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Posted at 5:19 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Where is Washington's great public square?

By Philip Kennicott

Teens dance in Dupont Circle. D.C.'s circles don't function well as public spaces. (Bill O'Leary/Post)

Over his long and distinguished career, architect Robert Gatje worked with two giants of modernism, Marcel Breuer and Richard Meier. But it was into the past, as far back as ancient Rome, that he took his National Building Museum audience this afternoon. The subject of Gatje's lunchtime lecture was "What Makes Great Public Squares?" Which is also the subject of his recent book, "Great Public Squares." It was a deliciously old-fashioned slide show with commentary, in which the asides were often the most interesting detail.

Robert Gatje's "Great Public Squares."

Gatje's basic metaphor sounds like a logic question from the SAT exam: Streets are to rivers as squares are to lakes. Which is to say, a great public square is contained and in some way more placid than the circulating system of roads and avenues that define most cities. Or as Gatje put it several times, a satisfying public square doesn't allow "space to leak out." The buildings that surround it should feel like a wall, not a fence. And they should not grow too large, lest one lose a sense of containment, and the ability to read architectural detail on the far side.

His lecture ranged from the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Place des Vosges in Paris, one of the loveliest oases of architecture ever created. Also on the list: The Old Town Square in Prague, the Jardin du Palais Royale in Paris and Rockefeller Center in New York City. Squares need not be square. They can be trapezoidal and L-shaped, and work very nicely nonetheless.

It's a bit dispiriting, as a Washingtonian, to listen to a lecture on great public squares. We have none, of course. Washington is a city of avenues and streets, coming together in circles that do not function well as public spaces. Our grand ceremonial spaces, such as the Mall, are too large to be great public squares. Few if any of our downtown parks demonstrate any of the liveliness of a public square. And the pieties of Washington urban design thinking, entrenched and seemingly inviolable, are all about views, vistas and open sight lines.

There is a tremendous concomitant cultural loss to the city. Life in a square is both public and bounded, freewheeling and safe. Sip an espresso in an Italian square, and you have a sense of being both indoors and outdoors at the same time, in public, but not overwhelmed by the madness of the city. There's a good reason why a glass of wine in the late afternoon at an outdoor table with a good view of the light bustle of daily life is one of the finest pleasures of city life. Given the opportunity to meet friends that way, to delay the return home and enjoy the late afternoon sunlight, people will take it. But in Washington, there is always a rush to get home.

Gatje's talk also made it clear that great squares are not simply accidents of history. They can be made and remade. Even the Plaza in Santa Fe was essentially an historical fiction, created during the 20th century and not really finished until the 1960s. So there's no reason to despair of Washington. We could have a great public square. We just have to make it. But where? There's been talk of creating a more urban scaled streetscape on the site of the Old Convention Center. And that would be a start. But if you could make a hole in this city and fill it with something that meets the basic requirement of a public square--the space doesn't leak out--where would you put it? Tell us in the comments.

By Philip Kennicott  | January 6, 2011; 5:19 PM ET
Categories:  Architecture, Philip Kennicott, Urban Design  
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Spacial definition and formalism is just one aspect to a great public square. Jane Jacobs wrote the bible on it when she talked about how critical density, diversity, and a mix of uses were to making a great 24-7 square.
Dupont Circle comes pretty close to meeting that definition, more than whatever the convention center site will likely become.

Posted by: bfa1 | January 7, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

You might be interested in my take.

Posted by: rlaymandc | January 8, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

"It's a bit dispiriting, as a Washingtonian, to listen to a lecture on great public squares. We have none, of course."

That is so inaccurate as to make me wonder if someone hacked into Philip Kennicott's account -- especially the anti-journalistic "of course."

Dupont Circle. The Navy Memorial. Park and Kenyon. Lincoln Park. Meridian Hill Park. Healy Gates. Eastern Market. Folger Park. The Portrait Gallery Steps. The Freedom Plaza skateboard park. Turkey Thicket. Fort Reno. Even the GW Metro Station. DC has an overabundance of public squares, where self-contained open spaces draw the community together. Next time that the weather's warm, get out there and enjoy one.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | January 10, 2011 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Meridian Hill / Malcolm X Park! It's an amazing public space that is in terrible shape, but the size and location are all there. It has gorgeous bones, but needs some tlc from local residents.

Posted by: merinfrank | January 11, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

The courtyard at the Ronald Reagan Building has a wonderful scale and density to make a great urban square. Lacking is a diversity of uses that would bring liveliness. Unfortunately the size and activity is in competition with Pennsylvania Avenue, and never gives the passerby the sense of spatial relief that great public squares offer.

Posted by: kll9393 | January 12, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kennicott needs to research a little more history of our city. Mount Vernon Square, which still exists, functioned much like the artcle describes. It had a huge market many years ago, which burned.

There is a sign on the Shaw Heritage Trail, just next to the old Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, that describes the history of this square and the surrounding area.

Posted by: Midlj1 | January 12, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

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