The exhibition “European Squares and Their Histories” proposes a change of perspective regarding European urban squares. This might seem to be a bold statement, but it should be understood first and foremost in a literal manner. Taken by a professional drone, the photographs in the exhibition show an aerial view of squares in a number of historical European cities.
Famous squares in well-known capitals from the edges of Europe, such as Lisbon and Istanbul, are exhibited along with lesser-known but no less interesting squares, such as the Vlach settlements in the Pindus Mountains, with their legendary plane trees at their centres, planted at the time of their founding, centuries ago.
The exhibition has a dual aspect: it is architectural, but it is also anthropological, because the square is, in fact, a living place within the European city, a space that brings together both the community and the history of the city. It is a space that is defined by the literal buildings that border it, but that also consists of buildings and people, buildings and their stories, which together contribute to its cultural identity. It is a space where buildings are contained, for a square is more than its architecture alone. That is the purpose of this exhibition – to capture through images the ineffable nature of the square, the spirit of a city at its very core, revealing a historical European model. Paradoxically, although there exist numerous studies, documentaries, and exhibitions about individual squares, there have been few attempts at offering a broad, continental perspective.
The history of European squares can be traced through a continuous historical thread to Greek antiquity, where the plateia and the agora appear. The urban square is specific to Europe, for such a continuity is not present in other cultures, even if they also possess squares, some very large in size. It was Europe that invented the square and developed it as an architectural form, exporting it across the world, mainly during the colonial period.
The geographical space of the square is the main theme of the exhibition. This starting point is a banal assertion, but one with important visual consequences, particularly for understanding the square as a historical and cultural phenomenon: one cannot see an entire square…from the vantage point of 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 from a relatively low height.
An obvious truth: squares do not exist in isolation, but rather at the centre of settlements. This leads to the basic nature of the square and the clearest method for defining the square both anthropologically and visually – by relating to the surrounding environment. Whether organically developed, or following pre-established diagrams and grids, the structure of cities presents a fundamental tension between the space of the square and space outside it, 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 streets transmit the idea of motion – “move along, please!” – on a psychological level, 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 indelible marks 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 produces 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 technical and artistic languages successfully overlap. 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 our perspective on squares also in a figurative sense.
The selection of images in this exhibition includes up to approximately 120 squares, located in over 20 European countries (though usually 40 to 60 are present in the exhibition). 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-minute film running in a loop, collaging together aerial shots of European squares with an accompanying soundtrack of classical music.
In Romania, the project also involved the publication of a book of more than 500 pages, telling the story of European squares.
The project was co-financed by the Romanian Cultural Fund Administration – AFCN, and the Order of Architects in Romania – OAR.
This exhibition has travelled to more than 20 places in eight European countries. In 2019, the exhibition was presented in Kozani, Greece, where the exhibition was combined with a workshop with important figures, including Lazaros Maloutas, the city’s mayor; Christos Pappas, the architect of the new version of Kozani’s main city square; Yannis Tsiompanos, a historian; and Konstantinos Kokolis, the architect of the previous main square in Kozani. The exhibition also travelled to Spain in 2019 (the medieval castle from Trigueros del Valle and the historic city of La Alberca); Azerbaijan (two exhibitions and conferences in Baku: the Art Tower Gallery, a tower in Baku Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the University of Architecture); and Georgia (the National Museum in Tbilisi and Shota Rustaveli University in Batumi, both accompanied by conferences). In 2018, the year of patrimony in Europe, the project was presented in Romania (Bucharest, Sibiu, and Brașov); Spain (Salamanca, Valladolid, Museo de la Piedra in Campaspero, the medieval castle from Torrelobatón, and Mucientes); Turkey (Istanbul); Bulgaria (Sofia); and Greece (where a visual anthropology experiment was conducted with outdoor exhibitions in the squares of two Vlach settlements, Syrako and Kalarites). In 2017, the exhibition was shown in Krakow, Poland, in a gallery on the Main Square, the largest medieval square in Europe. In 2016, there were exhibitions in Romania, at Suţu Palace; Mogoşoaia Palace; the Astronomical Observatory; and the Faculty of Letters of the University of Bucharest.