Great Streets, 1993. There are others like Dr. Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s Die Stadt im 21. Jahrhundert or from a different perspective CHORA with Raul Bundschoten’s Public Spaces.

The key to a good book is the chosen approach, the consistency as well as the plainness of the representation. In order to serve the understanding and the readability everything has to be dedicated supportive in that the read can dive into a place through the book.

A recent Norton publication by Robert F. Gate presents a new try at this noble task of selecting and summarizing a set of public squares from Europe and the Americas. With Great Public Squares: An Architect’s Selection the author not only in the title is inspired by a number of the famous books on this subject, it is an other version of a successful receipt.

Place des Cornieres
Image take from monpazier / The public square of Monpazier, the Place des Cornieres, in the book on page 130.

Unfortunately, even though with great intentions, this book can not live up to the expectation its sets by placing itself in the companionship of such great master pieces. From the design to the graphical representation to the selected photographs this publication doesn’t quite manage to convince and draw the reader in. Especially the graphics of the plans that document each square are very crude. The representation is more concealing than revealing and gradients in full colours and patterns make very hard to read. The last thing one want ina gapihcal representation of space is to know about the different coloured chares each restaurant has chosen on the Plaza Mayor in Salmanaca.

The patterns are very dominant and the line thickness distracting, in many cases it is impossible to read the difference between open space and indoor space and roofed parts are non distinguishable. The one point that can be discussed is the direction of the sunlight. The author here has chosen to go with the geographers approach to place the sun in the North-East drawing the shadows towards the bottom right. His argument is that it makes buildings “…jump out”. While I believe it is very important to show the shadows my opinion would be to show the reality in order to make the representation of space close to what it actually looks like. It is just that the centre of gravity can be shifted by the dominant shadows and if the Piazza San Pietro in Rome all of a sudden shifts to the south rather than what it always does, shifting to the north, it is a very different thing.

There would be other things to discuss like the use of colours and the representation of canopies, furniture and temporal structures, but it wouldn’t make things much better. Similar with the choice and layout of the documenting photographs. There are usually too many on e one page and a number of them are unspecific making them hard to place in the overall picture the publication is trying to bring across.

Venice Piazza San Marco
Image take from Archleague / The public square in Venice Piazza San Marco, in the book on page 34.

However the book has its qualities as a first point of reference if looking for public squares. The selection can never be complete, but the examples chosen are definitely a bunch worth looking at. Also the background texts that weave in a bit of history and point out a few specialities as well as references to other squares are indeed very useful. The same is true for the information and details of measurements. Here the shadows are coming in handy again as at the scale of 1:1000 make it possible to actually measure the hight of each element.

Overall a book on a noble subject that fails to live up to expectations, e.g. graphically (it already starts on the cover in the way the banner is placed very unfortunate slightly covering the books subject, the square), but still holds some qualities for the user in specific use cases. Also for other reviews, have a read over at Archidose with more of a focus on the selection of presented examples.

Great Public Squares Book cover
Image taken from Archidose / Book cover.

Gatje, R., 2010. Great Public Squares: An Architect’s Selection, New York, N.Y: W. W. Norton & Co.

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