24 June 2012

A Tale of Two Squares

two squares
Top: Leicester Square, London; photo taken around 9am on a Saturday
Bottom: General Gordon Square, Woolwich; photo taken around 7pm on a Friday

Sometimes fleeting impressions make the most lasting ones. Take these two squares, for example. The impressions were fleeting because I was just passing through, but lasting because of the stark contrast they formed in my mind.

Both squares have recently been redesigned as part of London's massive house-cleaning in preparation for the Olympics. Leicester Square has been around since 1635 when Lord Leicester purchased the land and built a house on it. The square was previously his front garden but had been common land before he bought it and had it enclosed. The parishioners appealed this enclosure and Lord L was made to keep that part of his land open. The actual square is still called Leicester Fields on the OS maps.

General Gordon Square is much newer, built in the late 1970's or early 80's after knocking down a bunch of buildings, including at least four public houses. Woolwich was once a great hub of military and industrial activity. I amused myself contemplating the pronunciation of Woolwich ('wool-itch'; the small w is silent) when I discovered that the etymological origin of the name actually means "trading place for wool". Go figure.

But let's examine them a little more closely. To commemorate the new Leicester Square, there's a plaque with a lot of blah-blah about the new and improved space being for public use and enjoyment. The design is clean with glistening new paving, shiny modern railings, and what appeared to be a diverting water feature surrounding the Shakespeare statue where jets of water spurt out of the pavement. The grass was green, the planting of box hedges was smelly, the trees provided a nice cool green shade. But something was missing. The square is meant for public use and enjoyment but other than the lady in the photo, there was no public presence. Granted, it was early on a weekend morning, but look closely and see if you notice what I did. This photo of the square in Victorian times should give you a clue:

Leicester Square c. 1880 (wiki)
At General Gordon Square, which I discovered thanks to the bus drivers' strike last week, the public were out in force. Also making good use of glistening paving and green grass, new trees planted with dedication plaques, and a jumbo-jumbo screen, people were hanging out to watch the football match and getting into the spirit with scrimmages of their own (is that the right word for kicking a soccer ball around? I'm rubbish with UK sports!).

What I want to know about Leicester Square is: Where are the benches!? Where is the invitation to sit and linger? The way it is now, Leicester Square doesn't invite the public to linger and enjoy; the absence of a place to pause for said enjoyment means the square is nothing more than a conduit for people to pass through (as I did) on their hurried journey to someplace else. General Gordon Square, by contrast, has seating in plenty. The retaining walls framing the lawn areas do double duty so there is no lack of invitation to sit, relax, and enjoy the big screen telly.

The redesigned General Gordon Square (

Perhaps the benches for Leicester Square haven't arrived yet? Perhaps the designer has created seating to match the sparkling new railings and gates and are waiting for the metal to cool? Perhaps they just forgot? Either way, if I were to vote on which square was a success of public use and enjoyment, I'd have to go with Woolwich in spite of the questionable future of that RBBS (Really Big Big Screen). How about you?

What the new Leicester Square wants is a few places to sit.

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