Public Spaces

A book review by Michael Webb

Form Squares coverI’ve always had a passion for city squares as showcases of architecture and stages for everyday activities and earthshaking events. They vary as greatly as the buildings that enclose them—in size, character, and origin. Some evolved organically from marketplaces, others were planned as the expression of a ruler’s power. Over time, they’ve been improved and used in unpredictable ways. The English poet Robert Browning went to live in Italy and wrote, “Oh, a day in the city square/There is no such pleasure in life!” That inspired me to write my own book, The City Square, on the ones I loved, from Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome to the plazas of Taxco and Oaxaca. It was 1989, when the Soviet empire was disintegrating and China was shaking, as protestors gathered in squares to challenge the status quo. Since then, we’ve seen revolutions consumated and foiled in the Maidan of Kiev and Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Those upheavals are prominently featured in City Squares, where each writer focuses on a single place or theme. Michael Kimmelman introduces the section on culture; the square as an expression of human activity. David Remnick draws on his years as a political correspondent to explore the subversive role of squares, and George Packer examines the way plazas shape history. Tiananmen, Red Square and the Zocalo of Mexico City are featured alongside unfamiliar examples and outright failures, such as the the bleak void of Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, and Rory Stewart’s foiled attempt to create a public gathering place in the labyrinth of old Kabul.

City Squares is pure delight: as an enlightening, provocative exploration of the urban spaces that embody the spirit of place in great cities. There is joy in the writing as the contributers recall memorable moments, playing with their children, observing the rituals of social activity or or risking their lives at the barricades. Adam Gopnick recalls a Saturday afternoon in the Place des Vosges—”a supreme public space that feels private”—as the happiest day of his life Andrew Roberts explores the residential squares of London, contrasting the dullness of Belgrave Square, a haven for the rich, with the bohemian vitality of Fitzroy Square in Bloomsbury. It’s tempting to quote at length from this marvelous anthology but to what end: Everyone who loves cities should order a copy and find his or her own favorite passages.

City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World. Edited by Catie Marron. (Harper, $35)

 

 

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