The squares of Aromanian settlements from The Pindus Mountains, Greece

Legend has it that whenever they wanted to build a village, the wandering shepherds of the Pindus chose a place and planted a tree. If the tree – which they passed by at least twice a year with their herds – grew well, they would, in time build there a settlement, with the tree as its heart. All the Aromanian settlements in the Pindus have a square and all of them have an ancient tree at their centre. The locals call the square the plateia, platia, mishori or mesohori. These gather around them all the important buildings in the life of the community. The church, the school, the fountain, the cafes, all of these are found in the square. Or, rather, they define the square. Where they are the square is as well. It is a spatial, architectural definition, but especially social and anthropological, for this is the place where all important events that are important for the community take place. For this reason, before having an architectural definition, the square has an anthropological definition. These are not squares meant to be seen, but squares where something must happen. Their main function is not at all aesthetically, but social. And what happens is, in brief, the story of the community which must function as a whole.

 

Plaza Mayor from Cáceres, Spain

It is one of the largest squares in Spain and lies right at the entrance of the medieval town. Its origins are found in the 11th century, when the space was used for the great traditional holidays. The buildings are from different eras, with all of them having a 16th century ground floor colonnade. On the northwestern side, the Bujaco Tower is an eye-catching building, now a symbol of the city. It was built during the Arab rule, on top of Roman foundations. It seems its name comes from the local word for straw dolls, bujacos.

Short history

The story of European squares is tied through a continuous historical thread to Greek antiquity where the plateia and then the agora appear. The urban square is specific to Europe, for such a continuity is not present in other cultures, even if they also posses squares, some very large in size. It was Europe that invented the square and developed it as an architectural form, in order to export it across the world, mainly during the colonial period.

At first a simple widening of the main road in a Greek polis, the square gains, with time, community and religious functions and is also beautified. From the Greeks, the square is adopted by Roman architects, where the forum is essential in the planning of space. After the fall of the Roman Empire, urban life returns to Europe only around the year 900, when many medieval burgs grow on top of old Roman settlements, maintaining their plans, with the forum becoming a central square, as one finds in Zadar or Poreč, on the Dalmatian coast.

Any medieval town, when photographed by a flying drone, allows one to see the fundamental opposition between margin and centre, for medieval towns are always surrounded by walls. Some, such as Óbidos, in Portugal, have kept these fortifications intact to this day. The square is a wide space, standing in volumetric opposition to city streets, always narrow and winding. Almost always, the medieval square has a cathedral and a fountain. For smaller towns, the role of the fountain is also functional. For larger ones, its role is purely aesthetical, for the presence of the fountain has to do with tradition and ritual.

The existence of the walls has had several important consequences for the cities of Western Europe. First of all, limited space meant that, for centuries, the population size remained constant within the walls. When the population size grows, it is preferable that new cities are built, rather than expanding the fortified centre, which is why the Middle Ages excel at founding settlements. Construction always begins with the centre, the square, its spot is the first to be fixed. A second important consequence of walls: the centre always stays the same. In these communities the square is essentially superimposed on the geometrical centre. It was the most protected space. The last place reached by the enemy. Then, there are only a few gates allowing access into the cities. Automatically, all entry roads lead to the central square. Seen from the air, it becomes clear that the square is the centre of the medieval town. The walls visually mark, as clearly as possible, the opposition of the centre to the periphery. Thus, another evolutionary consequence: when, at the dawn of modernity, the walls are torn down, the settlements tend to develop concentrically, rather than linearly, adding more space to a pre-existing structure, a structure still visible in many European cities today.

During the Renaissance, Europe inherits medieval cities. She loves these no longer and wishes them to be completely different: within certain limits, Europe imagines a different kind of urban worlds. The age is, however, not famed for the founding of real cities, but of fictitious ones. When theory does give way to practice, it is usually as a result of calamities. On the 21st of September 1561, a great fire engulfs the city of Valladolid. The city’s catastrophe is a real blessing for urbanism. In the empty space, the splendid Plaza Mayor is built, until today one the largest in Spain. It is the first regular square in Europe, yet, unfairly, it unfairly remains little known. Its symmetry and plan can be clearly seen from above. The architectural and urban pattern instituted at Valladolid is taken by many other squares, reaching perfection in 1729, through Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, one of the most beautiful squares in the world. The aerial photograph immediately shows that the square’s perimeter is not a square, but a trapezoid. Seen from a normal perspective, the square is perceived by any traveller as having perfectly parallel and even sides: a subtle optical illusion, carefully calculated to deepen the perspective and thus counter the relatively small space available to the architect.

Starting with the 16th century, cities still have fortifications, yet they are planned differently. The mission of city planning increasingly passes from the architect-artist to the engineer. The essential moment of change comes in the 17th century and is associated with Vauban. The type of fortification he proposes means stationing a great number of soldier within massively fortified city walls. Star forts rapidly appear across Europe, from Naarden and Bourtange, in Holland, to Almeida, in Portugal, or Alba Carolina, in Romania. These military settlements have a perfect structure, with straight and aligned streets, always leading to a large square at the centre. Seen from the ground, the perfection of the forts can only be felt, especially since the buildings are often austere. They are, however, by far among the most beautiful European settlements which can be photographed from the air, stars set down upon the earth. Nowhere is the importance of the square as a central space made clearer that in their case.

After the middle of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, cities reinvented themselves in a way which reflects the military, technological, but also political changes. The self-governing power of urban communities had steadily dwindled, eventually collapsing before the autocracy of the monarchs. The kings bring soldiers in the cities and the soldiers need straight streets. In order to act quickly, but also in order to properly organise their parades. Thus, the self-governing power of the urban communities gradually drops to nothing. Aristocrats increasingly live in their summer palaces, they wish to be closer to governing centres. They build residences in the city. In time, these turn into their main homes. All of a sudden, many become interested in what the city looks like. The consequence? The planning of cities changes drastically. If ancient medieval settlements have a structure based on the needs of the entire community, cities are modified in order to correspond to the taste of the aristocracy. Essential transformations take place in urban aesthetics. When the streets become straight, the perspective opens, people start seeing further, beyond the first curve. From this to theorising the vista there is but a step. The vista, unknown to classical Antiquity, necessitates a much more complex urban vision: monuments and statues must not only be seen up close. Indeed, they are a landmark and can be found at the end of a long, straight street, which allows the square to be seen from a great distance.

What used to be a chance effect now turns into something to be studied. Triumphal archways, commemorative columns, statues are built so as to also be beautiful from a distance. From here to the ceremonial axes that will go through the cities, tying squares together, there is merely a step to be taken. Seen from above, Lisbon unveils at once the transformations undertaken under the leadership of the Marquise of Pombal, after the devastating earthquake of 1 November 1755. Lisbon’s squares represent a real system. Wide, aligned boulevards link the Trade Square to Rosio, Rosio to de Figueira, Martim Moniz and the Restauradores, the Restauradores to Praça do Marquês de Pombal, and all of these have impressive monuments at their centre.

In order for the square to exist, buildings alone do not suffice. Cities are a blend of people and buildings, and the relation between these two terms is not as clear as it would seem on first glance. People create the buildings, and the way in which a community sets its story, history, religion, beliefs, the concrete needs of daily life into a space, has remained mostly unclear to this day. Indeed, countless nuances of this complicated process are elusive, and will most likely never be fully described. A square is its architecture, but, at the same time, it is more than its architecture. Its entire past, chained in an invisible-visible system of links to the symbolic imaginary of the community, makes its presence felt in the existence of the square.

Cătălin D. CONSTANTIN

European Squares

Marktplein from Bourtange, Netherlands

Today it is a village, with 133 houses and less than 300 inhabitants. Yet Bourtange was built as a military fort in 1593, during the Dutch Revolt, on the orders of William the Silent. It held this role until 1851, when it officially lost its defensive purpose and it was populated by craftsmen and farmers. Its initial purpose was to watch the road linking Spanish Groningen to Germany. It is one of the most spectacular star forts in Europe. The pentagonal plan and the network of canals and fortifications respects the original project. The square stands in the geometric middle and has the pentagonal shape of the way the buildings are placed within the fort. Its perimeter is perfectly defined by 14 lime trees which are over 300 years old. The square holds the most important houses, the captain’s house, the commander’s house, the house of the school headmaster, for the placement of the buildings was organised hierarchically. The Protestant church dates from 1869 and, importantly, is close to the square but not in the square itself.

Praça de São João from Almeida (Portugal)

On the Portuguese side of the border there are even more fortifications than in Spain. Almeida is found in the north of Portugal. It is a star fort with 12 corners, Vauban style, built in 1641. The Spanish only entered here once in all their history, and then with the help of the French. The square is an irregular quadrilateral and is not positioned quite geometrically, just as the star is not perfect, but its role as a centre is obvious when related to the margins of the citadel.

Praça 8 de Maio from Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra is famous for its university, and the monumental squares are located in the university area. The city also owns a small jewel, modest in size but convincing through its balanced proportions and its historical importance. It is Praça 8 de Maio, found in the city centre, in front of the monastery of Santa Cruz, while further on one finds the Camara Municipal. This small space manages to not let itself overly dominated by the height and splendor of the Manueline facade of the church where the first two kings of Portugal lie buried. The buildings on the other three sides are just as visible, likewise the central fountain. The contemporary redesigning of the square also contributes to this.

Praça do Municipio from Lisbon, Portugal

At a small distance from the monumental Praça do Municipio stands the municipal square, which hosts three important buildings: the Municipality, the Court of Appeals and the Naval Arsenal. It is a small, quiet square, with other rhythms in comparison to Praça do Comércio, which, following the Rua do Arsenal, stands less than 70 meters ahead. Praça do Municipio is equally part of the urban weaving born from the city’s reconstruction under the guidance of the Marquise of Pombal. This historical detail is enough in order to make it clear that they must be understood as a counterpoint, that is, as part of a system of squares that is ampler and not isolated.

Plaza Mayor from Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain

The town took its name from count Rodrigo González Girón. It was he who, in the middle of the 12th century, banished the Moors from the region once and for all, and built the town on top of a former Roman castrum, itself once built on top of a Celtic settlement. The solid fortifications speak of the position on the frontier with Portugal. Paradoxically, although one of the most well defended European borders on both sides, this frontier is the most stable in all of European history and has remained virtually the same for 500 years. The only fighting to take place here was with Napoleon’s armies. Nowhere is the relation between square and margin more obvious than in such citadels.

Plaza Mayor from Salamanca, Spain

The construction of the square begins in 1729, by order of Phillip V, with the square being meant primarily for bull fights. Today, it is seen as one of the most beautiful squares in Spain and in the whole of Europe. The space offers a paradoxical optical illusion. It seems a perfect quadrangle, although, as seen from an aerial photo, the shape is irregular. The baroque façades of the building, which surrounds and defines the square perimeter, seem perfectly symmetrical on a first glance, but, in reality, not one of them has the same height. Entire books have been written about the square in Salamanca, and, to this day, it is considered the absolute model of Spanish squares.

Piazza Pio II from Pienza (Italy)

Perched on a hill top in Tuscany, Pienza was originally called Corsignano. Pope Pius II loved his hometown greatly and wished to transform it into a concrete example of his theories on the ideal city. For this purpose he hires the arhitect Bernardo Rossellino and gets directly involved in the planning. Influenced by Alberti’s writings, Pius plans to raise a uniform and self-sufficient city around the central square. Yet as he dies in 1462, the urban sketch of the city that takes his name stops there, with only 40 buildings finished. In the heart of the “ideal city”, Bernardo Rossellino had managed to implement a trapezoidal square, which represents the first attempt at urban renewal in the postclassical period.

The space is not large, yet the illusion of greater dimension is created through its shape and through the drawing of the pavement. The final effect is that of a scene bordered by important buildings. Palazzo Vescovile forms the east side. On the opposite side stands the papal palace. The city hall lies to the north and Rossellino chose a Florentine model for its tower. Two other buildings form the northern side next to the city hall. The square is dominated by the façade of the cathedral, built on the small side of the trapezoid, so that its dimensions are lessened in order to not end up overwhelming the square, for the Pope did not aim to build a city of monumental but of human dimensions. Everything was carefully calculated, and the construction of the church took the motion of the sun into account. Inspired by Austrian cathedrals bathing in natural light, the Pope asked that the church not respect the traditional west-east alignment, but to be set in such a way so that the sunlight might pour in from the southern windows. The church is lined with the tip of Mount Amiata, an extinct volcano. The southern windows of the church make its peak visible, but the peak itself is not visible from the square. This leads to an interesting perception reversal: the interior of the church creates the sensation of a wide open space towards the landscape, while the square barely offers access to surrounding nature, suggesting instead the feeling of an interior space. The two open and narrow spaces in the square, on the cathedral’s sides, are the first Renaissance examples of viewing rural landscapes from within a town. In this respect, it represents a break with traditional medieval squares. In order to see the landscape, one must reach the very end of the square.

Various details from the façade of a building reappear on another façade in the square, the rectangular shape of the façades is a scale copy of the shape of the windows. The windows at the upper level of the papal palace are one of Rossellino’s inventions, a combination between the Roman cross and the Tuscan rose window. The cross reappears as a detail on the windows of the Palazzo Vescovile and the rose window reappears in the design of the city hall’s windows. Archways and circular details, grouped in threes, repeatedly appear on the façade of each building, The travertine grid and the red brick pavement mirrors the series of compartments on the church façade and are lined with the pillars, doors and corners of all the buildings in the square. In the middle of the square there is a travertine circle, and the distance from the circle to the door of the church is equal to the distance from the base of the church to the occhio, the typical round window from the façade of the church. This is not the only “coincidence”, for the square respects a geometry that is based on the numbers 3, 5, 9. Moreover, it was found in the early 2000s that the shadow of the cathedral lines perfectly with the pavement grid in certain moments. Specifically, 11 days after the solar equinox. It was known already in the 15th century that there is a 11 day difference between the used calendar and the astronomical one. The calendar reform was highly controversial within the Catholic Church, since Easter is calculated according to the equinox. Pieper, who observed the lining of the church shadow with the grid, believes that the square was initially supposed to represent this on the very day of the equinox. Thus, the construction was began, but the project was reconstructed so that the alignment would take place on the official day of the equinox. When the modification was decided, the construction of the square buildings was already underway. Redrawing the pavement grid would have led to discrepancies with building details, so the only solution was found in further raising the roof of the cathedral. This is confirmed since the Albertian proportions on the church pediment are not respected. It is a mystery that the details of the reconstruction, as well as the story of aligning the cathedral’s shadow to the drawing of the pavement, make no appearance in the Pope’s extremely detailed diary.

Piazza Castello from Marostica (Italy)

Every two years, in the second week of September, Maroustica hosts a chess game. The place of wooden figurines is taken by living people, and the score board is the very square of the tiny medieval town, whose pavement was thought out especially for this purpose. For this reason, the Maroustica Piazza Castello is also called Piazza degli Scacchi. The story goes that, in medieval times, two young nobles, Rinaldo D’Angarano and Vieri da Vallanora, fell madly in love with Lionora, the daughter of the local lord. The custom of the time demanded that the girl’s fate be decided through a duel. But the father does not wish to make enemies, he wishes no blood spilt, so he forbids the duel and proposes a chess game in its stead. The winner was to become the husband of the coveted Lionora. The loser would not lose, but instead win the hand of the younger daughter, Oldrada. Of course, the story has no basis in historical fact. Not one of the characters in the story ever existed, just as there was no chess match in the medieval Marostica, a town called in the local Venetian dialect, Maròstega. But there was a writer and an architect called Mario Mirko Vucetich from Dalmatia, who imagined the entire story right after the Second World War. And the local chess club found it proper to consider the story true and to organise, every two years, a competition with living people as chess pieces in the scenic square and with real medieval origins of the tiny town of Marostica, from northern Italy.

Piața Sfatului from Brașov (Romania)

Already from the 14th century, markets were constantly held in Piața Sfatului in Brașov and produce were exchanged. Back then it was called Marktplatz. The space is dominated by the building Casa Sfatului, built in 1420. It not only offers the centre of the square, but also an interesting chromatic counterpoint, through a light colour, to the nearby Schwarze Kirche, the Black Church, visible from the square.

Žižkovo náměstí from Tábor (Czech Republik)

In a side of the square lies the statue of Jan Žižka, a leader of the Hussite movement, one of the few military commanders in the history of the world to have never lost a battle. Today, his name is found in the square in Tábor. Situated on a hilltop, with the square right on the summit, and near the lake called Jordan, after the biblical river, the city was founded in the spring of 1420 as a centre of the Hussite revolutionary movement. Initially regular, it later had the tendency to develop organically, and the shape of the square points to this. The streets have been designed in a zigzag on purpose, so that the enemy would have a hard time reaching the centre. Although it is hard to see in the photograph, the square is sloped, which adds a new dimension to its space.