It’s late May, a weekday afternoon in Wimbledon. Even as the sun connives in the ripening of strawberries for their ritual sacrifice to tennis enthusiasts, a new brood of houses – £4.2m for the show house – is being launched by the developer London Square, with the concept of bringing more greenery to the metropolis.
The brand name is intriguing. Squares would by nature seem to be clunky, unpromising things. A square deal and a square answer are at least honest, and a square meal tends to be devoid of awkward gastro-molecular trends. To be called a square is demeaning, but no reason to square up, the body language that leads to all hell being let loose. Even so, that may be thought preferable to square dancing.
But London’s historic squares were designed to be the opposite of all that: refined, reassuring, fashionable oases of metropolitan calm. In a roughly square new book by Yale University Press, The London Square, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan traces the fascinating evolution of these once private urban gardens and explores the social history within their undergrowth.
Where did the archetypal London square spring from? The Italian Piazza was imported through Inigo Jones’s Covent Garden of the 1630s, bringing self-consciously Italianate arcades and a temple-fronted church to an open market place. But the London square as it developed from the early 18th century was not a piazza, as it depended on the enclosure of a central garden.
This essential feature was not lost on John Timbs, who wrote in 1855: “The garden-spaces or planted squares are the most recreative features of our metropolis, in comparison with which the piazze, plazas and places of continental cities are wayworn and dusty areas, with none of the refreshing beauty of a garden or green field.”
Throughout the 18th century, tautly proportioned brick boxes of Georgian houses surrounded these private railed gardens and delivered rus in urbs for the resident holders of keys. The square offered the best of both worlds – city and country living – of which millions of Londoners still dream today, usually while watering their window boxes or rearranging pebbles to lend asymmetry to a potted bonsai.
To my mind, the closest architectural parallel to London squares is a Carthusian monastery: regimented dwellings around a circulation route (albeit a covered walkway rather than an open road) that in turn surrounds a green cloister garth. But the social habits of Carthusians monks and Londoners hardly bear comparison.
Hallie Rubenhold, author of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies: Sex in the City in Georgian Britain has found a correlation between the quality of London squares and the prestige of the prostitutes that frequented them:
“Teresa Cornelys, a former mistress of Casanova and mother of his illegitimate daughter, rented Carlisle House in Soho Square in 1760 and turned it into a venue for extravagant subscription balls and masquerades. Throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, Carlisle House saw the most infamous courtesans and the highest paid brothel-kept prostitutes mix as readily with the nobility and gentry of both sexes. The masquerades, as you can imagine, had the worst reputations.”
It is reputation that Leicester Square (“The Premier Square”, according to its rebranding, thank you very much) has sought to recover through a recent refurbishment by planners Burns + Nice. It was launched by London mayor Boris Johnson, just a day before London Square’s launch event in Wimbledon. I watched the speeches standing by the newly-cleaned marble fountain, my shoe leather dampening from its surrounding water jets gurgling on to a pavement of Chinese granite.
It happens that Johnson is descended from George III, who lived here in Leicester House, but his speech spoke of the square’s 20th-century decline after the original residences had given way to palaces of mass entertainment. As he orated to the crowd of guests:
“Thirty years ago, drunken shambolic figures would congregate here, not all of whom answered to the name of Mel Gibson.”
Despite that crack, this was ultimately a speech that aspired to put the pride back into the heart of London. Through a design involving new planting and artfully organic railings, Burns + Nice have reinvested modern quality in the hope that it takes less inspiration from the neon restaurants on the north side, toward frenetic China Town, and more from the manicured Radisson Edwardian Hampshire hotel on the south side. It’ll certainly be popular.
And that’s only to be expected: a major strand of Longstaffe-Gowan’s book deals with the perpetual success of London squares. In the Victorian age they continued to be popular as ambassadorial residences. No matter how the houses are used, and by whom, their prestige remains indelible.
Dawn Carritt, a director of Jackson Stops & Staff, agrees: “Squares, gates, parks, gardens, crescents – there’s actually a range of streets with communal garden environments in London. Belgrave, Cadogan and Grosvenor Squares are the ones with cachet but the ‘Gardens’ are probably as grand.”
But what are the tangible qualities of these houses?
‘The London Building Act of 1774 dictated first-rate houses, built with thicker walls; they were light, with broad frontages of several big windows, and more spacious with high ceilings. They have a private garden to the rear, but the communal gardens are the thing that sets them apart.”
I counter that “communal” isn’t the obvious word.
“Many love the idea of overlooking shrubs and scenery. But it’s true – if they’re private, seldom do you see anyone amongst them. So in some respects a square’s garden can be anti-social, but on the other hand, residents’ parties there really do bring people together.”
Although houses in squares are being sold at a premium, it’s not a living pattern forever set in stucco. Modern life has imposed new demands, fragmenting many grand residences into apartments, while the tendency to live in open-plan kitchen/family rooms has brought kitchens up from the basement and into the ground floor, from which to enjoy the views of the greenery. And digging deeper for gyms and cinemas is a major, contentious, habit.
As the well-heeled guests make their way into London Square’s Wimbledon showhome, I ask Alex Johnson, the company’s founder and chief executive, about the choice of name. He tells me his experience of 25 years in the construction industry armed him with the conviction he could go it alone, a position that, he admits, was not helped by a pitch for capital to a bank on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. So what’s the concept that did persuade backing?
“London Square won’t just meet a planning requirement for green space but lead by example and make it an essential feature.” This message appealed to Graphite Capital, and led to the first development in Shoreditch, 50 per cent of which was bought in September 2011 from Singapore and Chinese clients willing to buy on spec.
The next development in Fulham will indeed be a square, one that conjures a value of £100m. Alex Johnson is quite comfortable with the fact he doesn’t do faux-Georgian houses, nor do all his developments have four street corners around a railed garden. “London isn’t a cookie-cutter city. Understanding the local demographic is essential before designing any development, in response to its site and market.”
And he’s surely right. In any case, most London squares simply aren’t symmetrical. Berkeley Square is twice as long as it is wide. And the largest of them, Eaton Square as laid out by Thomas Cubitt in 1827, has about a 5.5:1 ratio. The American namesakes are worse culprits: New York offers Times Square, an outrageous misnomer, which ought to be Times Wedge. Madison Square never was square but a rectangle shorn of a corner, while Madison Square Garden is oval.
Among that company, London Square’s angle is thinking outside the box to create a virtuous circle.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain
‘The London Square’ by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is published by Yale University Press, www.londonsquare.co.uk
Open Garden Squares Weekend, June 9-10. For more information see www.opensquares.org
Brompton Square, Knightsbridge
Brompton Square was built from 1821-1835 for William Farlar by Robert Darley, an obscure surveyor-architect from Jermyn Street, south of Piccadilly, who worked mostly in Dublin. Upon construction, the sewerage system overflowed and dampened the foundations, leading to a residents’ petition to rebuild the main sewer into which it too lavishly discharged. This situation served as a metaphor for Farlar, who was eventually declared bankrupt. What it lacked in its initial fortunes, it now more than makes up for in charm and location, just a short walk from Knightsbridge and the Victoria & Albert museum. The recent refurbishment by an architect-owner presents a fine finish.
Knight Frank is selling a five/six-bedroom, four-bathroom property for £20m, www.knightfrank.com
Bedford Square, Bloomsbury
The Dukes of Bedford laid out over 20 acres of gardens within their 112 acres of Bloomsbury developments. Perhaps the loveliest of these generous squares was created between 1775 and 1780: Bedford Square. It’s another square that isn’t – a rectangle with an oval garden. The designer was Thomas Leverton, an aficionado of Eleanor Coade’s artificial stone castings that here conjure some of the finest door surrounds in London. That the handsome façade encloses 10,730 sq ft of freehold property is impressive, but you may well need the wall space as it is thrillingly close to one of Oxfam’s best second-hand bookshops. Oh, and there’s the British Museum as well.
Savills is selling a Grade 1-listed, eight-bedroom, three-bathroom property for £12m,www.savills.co.uk
Eaton Square, Belgravia
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan explains that the 15-acre garden plan of Eaton Square was conceived by Alexander and Daniel Robertson in 1813. It was influenced by John Nash’s Regent’s Park, begun three years earlier, a model for the “wealthy and the good” (access to the wealthy and bad is unrecorded, but the Prince Regent needed company). Eaton Square’s stucco-clad houses, of the sort built by the architect-developer Thomas Cubitt, feature massive porches, which were planted as “Babylonian hanging gardens”. Today, the riches of Babylon are required to buy a whole house: £30m gleans a four-bedroom lateral apartment.
Savills is selling a 1st and 2nd floor lateral apartment with four en suite bedrooms for £30m,www.savills.co.uk
Wilmington Square, Islington
Serendipity reigns supreme on the north-west side of Wilmington Square, as the builder John Wilson apparently ran out of money here and substituted the usual road for a pavement. The lack of traffic and proximity of the garden to the front doors is the happy result. The garden itself was sponsored by philanthropist Charles Clement Walker. In it, a Victorian tile-roofed timber shelter allows for picnics that laugh in the face of thunderstorms. Houses here are ideal for access to Sadler’s Wells, the world centre of international dance; the independent shops of Upper Street; and Sunday farm produce on Chapel Street Market.
Foxtons is selling a Grade II-listed, five-bedroom, two-bathroom property for £2.95m,www.foxtons.co.uk
Albion Square, Hackney
Albion Square was 130 years old when it was designated a conservation area in 1975. This is the stamping ground of grumpy writer Iain Sinclair, who described the effects of the nearby Olympics in 2009: “It’s catastrophic. Apocalyptically catastrophic.” As long as you don’t mind that, or don’t agree, you’ll save more than £28m from the price of Eaton Square (above) while gaining an extra bedroom. Which you might choose to rent out during the Olympics.
Currell Residential is selling a five-bedroom, two-bathroom property for £1.625m,www.currell.com