Gezi Park, Taskim Square, Istanbul. Viki-Picture

A new essay collection offers 18 perspectives on how these open spaces function.

In their most basic function, public squares are cuts of negative space between buildings. But they are also arteries through which the life and history of a city flow and are suspended: inside a square, the past and present, the personal and political, merge.

City Squares, edited by Catie Marron, brings together 18 writers on the nature of these ubiquitous public spaces—some, like Red Square in Moscow, notorious; others, like Place des Vosges in Paris, a little more obscure.

Courtesy of Harper Collins

In 2014, at the height of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Marron was in Rome. The local papers were filled with news of civic unrest welling up in places like Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Marron read any account of the protests she could find. “And then, I would look up and be back in Rome, where there were squares everywhere, and they were beautiful and calm,” Marron says.

City Squares expands upon those contrasting functions of public space. At the core of the book is an examination of the geopolitics of the square, told through five accounts of civic uprisings: Tahrir Square, Cairo; Rabin Square, Tel Aviv; Taksim Square, Istanbul; Tiananmen Square, Beijing; Euromaidan, Kiev. In the introduction to that section, David Remnick writes: “the square is the arena of political confrontation.”

But that is not all the square is. In his essay, George Packer writes about how history and culture impact the construction and experience of public squares. “In newer countries,” Packer writes:

...you often find two types of public square: one that is older, organic, chaotic, and populated; and one that is recent, planned, orderly, and deserted. The first type predates the nation-state and accretes over time to accommodate the habits and needs, mainly commercial ones, of ordinary city dwellers…The second is constructed according to a master plan to embody the idealized qualities of the nation, often with grandiose results. The first thrusts people together in a shared space, a hive of activity…The second leaves nothing to chance. It tells people that they are subservient to the state and, in a sense, irrelevant to it.

The function of the square—whether viewed as a cultural, political, or historical entity—is predicated, then, on the people passing through it. “When you say that the square is all about the people, it can sound simplistic,” Marron says. “But it really isn’t.”

Djemaa El-Fnaa, Marrakech. (Francesco Langnese/Courtesy of Elyse Connolly, Inc.)

Writing about Djemaa El-Fnaa, Marrakech, the architect David Adjaye claims that “the square’s identity emerges not from the architecture that surrounds it but from the individuals who occupy it, from the merchants wheeling in carts, from the flood of tourists who bring the heritage of their craft into the present.” To the extent that great public space can be qualified, Adjaye writes, it is in how it responds to the needs and movements of its inhabitants. “It is not the space itself that is meaningful,” he notes, “it is the way space facilitates diversity, interaction, and new negotiations that makes it meaningful.”

Place des Vosges, Paris. (Oberto Gili)

In the square, people can come together to organize, observe, speak out, or just be. City Squares touches mainly on those places that have names, that might be recognized from maps or lessons. But these pockets exist on all scales; they, too, have been filled with people and shaped by the cities around them. “Sometimes you know the history and meaning of a square, like Tiananmen,” Marron says. “But others, you step inside and just feel it.”

Red Square, Moscow. (Oberto Gili)

City Squares, $32.50, at Harper Collins.

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