I had an interesting conversation recently with my friend and literary agent about the influence of the shapes of public spaces on our feelings and our behaviour. She was administering my monthly dose of therapy, reminding me that there is more to life than simple shape and size, citing examples of public spaces and arguing that it isn't so much the shape of what's there, as what's there. Some beautiful public squares in Venice came up. So did Tianannmen Square in Beijing which, at least to Western eyes, is not a pretty thing.
Anyone who's seen it knows that Tiananmen is a gigantic windswept piece of pavement. Physically, it might inspire awe by virtue of its size, but it's hard to imagine being captivated by the details of its shape. At the same time, it is a piece of real estate so soaked in history that it forms an important landmark in every sense of the word. When I landed in Beijing for the first time in 2001, the friend who met me at the airport insisted that as soon as I had checked into my hotel, I needed to walk the two miles from my digs down Chang'An Dajie to the square so that I could see the same approach that had been made by students walking from the university in 1989, on their way to meet with tanks and murderous repression. Even behind the veil of twelve hours of jetlag, I felt the electricity as I set foot on the big space, knowing what it had meant in recent years to the residents of the city, and how the images sent into space from here had galvanized the world.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about what works in public space. I understand some of the tried and true planning principles that have to do with how to get people into and out of a space and how to keep them there for as long as possible. I have at least a loose grip on some of the psychology that's involved in this, and I do think that size, shape, connections to the rest of the urban space are important determinants of how such locations work.
What fascinates me, though, is how these kinds of stable properties of the things we see, our perceptions of the geography we walk through, interact with our feelings, our histories, and our motivations. Most Westerners, I suspect, when hearing the words "Tiananmen Square" might first conjure the image of a young student standing in front of a row of tanks. Before this, perhaps as the site of the mass rally celebrating Mao ZeDong's ascendancy to power in 1949. And so for hundreds of years prior to these watershed events of the 20th century, this square was the symbolic centre of China for so many signal events in its history.
It's easy to think of many reasons for this -- the square sits in the centre of historic Beijing, the seats of political power lie nearby, its very size lends itself to massive gatherings of people. Even for the purposes of the current government, the square possesses wide sightlines and easy surveillance from the banks of cameras said to be hidden in light towers (in 2001, my friend suggested I might try throwing a large handful of papers into the air to see a quick drama unfold. I demurred.). But does the history of a piece of space, and the location that it occupies in our mental maps of an area build up a kind of resonance with its physical properties?
The power of places comes from the combination of their physics and their psychology. It's obvious that the Chinese government, from long, painful and bloodsoaked lessons, understands this. Hence their decision to ban live coverage of the Olympics from the Square.