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.
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.
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