Page C1.3. 06 October 2010                     
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    Ulm Münsterplatz



    Fountains and sculpture, chairs and benches, cafes and music stands all enhance the pleasure and usefulness of urban rooms.


    There has never been a square whose usefulness was not enhanced by covered walkways. They're obviously not absolutely necessary but should always be considered. Santa Fe, New Mexico, didn't really have a plaza until it added its portales in 1966. The fear of criminals hiding behind columns in the 1980s seems to have faded away.

    Monumental Buildings

    Architecture has always had a dominant role to play in urban space, but the power can be positive or negative. Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia has been ruined by tall, nondescript apartment houses and office buildings.

    The small, elegant space that Mies van der Rohe put in front of the Seagram Building worked as a gate in the unbroken wall of Park Avenue until Citicorp tried to share the glory next door by extending the break. There are centuries of squares that relied upon simple, repetitive, rhythmic facades that seem to belong to the space rather than the occupants behind, and this magic is easily replicated.


    The "emptiness" that many consider the essential mark of a square has become a point of debate in modern times. The spaces originally reserved for jousting matches, royal weddings, and public meetings would be largely useless if open only to activities that have died away.

    Markets continue in force and green markets are making a comeback, but their umbrellas risk crowding space. Boston's City Hall plaza was praised for its wide-open urban setting, but the same citizens chose not to use its windy, barren surface.

    So trees have taken over more often than not, and most of them work very well, cooling the space in the summer and letting the warm sun enter in winter. Still, the purists are unhappy.


    The marvelous thing about squares is that the very reason they are made provides for their own success. The more people in a square, the better it feels. No one complains about crowding at San Marco.

    But the simplicity of the goal belies the difficulty of achieving it. More and better urban spaces will be needed in the very near future as society reorganizes itself all over the world, and we know from the successes that it can be done. It is a worthy aim.

    Robert F. Gatje, formerly a partner of Marcel Breuer's and of Richard Meier's, lives in New York City. He joined Meier as partner several years after the design of the Ulm Stadthaus.

    This article is excerpted from Great Public Squares: An Architect's Selection by Robert F. Gatje, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.


    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...


    ArchWeek Image

    At 530 feet (161.5 meters), Ulm Minster is the tallest church in the world.
    Photo: Dan Harrod Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the nave of Ulm Minster, built from 1377 to 1890.
    Photo: Matthew Reames Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The stone spire of Ulm Minster is topped by an open conical form composed of successive flying buttresses that radiate from the corners of a central octagonal shaft.
    Photo: Jozef Beno Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Münsterplatz and Stadthaus Ulm as seen from the spire of Ulm Minster.
    Photo: Charles Thomson Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The gable forms in the Stadthaus Ulm roof contain skylights that illuminate a multistory atrium.
    Photo: Winfried Tommerdich

    ArchWeek Image

    Stadthaus Ulm viewed from the southwest.
    Photo: Klaas Vermaas Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Stadthaus Ulm is composed of a central cylindrical space connected to a sympathetically curved wing by a third, narrow wing.
    Photo: Klaas Vermaas Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Straight and spiral staircases in the Stadthaus Ulm.
    Photo: Frank Witzigmann Extra Large Image

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    The position of the Stadthaus Ulm implicitly defines primary and secondary spaces in and around the Münsterplatz.
    Photo: Andrew Dawson Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Overview of the Stadthaus Ulm, with Ulm Minster in the background.
    Photo: Klaas Vermaas Extra Large Image


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