City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World, by Catie Marron. Harper Collins, April 2016, 375 pages, $32.50.
Catie Marron, chairman of the board at Friends of the High Line in New York, has collected 18 thoughtful essays on urban squares to follow her previous book, City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts (2013). Prominent writers such as Ann Beattie, Adam Gopnik, and Zadie Smith, along with other contributors such as architect David Adjaye and filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, reflect on the meaning and character of some of the world’s most beloved and distinguished public places. Each is illustrated by evocative color photographs, many in lush two-page, full-bleed spreads.
This seductive hardcover anthology is nicely organized in three thematic sections: “Culture,” introduced by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman; “Geopolitics,” by New Yorker editor David Remnick; and “History,” by New Yorker staff writer and National Book Award winner George Packer. Their keen observations alone would make the book worth reading.
In some of the most engaging essays, personal history intersects with metropolitan history. Adam Gopnik recounts both the evolution of Paris’s Place des Vosges and his memories living there with his family, having crepes and omelets at Ma Bourgogne, the café frequented by the fictional detective Maigret. Zadie Smith offers a bittersweet recollection of her time in Rome, bracketed by self-consciousness as a tourist in Piazza Della Madonna Dei Monti and trauma as a resident whose apartment in Piazza Sforza Cesarini was destroyed by fire. Alma Guillermoprieto, who grew up in Mexico City, contrasts a childhood memory of Christmas in the Zócalo, which seemed “infinite in its sweep and grandeur,” with a more recent Yuletide visit when she found the plaza’s historic splendor obscured by an enormous and incongruous ice-skating rink.
As the only architect among the authors, David Adjaye’s contribution is of particular interest. With an eye to dispelling Western myths and stereotypes about Africa and to reconciling modernity with indigenous culture, he recalls a pilgrimage to the Djemma el-Fnaa, the “bustling heart” of Marrakesh, and offers this insight: “Space only becomes truly public when people recognize it and utilize it as such. Great public space cannot be built as much as curated.”
Readers looking for in-depth information on architecture and planning may be disappointed, but that’s not really the point of City Squares. It is instead a celebration of these quintessential outdoor rooms as civic settings for the rituals and dramas of urban life.