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Circling the square

There can be few residents of London or visitors to the city who have not been to Leicester Square at some time. It has never been a destination in its own right but its central position, surrounded by cinemas and restaurants, and its position on key routes, make it hard to miss.

For too long though it was a place that people wanted to avoid – a scruffy square with an unenviable level of crime, a garden that nobody remembered as such and an environment that, despite its central position, was somehow disconnected from its surroundings.

These were the issues that Burns + Nice had to address when it won the landscape-led competition for what was dubbed the ‘Leicester Square City Quarter’, an attempt not only to improve the square itself but also to re-integrate it with its surroundings.

If this on its own looked daunting, there was plenty more to make it clear that this was a project where the aesthetic requirements would have to be integrated with stringent technical and programmatic demands. After years in which there had been much talk about improving Leicester Square and little coherent action, there were suddenly urgent deadlines, with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics looming. Construction of the £12 million project started in November 2011 and was complete – had to be complete – in May 2012. And, given the importance of the square, it was not a clear run. The public had to be accommodated in some way at all times, and several film premieres, with the attendant huge crowds, took place during the construction period.

The area certainly has to work hard. There are 50 premieres a year (London’s major cinemas surround the square) and other large events. Every morning there are 250 servicing deliveries to the surrounding developments. Underground lines and key services run beneath the square. A rather ugly looking although financially successful ticket booth, for example, is built around and disguises a large ventilation outlet.

Despite the fact that the previous scheme, completed in 1991, was ‘traditional’ in nature, it – and in particular the unthinking accretions that happened afterwards – almost completely obscured the nature of the square. To have a publicly accessible planted square in the centre of one of the most densely built sections of London is a great asset. And a listed statue – in this case of William Shakespeare, who is scarcely unknown – is not to be sniffed at. Yet somehow the garden, with the statue at its centre, just didn’t feel like one. It provided routes across the square, but most visitors chose to circumvent it, following the perimeter of the municipal railings and leaving the square to street drinking and other anti-social behaviour – except, of course, during major events.

Burns + Nice has come up with a solution which effectively turns the square inside out, giving it a sociable perimeter and at the same time helping the railings to partially disappear. The result is a square that people walk through and where they socialise in a non-threatening way. The effects can be seen in hard numbers. Since the work was finished, average footfall has gone up 5 per cent, and on the jubilee bank holiday it went up 91 per cent.

Equally impressive, and vital for Heart of London, which is the local BID (Business Improvement District), food and beverage sales have risen by 48 per cent. Since completion of the work, three hotels have opened, two restaurants, a casino and a number of retailers. Planning applications are up by 25 per cent.

The only figure that has fallen is for reported crime, which is down by 42 per cent. For once, talk of landscape as a piece of social engineering is more than just talk. It has been measured, and the results are impressive.

This is reflected in the clutch of awards that the project has received. Most prestigious for Burns + Nice was, of course, winning the president’s award in the 2013 Landscape Institute Awards. And just the previous day, the project had picked up the public-space prize in the International Downtown Association Awards, held in New York. There were others as well, meaning that Burns + Nice had fulfilled not only the functional requirements of the brief but also the stipulation that this should be an award-winning project.

What was the secret? How has the space been so utterly transformed? Much of what the practice has done is fairly textbook – to use a simple palette of high-quality materials, to have a consistent coherent design and to remove extraneous elements. But it has also transformed the dynamics of the space. This is most evident in the white ‘ribbon’ seating that runs around the perimeter of the gardens. Crucially, this is outside the railings, separated from them by low level planting. This has several effects. It blurs the edges of the enclosure, making it seem far less of a barrier (there was never any question of dispensing with the railings altogether as the London Squares Act requires that the gardens can be closed off), and it provides animation in a way that is not threatening.

‘People who are sitting are not threatening,’ said Marie Burns of Burns + Nice, explaining that the bench has deliberately been made wide enough that groups can sit with one member sideways on, to carry on a conversation. There are always people on this bench, and their presence adds colour and animation to the square, making it clear that this is a place to pause and not just to hurry through.

Made of white granite, this ‘ribbon’ is beautifully detailed, with an ever-changing section that makes it comfortable to sit on and allows it to accommodate the quite significant changes in level across the square. The planting behind it echoes the lines, as do the railings themselves.

These railings both rise and fall in level and have ‘vertical’ elements that are not truly vertical, distorted both from side to side and moving forward and back out of the vertical plane. They allow ever-changing glimpses through into the interior of the park and reflect the colours of the planting. They are perhaps the most controversial element of the scheme, introducing a touch of bling that is not to all tastes. But if they seem like a slightly self-conscious artwork, this at least prevents them from feeling forbidding, an effect that is enhanced by the fact that the gates tuck away to be inconspicuous when open. The result is that walking diagonally across the garden is a natural response, without a real sense of going ‘inside’

The paths narrow towards the statue at the centre of the garden, surrounded by a small amount of planting and beyond that one of those fountains that is a flush array of jets which can move up and down. The central space has been widened, with curved  bespoke timber and bronze benches looking into it – a far more parklike aesthetic than the granite of the ribbon.

Burns + Nice was able to enlarge this space because of the planting that it added outside the railings, keeping the total planted area the same. This central area can be covered over for events, both one-off occasions and longer events such as the Christmas funfair, when almost all the grass around the mature trees is also covered with hard-standing. The heavy traffic over a prolonged period is unlikely to leave the grass looking its best in the spring, but it is hard to envisage an alternative.

The trapeze within which the ribbon bench sits (like so many ‘squares’ Leicester Square is not square at all) is defined by dark granite, with lighter granite beyond. Other variations in the paving help to define individual zones within the larger area. Bespoke lighting columns provide LED lighting that is pleasant, efficient and a striking contrast to the arc lights that the police used to turn on at night to identify miscreants. ‘The project is simple in materials but rich in concept,’ said Burns. It was a stipulation of the client that all the elements should be bespoke, giving the area a ‘special’ feeling
by not repeating elements seen elsewhere.

Despite the simplicity, the elegant ideas could have been ruined in the execution. ‘It is not enough to have a great idea and a good set of drawings,’ said Burns. ‘We were very much involved in control of the onsite works. If you don’t control it, you don’t get the scheme that everybody signed up to. We had a team on the site all the time.’ This is despite the fact that the practice only employs about a dozen people, and had several other projects under way at the same time, including one in Jersey. ‘We are small but very efficient,’ Burns said. The client set out to have a landscape-led project, which is encouraging in itself. The design and execution are superb, and the results are measurable, and impressive. That all this has been achieved by a smallish practice, without huge resources to draw on, should be an inspiration to many landscape professionals.

Lead designer/ landscape architect: Burns + Nice
Client: Westminster City Council
Engineering and highway design: WestOne Infrastructure Services
Principal contractor: SIAC Construction

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