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Last edited 28 Jan 2021
Successful spaces are generally part of a broader urban fabric that is rendered intelligible and coherent by the way its ‘nodes’ are linked to one another. The cities of Florence, Rome and Glasgow clearly demonstrate this.
Cousseran says that ‘public space is a particular kind of social space created specifically for the bringing together of people, and where locals and strangers, the familiar and the unusual, can mingle freely.’ (1) How, then, do such spaces come about?
Florence, a city noted for its particularly outstanding public spaces with two millennia of historical layering, shows us how they are often the product of both historical accretions and powerful bursts of civic planning.
‘Generally speaking’, Bosch says, ‘the medieval city [of Florence] was functionally inadequate, aesthetically ill-considered, and lacking in unifying qualities’. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the city had no established political order, with ecclesiastic authorities, local feudal lords, invading feudal powers and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as craft guilds and an increasingly powerful banking sector all aspiring to power.
These rivals had funded the construction of significant buildings, which were swallowed up by the dense medieval grain of the city. Powerful families inhabited compounds, built with no regard for the public realm, with towers like those of San Gimignano competing for visual dominance. The church, the state, and families like the Medici, however, transformed the city over the next 200 years, ‘slowly producing the greatness of its various spaces out of medieval mediocrity’.
Although this resulted in what are perceived as great public spaces, the interests of the public were not part of the thinking of the patrons, whose aim was to establish spaces around the major points of interest, the nodes of church and palace, from which to view them, and streets to connect them.
In Florence, as in other Italian Renaissance examples, often ‘the single most important driving force… was the power and ideals of one man who was able to push for order in his particular city. Such men did this as a means of assuring a physical structure that would bring the city even greater influence and growth, to their benefit, and as and expression of what they personally owed the city for their power.’ (2) The Uffizi for example, which today feels like an inherent component of the composition of the Piazza Signorina, was commissioned by the Medici, whilst the town hall, was an expression of the rival interests of the ‘republican commune’.
The lesson of Florence is, perhaps, that competing interests recognised that their own glory could be best asserted by accommodating the imprint of others’ desire for the same end, rather than by attempting to eliminate it. This allows an accretion of contextual responses to accumulate over time. Significant participants in the shaping of the city have directed their resources towards the making of space rather than object buildings, seemingly embracing the fact that their investments thereby became the ‘property’ of the public at large. This attitude differs almost completely from the predominant contemporary paradigm, in which investment in ‘object’ buildings leaves incoherent overall urban fabric, and begins to suggest the importance of investing in space rather than just buildings.
We can perhaps better understand why the spaces resulting from the processes described above feel so satisfying to be in, if we move from considering the reasons for their evolution to an assessment of their characteristics. Rowe and Koettler, in Collage City, offer a useful starting point, characterising ‘the debate as a debate between two models; acropolis and forum.
What they call the ‘acropolis’ model of urban fabric denotes a modernist emphasis on individual buildings surrounded by open space which, according to Cousseran has ‘unfortunately become synonymous with empty space. The ‘forum’ is not a void with objects placed in it, but a solid with spaces carved into it. Florence follows this pattern, with its dense grain opened out around significant buildings, following the compression of its streets with the release of well- defined spaces – the result of orderly rationalisation of dense earlier development.
A similar process took place in Rome somewhat later, as Pope Sixtus V set about applying an urban design strategy in 1585 that would impose order on what was at the time a chaotic medieval city, albeit one containing remains of imperial grandeur. Watson and Bentley, in the concluding passages of ‘Identity by Design’, say that ‘...a leitmotif of all our case studies has been the manifold advantages, in place-identity terms, of forming public space into highly connected networks, rather than designing a system of relatively isolated enclave spaces.’
This passage could have been written to describe Sixtus’ plans for Rome, which involved carving routes through the urban fabric to connect significant points and, often, to create points for pause – public spaces – around them. He built very few buildings in his lifetime, but the order he established has acted as a template and inspiration ever since, evidence that designing spaces rather than forms can be a sound basis for creating harmonious urban environments.
The dramatic tension in the city is set up by the relationships between significant nodes, each of which has a different character. Bacon (3) describes the development of the Piazza del Popolo as ‘...[demonstrating] more clearly than any other single work in Rome the power of an idea as an organizing force over time.’
Prior to the redesign of Popolo and its connecting axes to the rest of the city, the area was ‘squalid and confused’, with an arbitrarily shaped open space sitting beneath mud banking on its eastern edge, which sloped up to open fields on the hill above. Although the piazza terminated three important axial streets leading into the heart of the city, and was itself a space of civic proportion at a gateway to the city, it failed to capitalise on these inherited attributes, having never, effectively, been designed, but simply allowed to exist.
Two great interventions, 130 years apart, transformed this into one of the great anchor points of the Rome we see today. Rainaldi, between 1660 and 1679 built two churches, ‘...whose entire justification is the role they play in the larger structure of the design. The buildings are neither totally of the square nor totally of the street, yet they link both and are related to both as well as to the obelisk of Sixtus V.’ (4) Valadier, in 1813, then regularised the design of the piazza with exedras on either side of the churches, ‘...repeating the basic form of Santa Maria del Popolo on the opposite side of the Porta Del Popolo.’ To the east, Valadier ‘...designed a great stairway, ramp, and cascade descending from the Pincio Gardens, which had the effect of binding this open space into the structure of the piazza.’ ‘The harmony and unity of the total work’, Bacon concludes ‘...are the more remarkable in that its parts were created in such widely spaced periods of time, each having its own mode of architectural expression.’
It succeeds in making features around it which whilst they developed independently, feel like part of a great composition: the gardens which were laid out atop what was once the mud banking feel like an essential complement to the piazza, without which it would lack completeness. The piazza itself terminates and contains the marvels of the city – aided by the river on the west and the hillside to the east, in a demonstration of another of the principles of public space making: using topography as a strategic ally in delivering harmonious, even beautiful, urban plans.
It is worth noting that the Piazza del Popolo, although it is clearly a public space, was not developed into its present form primarily ‘...for the bringing together of people, where locals and strangers, the familiar and the unusual, can mingle freely’, although it certainly facilitates these things, it was intended to capitalise on the vision of Sixtus V, and elevate the level of the city as a complete composition.
Like the two Italian case studies, Glasgow once had a medieval core. Whilst never comparable in commercial wealth to medieval Florence or possessing the classical heritage of Rome, Glasgow was an important ecclesiastical centre, and as such its cathedral was at the apex of an axial development towards the river Clyde.
When mercantile activity brought wealth to the city in the 17th and 18th centuries, mansions were built in what is now the merchant city, and the city’s built fabric became increasingly established, with the grid as we know it today set out in the Victorian period at the height of Glasgow’s commercial prosperity.
However, there is very little historical layering. For the most part, mediaeval and early mercantile architecture was built over by the Victorians, with a few isolated structures (such as the Royal Exchange and the Tron) surviving. Buchanan Street feels like the primary axis of the city plan, but terminates at its northern end in a shopping centre and at its south by a ‘public space’, St Enoch’s square, which is simply a left over space from the demolition of the former railway station, and lies outside of the grid. None of the other primary axes feel as though they lead anywhere. Ingram Street for example, is anchored successfully at its western end by Royal Exchange square, but peters out into nondescript student housing and a car park, again just beyond the edge of the grid.
If public spaces are defined as much by their relationships with each other as their own spatial characteristics, then such public spaces cannot be considered successful. Blythswood Square seems to be little more than a missing block, which has no special relationship with any surrounding streets; George Square is located almost at the eastern extent of the grid’s coherence, and as a piece of urbanism succeeds only in terms of offering space to view the façade of the City Hall. In short, there is no sense that an overarching vision has ever been in place to apply a hierarchy of spaces to the grid.
It has the feel of a city plan which was laid out to accommodate the quick building demanded by the rapid influx of capital rather than a response to either existing built context or topography, the denial of which is pronounced. In this sense, of an architecture born of a thoroughgoing capitalism, there is some comparison with Florence, but whereas the urban fabric of Florence was the subject of careful surgery and improvement over time, that of Glasgow was laid out on a drawing board, a Victorian equivalent of the modernists ideal tabula rasa – and whilst it accommodates some spectacular architecture, it fails to provide beautiful public space.
It is tempting to conclude that this failure is the result of the inherent limitations of a grid plan, its lack of capacity to respond to topography, or particularly significant spaces or buildings. Grahame Shane, in his ‘Field Analysis of Central London’, examines how the Georgian great estates were originally laid out in between tributaries of the Thames, ‘...with the grandest houses fronting the square at the heart of the estate[s] to attract the wealthy early buyers and to set the market for the secondary street streets of more modest terraces behind’.
Subsequent development has responded to this skeletal masterplanning, which was itself derived from a direct response to existing context. In this, it is fundamentally different from the Glasgow grid’s denial of context, and its refusal to accommodate or acknowledge significant nodes with an interlinked system of public spaces.
Brasilia is a good example of urban design as a composition, which accommodates hierarchy and dramatic tension in a completely different paradigm to that described in the Roman and Florentine case studies, which responded to existing built context. As Bacon says in his analysis of the city, ‘...the gift of Brasilia is not primarily the form of its structures, or the formal symmetry of its composition, but rather the reformulation of the vision of the city as a totality’.
This totality contains a ‘...harmonic reverberation between buildings [which] does not depend on one carefully posed photograph; it is ever present and intensifies as one moves around the buildings’. This is a kind of layering, of major and minor spaces and buildings, which the powerful but one dimensional grid layout of Glasgow cannot accommodate.
Poor public space is often discussed in terms of the negative effects of the modern idiom, in which coherent urban fabric is replaced by buildings as objects, which fail to define space and result in a reduction in quality in what Jan Gehl calls ‘life between buildings’. Glasgow does not suffer from these issues, at least in its centre, which with its coherent grain defines very definite ‘inscribed space’, and yet its public spaces are lacking, particularly in comparison with the other exemplars discussed.
Coherence at an urban level is not enough, good public spaces must be connected in a way that lends meaning and significance to the whole city as a composition, major and minor spaces, which function at the human as well as the civic scale, and constitute an overall environment for people to inhabit are essential prerequisites in elevating urban space above the functional and towards the beautiful.
Urban Design Guidelines for Victoria, published by the State of Victoria (Australia) in 2016, defines public space as: ‘An area in the public realm that is open to public access, provides a public use or recreation function, and that is owned and maintained by councils or other government agencies. However, some privately-held land is available for the public to access and use, such as a building forecourt, a walk-through, or a shopping mall. The private land owner may control aspects of access and use…’
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Architectural styles.
- Brasilia Syndrome.
- Car park.
- Central business district (CBD).
- City centre.
- Classical orders.
- Mixed use development.
- Pocket park.
- Public realm.
- Smart cities.
- Street furniture.
- Supermarket security and COVID-19.
- Terraced houses and the public realm.
- Urban design.
- Urban fabric.
 External references
- (1) Post-Modern Movement: The Inscribed City, in Urban Design Futures, Alain Cousseran ed Moor, Rowland, Routledge, 2006
- (2) Ingersoll, Richard, The Advent of the Closed City
- (3) Bacon, Edmund N: Design of Cities
- (4) These churches can be seen on my photographs and are marked on the map.
- Post-Modern Movement: The Inscribed City, in Urban Design Futures, Alain Cousseran ed Moor, Rowland, Routledge, 2006
- Design of Cities: Bacon, Edmund N., Thames and Hudson, 1975
- Cities for People: Gehl, Jan, Island Press, 2010
- Identity by Design: Watson, Bentley, Elsevier, 2007
- Collage City, Rowe, Koetter, MIT Press, 1978
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