The exhibition “European Squares and Their Histories” proposes a change of perspective regarding European urban squares. This might seem bold statement, but it should be understood literally first of all. Taken with a professional drone, the photographs of the exhibition show from the air the squares of a number of historical European cities. Famous squares in well known capitals, from the geographical edges of Europe, such as Lisbon and Istanbul, are exhibited along with unknown but no less interesting squares, such as the Vlach settlements in the Pindus Mountains, with their eternal, mythical plane tree at their centre, as old as the settlement itself, proof of the crossing over from nature to culture, from nature to architecture. The novelty of the exhibition is literally represented by The Change of Perspective: due to the relatively recent character of this photographing technique, an exhibition that contains aerial shots of historical European squares, and which uses them as a red thread, represents a novel endeavour.
Paradoxically, although there are numerous studies, documentaries, and exhibitions about individual squares, there have been few attempts at offering a broad, continental perspective. The urban square is, quintessentially, a European historical and architectural phenomenon. A red thread links the agora of Greek Antiquity with today’s European cities. Such a historical and cultural continuity only existed in Europe, for it was only much later that this architectural form was exported towards other continents, mainly during the colonial era.
The starting point of the concept is a banal ascertainment, but one which was important consequences for the visual itself, but also for understanding the square as a historical and cultural phenomenon: one cannot see an entire square… from the square itself. Exceptions can be found in those historical cities where a difficult to climb cathedral tower offers a wide view of the space, even if not from a great height.
An obvious truth: squares do not exist by themselves, but only at the centre of settlements. This leads to the basic nature of the square and the clearest method to define the square both anthropologically and visually – by relating to the surrounding settlement. Whether developed organically, or according to pre-established diagrams and grids, the structure of cities presents a fundamental tension between the space of the square and the rest of their space, immediately visible only from above. Open space versus closed space. A space of motion versus a stationary space. In Cities for People, Jan Gehl defines the difference between the two parts of the city: “While the streets transmit the idea of motion – move along, please! -, on a psychological level, the squares suggest leisure. The circulation spaces ask us to move, move!, the square says: let us stop and see what is going on here! Both the feet and the eyes have left an indelible mark on the history of urban planning. The base units of the city architecture are spaces of motion – the streets – and of perception – the squares”.
Drone photography means what one may technically call à vol d’oiseau in French or a bird’s eye view in English. It is one of the few situations where the technical and artistic languages overlap so successfully. The bird’s eye view is, almost without exception, spectacular. This view also has the advantage of making one understand what one may only intuit. A deep structure. Thus, the exhibition attempts to change the perspective on squares, this time in a figurative sense.
The exhibition has a double side: architectural, but also anthropological, because the square is understood as a living place of the European city, a space which brings together both the community and the history of the city. A space which is not only defined by the buildings that border it, but which is also understood as being made of buildings and people, of buildings and their story, all of which contributes to the cultural identity of a certain place. A space where buildings are contained, for the square is more than architecture. This is the purpose of the exhibition – to capture through images the ineffable of the square, the spirit of a city at its very core, revealing a historical European model.
The selection starts from 100 squares, from over 20 European countries. The framed panels are 70 x 50 cm in size, and the images are printed on top quality photographic paper. The exhibition also includes a 30-min film running in a loop, collages from aerial shots of European squares, along with classical music.
The exhibition will be shown in May in Salamanca, Spain, in a Renaissance palace found on the UNESCO heritage list, then in Istanbul in June, in Greece during July and August, and, simultaneously, in several Romanian cities.
In Romania, the project also meant the publishing of a book over 500 pages long and which tells the story of European squares.
The project is co-financed by the Romanian Cultural Fund Administration.