Promising Plots

Promising Plots

Elias Martin, View of Hanover Square (1769).
Courtesy YUP/Private Collection

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Yale University Press, $65.00

With all the world focused on London and its Olympic Summer Games, the Queen’s Jubilee, and the Libor scandal, not to mention Piano’s Shard clocking in as Europe’s tallest, the publication of The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town offers a worthy historical antidote to all the hoopla, taking overdue stock of this city’s greatest contribution to planning: the urban square. Written by the prominent and demonstrably passionate landscape architect, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, this spirited narrative is burdened only by the bulky format that inevitably results from a rich array of illustrations, including little-known archival schematics, etchings, and photography, both vintage and contemporary. It chronicles an enduring prototype at the ready for future applications, while, simultaneously, it succeeds at revealing some of the overlooked origins of contemporary green design theory and practice. After all, what are the insertions of “gardens in the midst of town” wherever possible across New York and amid underused streetscapes other than Bloombergian rus in urbe?

The squares, crescents, and circuses explored here grace the lives of residents and visitors alike, as do their proven civic and economic benefits, long after the 2012 spotlight fades. The book anticipates a refocusing of attention in post-hoopla London on such endeavors as the controversial and recently approved Chelsea Barracks masterplan by Dixon Jones, Squire and Partners with Kim Wilkie in the wake of the Prince Charles–led suspension of Lord Rogers’s plan for some of the most valuable square footage in play on the planet. The historic London square weaves throughout this new blueprint in ways transparent and accessible even to those merely passing through.  Regardless of the exact final Barracks form, this detail in the continuity of place making will most certainly emerge unscathed.


View of Queen Square, Holborn (1812) by an unknown artist.
Courtesy YUP/Author’s Collection

And whatever the permanent impact of the much-ballyhooed sustainable build-out of the imminent Olympics, especially across East London, crowned by Anish Kapoor’s sponsor-addled ArchelorMittal Orbit, the author provides a rigorous analysis of the advent and continuing metamorphosis and reinterpretation of the city’s long-established classical instinct to bring nature to the city. In fact, the long-standing impulse to bring naturalistic relief (whether density-erupting gardens or community-defining green precincts) to bear on the more formal drive toward real estate development is a fascinating metaphor for the tug of public and private forces that continually shape the city as well as inform everything from architectural solutions to resident expectations and willingness to pay.

What the book offers above all is a rare analysis of just such planning dynamics expressed through aesthetics and built results. Seventeenth-century royal prerogative and landed aristocratic development schemes presumed a top-down preference for rural (and evermore elusive) vistas, which led to then-fashionable sculpture-adorned French and Italianate plazas, and, in turn, the manor house gardens, where geometric rigidity gave way to serpentine paths through a chimera of wilderness with perpetual flower beds as transitional foreground. Likewise it is a story of hygiene, fire prevention, and exclusivity (alive and well in New York’s Gramercy Park), yielding through a combination of civic good will, tax-sanctioned economic possibilities, and even wartime Victory gardening, to a breaking down of barriers to make the visible inhabitable.

This beguiling point of view succeeds at revealing the origins of much of the American planning impulse and public governance policy in force today. The gated community, the BID, universal access, and permissible activity all emerge from the record presented by Longstaffe-Gowan, who unmasks the seesaw of intentions both venal and benevolent that add up to the volume’s dynamic thematic paradigm. A discerning reader will draw comfort from the fact that such a formative mishmash can still result in a beautifully refreshing and even joyous model for contemporary urban dwellers.

The author does swerve occasionally into the salubrious iniquities allowed by squares, especially once they have been converted to the verdant naturalistic English style. Think Central Park’s Rambles section in contrast to Le Nôtre’s parterres with their relative dearth of secret sanctuary. Whether by errant resident servants, who shared the household key, or various other opportunists looking for some sort of quick, shrub-shrouded thrill, the point might have been made stronger in this context with a greater measure of levity, or irony.

Perhaps planning advocates, preservationists, and assorted civic-minded fellow travelers have most to gain from Longstaffe-Gowan’s rigorous discovery. They are most likely to sort the trees from the author’s forest in terms of applicable contemporary lessons. Regardless, the read is well worth it or any who care about architecture in the public realm.