News
09.03.2010
Review> Map Quest
Jayne Merkel wanders through Robert Gatje's new book of public squares, which is almost as good as being there
The Piazza San Marco in Venice.
Courtesy W.W. Norton

Great Public Squares
Robert F. Gatje
W.W. Norton & Company, $65.00

Robert Gatje has written a book that makes you want to get on a plane and revisit every historic square you have ever seen—and then go to the ones you’ve missed in slightly out-of-the-way places like Rhodes, Nancy, and Halifax.

Wonderful colored maps, inspired by the Nolli Map of Rome, help you understand solid and void, distinguish parterres from pavement, grasp street patterns, and, in some cases, identify significant works of architecture. Clusters of photographs and occasional monochromatic historic prints enable you to experience the squares (which are rarely square) in elevation. Measurements let you sense the size and scale of each square described and compare them to one another. Brief, clear, and informative text provides just enough historical information for context.

Rome's Piazza di Spagna. (Click to zoom)

Gatje is a New York architect, a former partner of Marcel Breuer and Richard Meier, and author of Marcel Breuer: A Memoir (Monacelli Press, 2000). This is a book only an architect could have written—with careful observations, measurements, materials, orientation, and alterations emphasized. And though at roughly 11 by 11 inches and 224 pages it is a big, beautiful coffee table book likely to stimulate conversation with visitors, it would be great to have in some small portable form as well. I wish maps like Gatje’s existed for all squares.

The only thing missing—and adding it would have obscured its argument—is use, or what goes on inside these urban spaces. Most of the wonderful Italian piazzas in the book are surrounded by some combination of institutions and residences, or have people living on nearby streets. Many have hotels in the vicinity or tourists wandering around. Also, of course, Italians pass through their piazzas, stop for drinks, and dine there. This is the behavior American planners overlooked (or wished for) in the 1960s and ‘70s, when they tried to plant plazas in city centers devoted solely to commerce.

Salamanca, Spain. (Click to zoom)

The effort is still underway, as shown in the last project covered, Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon, begun in 1981. Although it is a good example of its type in a reasonably pedestrian-friendly city, it is surrounded by office towers, department stores, and a courthouse, so it is a very different kind of place than an Italian piazza—or New York City’s Union, Washington, and Madison squares. It is an anomaly in a book with inhabited urban spaces as, frankly, is the one local example included—the dazzling Rockefeller Center Plaza.

I understand completely why he chose these squares, as they bring some geographical and temporal balance to the book. But surrounded by tall buildings in commercial areas, they don’t quite fit. Their inclusion, though, makes me think he should now write a book on American public spaces from New England greens to recent urban interventions of the Portland type, because the American story is a very different one. American cities, except maybe our own, have been designed “to make cars happy,” as Andrés Duany has so aptly put it. And squares need people on foot, as Gatje points out time and again when assessing squares like the Place Vendôme in Paris, where cars have been allowed to intrude.

The Campidoglio in Rome. (Click to zoom)

Without quite saying so, I think he proves that a successful urban public space needs people who live around it—or at least stay around it in apartments, villas, and hotels, as is the case in Venice. Union Square has been remarkably transformed in the last 30 years, not only by the much-touted Greenmarket but by the significant increase in the number of people who live on it or its edges, and the shops and restaurants that serve them.

Besides inspiring wanderlust, this book, which concentrates on European plazas (only four of the 40 are in the U.S.), has made me think more critically about what can be done to make American cities more livable. That is no mean accomplishment.

Jayne Merkel

Historian Jayne Merkel writes for AD and Architectural Record, among other publications. She lives in the middle of the greatest cluster of public squares in America—Washington, Union, Stuyvesant, and Madison squares.