Is Forum Magnum the stupidest urban landscape design in London?

What should be done to improve the urban landscape design of this space?

I pass Forum Magnum Square quite often and took this photo to show it at a busy period: 5.30 pm on the afternoon of Sunday 26th June 2011. Forum Magnum Square is 100m from one of Europe’s largest tourist attractions. My180° photo was taken from the white cross in the centre of this map. London’s parks and open spaces were jammed with people. It was, for London, a hot day (27°) and people were seeking shade everywhere. I guess anyone can say why the space is empty. But what should be done? A biodiversity meadow? A beer garden? A tourist market? A food court? Another building? A fishing pond? A fernery? A monument to victims of torture? I think they should hold 2-stage competitions for the re-design of places like this: Stage 1 – to find an imaginative use; Stage 2 – design the space to accommodate the new use. In New York City they use incentive zoning to create POPS = Privately Owned Public Space. Great idea. Forum Magnum is Latin for Great Forum. A forum was a public square or marketplace in an ancient Roman city, also used for assemblies, public business and siting temples. Forum Magnum enjoys none of these functions. It is a great stupidity but is not great in any other way. Can anyone suggest an urban space in such great location which surpasses Forum Magnum square in stupidity?

18 thoughts on “Is Forum Magnum the stupidest urban landscape design in London?

  1. Tian Yuan

    A big fountain is just what the place need! Reasons (1)Visal need: It is a focus point on this area (2)Human need: People love water

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Putting a fountain in Forum Magnum Square would be an interesting experiment but the Old Father Thames is only 50m away, so it would have serious competition and I doubt if it would pull in the crowds.

  3. Michele

    A Garden and Garden sculpture and water features and lots of tables and chairs and people eating alfresco & picnics and an outdoor bar, umbrellas, sculptures, artists of all types painting and constructing and people writing and reading and soothing outdoor music

  4. nico

    A spine wall for all the square lenght with grandstand in both side facing the buildings to crate a proper meeting point

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you for the suggestions. Forum Magnum Square probably came into existence as a planning gain – which was poorly conceived by the planners. It is privately owned, by the occupants of County Hall Appartments, and managed by Rendall & Rittner. Just guessing, the residents would rather not have any noise-generating uses of the space.

  6. Jerry

    Here is an idea: drawing two white straight lines symmetricaly from the start of the square to the building in the middle.It could be called’ straight lines intended to heal a blighted space’. Martha schwartz used this method in 1988 to design the outdoor space of the office for the Arts at Harvard and Radcliffe

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    Maybe. But I think the first thing Forum Magnum Square needs is a good planning idea. If the residents want it to be EMPTY OF PEOPLE then it might as well be a nature reserve. The level could be lowered by half a meter to make a wet swamp. Then steel walkways (‘to heel a blighted space’) could run above the swamp. This would be good for water conservation and good for biodiversity. But if the residents want the space to be busy then they should surround it with cafes and restaurants – like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. These alternatives should have been taken before the County Hall Apartments were given planning permission by Lambeth Council Planning Department.

  8. Christine

    I agree with Yuan. A big fountain would be fantastic, especially if it was designed so people could sit beside/around it with opportunities to sit in the sun or shade depending on the temperature and time of the day. The square could act to draw people towards that ultimate destination, Father Thames. (Perhaps the fountain could have an infinity edge closer to the Thames?)[ ] The square would then be aesthetically interesting when empty and when peopled.

    The cafe in the foreground might also benefit from passing trade. The water could mask conversation and provide a calm and cooling ambiance to the surrounding residential uses.

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    The best precedents for fountain squares are of course in Rome. But would they work in London and would they work in Forum Magnum Square?
    Maybe: the nearest London has to a ‘fountain square’ is Trafalgar Square. The fountains add to the quality of the square but I do not think they are the big attraction which draws the visitors.
    Maybe not: London’s climate does not ‘call out’ for fountains as the Roman climate does.
    Rome has two fountain squares of particular relevance: (1) the Piazza Navona is immensely popular, and has a Four Rivers fountain – but it has many more things going for it than the Forum Magnum and it should never be assumed that design ideas which work in Southern Europe will also work in Northern Europe, or North America or Asia (2) the Piazza di Trevi , after 4 centuries, still has the best fountain in the world AND this fountain is surely the reason for 90% of visits to the square.
    So yes, if Forum Magnum was given the second best fountain in the world I believe it would attract visitors. But (1) who would pay for the fountain? (2) why should the residents, who own the square, turn their ‘backyard’ into a major tourist attraction? You need a Baroque Prince who is also a Pope if you want Trevi-quality fountains, though billionaires wanting immortality are reasonable alternative.
    So I do not think a fountain is the natural solution to the Forum Magnum problem: it would be an instanace of using great wealth to overcome a design problem which never should have been allowed to happen. Installing a fabulous fountain would be ‘throwing money at the problem’; urban designers should not create problems which require shedloads of cash to ‘solve’.

  10. Christine

    So the question is: how busy/peopled should the square be? What is the qualitative feel or experience that the designer should be aiming for? Supposing the fountain is still being considered then:

    Is it a contemplative space: [ ]

    An interactive space: [ ]

    A surprising space: [ ]

    Or an astonishing space:
    [ ] etc.

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    Very good questions. If I lived in the County Hall Apartments, I would want it to be communal space, not a public space. This was the traditional arrangement for residential squares in London and it continues to work well. So of the alternatives you offer, I think a contemplative space would be the best. The planners, I assume, required it to be a public space and so I think a public contemplative space would be the best solution from their point of view. It should not have been paved like a medieval piazza. A market place with out a market is a very stupid idea. But a serene contemplative water body, which hushed all visitors into silent wonder, would be something worth having.

  12. Grant

    The bottom line is …to attract people and turn it into a ‘Place’. People attract people, as we know the most popular sport in the world is People watching, So fundamentals what attracts people ,regularly to a space?, When it becomes a place, think Covent Garden, how many times have you said (those who live in London) meet you in covent Gardens? Most of us at one time or another.

    Well if we take people watching as a start then you need some were to sit (preferably movable chairs as well as cafe seating). Comfortable so heat sink planting and trees. Water for focus and white noise as well as refreshing spray. Also somewhere in the heat to dangle those hot sore feet, great for conservation a real barrie breaker, (people watching at Di’s memorial is proof of this so lovely to see).
    Human scale so if a large expanse reduce the area to area’s that feel comfortable. Leaving space for public entertainers and stalls.
    In my humble opinion its more about people than some chic empty space. People are messy, so the price you pay for a popular space, is a high upkeep, but if business benefits then they (self interest ) will be interested in the upkeep of the place.

    So Sit, Food, Water, People watching, Meeting place, Human scale. This is the theory of Holly Whyte who studied the Plaza’s of New York (1980) to discover why one was busy and popular and the others were not. Changed the policy of city planning with his results, now that is some study.

    So what ever we design as in shape, pattern, or from a ecological perspective.Its the end user that dictates, not the designer. Design is for the improvement of the many. Not for us as designer to dictate. What a joy it would be for any of us to design a scheme that was used and became a ‘Place’.

    What would I do?

    Personally find out the needs of the area, its short comings and what would really benefit the people who live and work there.

    Then incorporate some of the previous posters idea’s (got out of that one ).

    After my 4 years of study ( and er 40 ish+ years of observation) i keep coming back to the above conclusion.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Grant, I agree with everything you say but (1) success breeds success (2) failure breeds failure.
    Do you think that providing seats, food and water would be enough to turn the space round?
    Also, how would you deal with the problem that the residents probably do not want a Piazza Navona below their windows? They probably prefer having the space empty!

  14. Grant

    True true, its a case of what is the ultimate aim,

    a) For it be a pretty transit route to the thames, a pleasant corridor if you like.

    b) Somewhere to meander, slow down take in the surroundings, but not a long stay, so don’t provide too much. (Very much the plaza problem in New York pre Holly Whyte)

    c) Or finally an area that becomes a place, with all the pit falls (depending how you see it, once a place gets gentrified, community seems to go out of the window, people living their isolated cells) of having people actually stop, as this is destination.

    Between the residents/business this has to be decided then a design can be submitted, with the base remit sorted. Though as we know you can’t please all the people all the time. I am certainly not suggesting design by committee. So looking at space as the photograph suggests, they really don’t want people to stop. So Avenues of tree’s and water in a directional sense, leading to the river. Money saved use on a space that is for the benefit of all, not the select few.

    Maybe that was the Councils idea all along???

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think the problem is that the Council Planning Department did not have any sensible ideas, only a vague notion that ‘a new urban square would be a valuable planning gain’. If it is true that the residents do not want the space to be a social hub then I think the option of making Forum Magnum a contemplative space is the best choice. After all, there are many other places for crowds to throng on the South Bank. So here is a proposal: take up the paving and devote the ‘square’ to biodiversity, surface water management and beauty. I would like to see it as a soft swamp with vapours rising from the water at dawn. There would be sunlight flickering in the reeds, wild fowl building nests and teaching their chicks to swim. In the evening one could contemplate the croaking of frogs and the future of life on earth.
      But if the residents do want a busy space then it should be a cafe-market space with exotic coffees in the morning, chic food at lunch time, elegant dining in the evening and lots of things to buy all day. These activities would be income-generating and the residents could make money from their asset, which might be popular.

  15. Grant

    Sounds good to me Tom, though the quiet contemplative space (by the council at least) could be interpreted as under used and thus little maintenance by the council due to the afore mentioned reason. So adoption by the locals is a must, which would also encourage lobbing and well as volunteering to keep the area falling into disrepair. There is definitly a strategy in your thinking, so a slowing down as an option on route to the the Thames.

    Just reading this section has really made me think about absolute foundations of community support for a project, before a pencil has even come in contact with paper.

    Must remember that for September!!!!

  16. Grant

    Public or private? Like you i love the london Squares and as a child i used to manage to get in them even though they were private. Now as an Adult they feel elitist and wasted… public it is!


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