In this author article internationally renowned landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan flies the flag for the London square, the focus of a new book which brings the history of these resilient and often eccentric places into sharp focus.
Article by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Anne Scott-James remarks in her essay ‘The London Square’ (1977) that ‘the communal garden of a residential square is a London speciality with no counterpart abroad. No group has ever understood comfort so well as the English middle class – certainly not the French, with their spindly furniture, nor the Americans, with their hazardous gadgets – and the London square, essentially an upper-middle-class perquisite, is one of the most comfortable garden ideas since the arbour with a turf seat.’
Scott-James is right when she remarks that the square is a uniquely English device: its very existence is in fact predicated on some very English obsessions, including social snobbery, privacy, secure enclosure, and a craving for country life.
If an Englishman’s home is his castle, the square is – at least for some – his leafy redoubt: within these railed enclosures, carpeted with green swards and dotted with trees and patches of highly coloured flowers, fashionable metropolitan families dressed in their newest gauds, have for centuries rubbed shoulders with their neighbours, comfortable in the fact that they are in the company of members of the same class, with whom they share common interests and often similar politics.
Horace Mayhew, writing in 1843, poked fun at the scruples and pomposity of these early inhabitants and their efforts to uphold the dignity and respectability of their enclosures, remarking that the square was not, ‘like a vulgar park’, a place ‘into which all classes are admitted indiscriminately’: although ‘scarcely bigger than a German principality’, the average square was so fiercely independent and so distinctive as to be ‘entitled to a dot and a separate name on a map of Europe’, being governed by its own laws, having its own government, revenue, possessions, and even a standing army (the beadle, square-keeper and their retinue of watchmen and gardeners). Squares and their surrounding residential districts were, in fact, among the first expressions of the desire for class segregation, domestic isolation and private open space – aspirations that would later form the basis for suburban living both in Britain and abroad. Squares were also an important arena playing out the tension between classes over access to open space and they influenced the development of early public parks.
Squares, however, are nowadays more than mere oases for the exercise of privileged children, or parade grounds for aspirants of fashionable distinction: they are green lungs; they make a significant contribution to sustaining biodiversity in the capital; they are also arboreta, urban landmarks and even eye-catchers. Since the early seventeenth century, the London square has promoted novelty of design, elegance, healthy living and spaciousness in the urban plan; and, through a combination of unique local circumstances – including land ownership, management agreements, legislation and the English love of nature – it has come to represent what has been described as ‘the special strain of civilisation which Britain has bequeathed to the world’.
If the square, however, is to continue to play an important role in shaping our cities, we need to have a better grasp of its long and extraordinary history. The aim of my book is, therefore, to fill this gap – to chart the evolution of the square from its origins to the present, exploring a broad array of recurring themes ranging from the provision of open space for children to play in, and the relationship of the central space to the surrounding architecture, to health issues, views and prospects, the occasional use of the gardens as a setting for clandestine sexual encounters, the passing of model improvement acts, and the negative effect of motorised traffic.
It’s my hope that my narrative will encourage my readers to look at squares afresh, and with an informed enthusiasm, and that this in turn might lead to the greater appreciation of one of England’s more curious contributions to urban form which has promoted the cultivation of refined, comfortable and respectable metropolitan domesticity.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is a landscape architect with an international practice based in London. He is gardens adviser to Hampton Court Palace and is currently redesigning the gardens of Kensington Palace in London.
The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town is available now from Yale University Press
For those interested in London squares, the London Parks and Gardens Trust have organised the Open Garden Squares Weekend (9-10 June), a celebration of London’s open spaces which provides access to numerous gardens and squares in London not usually open to the public.