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The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town by Todd Langstaffe-Gowan - review

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town

Todd Langstaffe-Gowan

Yale University Press, 304pp, £30

The landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s historical account of London’s garden squares is well timed, anticipating a renaissance in new squares. Last summer, the developer Qatari Diar’s plans for Chelsea Barracks were approved. The master plan for more than 400 houses includes squares in a “traditional” approach to streetscape. Also currently in planning is the redevelopment of the Earl’s Court exhibition site by Capco, proposing thousands of new homes. If approved, it will include “Exhibition Square”, opposite the rear of Earl’s Court Station.

The first of London’s several hundred squares appeared early in the 17th century as an appropriation of the notion of Italian piazze. Those pioneering squares were paved. However, unlike grand Italian and French civic squares, what the London Society called, in 1927, “the pride of London planning” was from the first designed as the centrepiece of residential units, although the space belonged to the Crown and was for public use. To augment public magnificence, the surrounding houses were built on a grand scale for high-ranking or aristocratic occupation.

The reputation and status of squares waxed and waned, their success as “rus in urbe” by turns admired and criticised. For example, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, laid out in the 1630s, was in a disorderly condition by 1688. In 1735, a government report condemned it as a “receptacle for rubbish, dirt and nastiness of all sorts”, including “assaults, outrages and enormities”. Moorfields, which engaged in a long-running rivalry with it, erected stocks to deal with its own worst offences.

Take St James’s Square. As a 1676 map shows, its developer, Lord St Albans, created something like a small town, with subsidiary streets for traders, a market square and a church. In essence, it was an early example of town planning. But by the 1730s, its residents were calling it “a common dunghill” and petitioned parliament for control over its maintenance. The first act of its kind to be granted created trustees who could make rules and levy fines. Other squares did the same, including Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Red Lion Square, Golden (formerly Gelding) Square and Hoxton Square. Squares were now railed and gated one after another.

During the 18th century, as squares were planted and enclosed, tantalising opportunities for dalliance in the shrubbery increased, to the horror of residents. Longstaffe-Gowan relishes the accounts of such misdemeanours, culminating in a drolly dirty poem about Russell Square’s renown in the 20th century as a gay cruising destination that lasted until its overgrown bushes, which really did rustle at night, were trimmed.

As well as tempting illicit entry, exclusion bred social disaffection. From 1800, while residents wanted privacy and rights, the socially minded, from Humphry Repton at one end of the century to Octavia Hill at the other, argued for the return of garden squares to public use and enjoyment. Charles Dickens called Leicester Square “a howling desert enclosed by iron railings” before its French redesign and reopening to the public. More and more voices were raised in the campaign to remove railings and cast down the barriers of metal and class.

After a few attempts during the First World War at a more egalitarian approach (local children were allowed in some squares but only before opening times; wounded soldiers, however, were freely admitted), demand for iron in the Second World War quickly led to the removal of almost all railings, alongside a series of planning acts that helped to protect the squares within a legislative rather than metallic framework. The most important was the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931 that followed a royal commission and protected 461 squares and enclosures. This act was crucial. Between the wars, Mornington Crescent was developed and it was a similar threat to Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares, provoking public outrage, that led to the inquiry.

Longstaffe-Gowan touches on squares’ psychological aspect; that they “take on a type of life dynamic”. The systematic enclosure by railings certainly captures an aspect of human nature – that what we begin to believe we own, we treat proprietorially. The restriction of squares, from public thoroughfares to private gardens, was increasingly seen in class terms. In 1838, the architect William Clough Ellis wrote: “The Englishman’s home is his cage.”

Though not the book’s ostensible subject, its repeated railing against railings invites reflection on the politics of ownership and enclosure. This engrossing, well-illustrated work recognises that today, amid pressure for development and calls for new housing, there must be constant vigilance in order to keep open London’s green lungs, which otherwise are “vulnerable to any number of forces”.

Philippa Stockley’s most recent novel is “A Factory of Cunning” (Little, Brown, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare