Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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BOOK REVIEW: The London Square

From street level, London can seem overpowering--a vast, crowded metropolis that crushes the human spirit--but from a viewing gallery it becomes a green city. Expansive parks, leafy squares, and lovingly cultivated back yards: a triumph of planting over building. The native love of gardening found full expression in residential squares that were planted and enclosed—in contrast to the paved civic squares of the continent. In Europe, plazas and piazzas began life as market places or as forecourts to the ruler’s palace; in London and a few provincial cities such as Bath and Edinburgh, it was a developer’s tool—a way of adding value to a new residential quarter. In The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a British landscape designer, traces in scholarly (sometimes tedious) detail the evolution of the London square, from the Italianate ensemble of Covent Garden (which soon acquired a market and lost its cachet) to the flowering of the form in the Georgian era, and the steady erosion of these oases over the past century.

It’s a tale of rus in urbe, stemming from the English love of the countryside and the desire to replicate it at the heart of the city. It’s also a social history: of the aristocracy developing their property for affluent buyers who railed off  the squares for their own exclusive use. Only residents had keys and the goal was to maintain a pleasing prospect and a secure enclave, free from undesirable persons, public gatherings, trash, and other nastiness.  Victorian reformers demanded that the larger squares be opened for public recreation and the release of social tensions. Resistance crumbled as families moved to the suburbs, great houses were subdivided, and the squares were dug up for allotments and air-raid shelters during the two world wars. Railings were torn down to be recycled as munitions, and an air of exclusivity came to seem archaic, though quite a few locked gardens survive.  Longstaffe-Gowan evokes the centuries of growth and conflict, and the evolution of a feature that was replicated in the American colonies –notably in Savannah—but is as distinctive to London as the red bus and black taxi. Prints, maps and photographs illustrate his account and make this book a must for every urban planner or student of city planning.

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town
by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Yale University Press, $65

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