Is Grannary Square London's finest new public open space?

An Architect’s Journal comment welcomes Grannary Square as ‘London’s finest new public space’. So, many congratulations to the designers: Townshend Landscape Architects. It opened as a public open space in 2012 and had a great season in 2013 because of the fine summer weather.  Rory Olcayto rates it a better contribution to King’s Cross than the work of its panoply of big name architects (John McAslan + Partners, PRP,  MaccreanorLavington,  Glenn Howells,   Carmody Groarke,   Stanton Williams,  David Chipperfield,  Allies & Morrison,   AHMM,  Feix & Merlin, etc). Olcayto could have added that Grannary Square is likely to outlive ALL the buildings – just as St James’s Park has, so far, outlived Whitehall Palace by 300 years.

I see the design as a great start on what may become a great public open space. The design is strong and simple. The water feature is big and bold. The grove of trees with unfixed chairs and tables is a welcome homage to W H Whyte. The artificial grass steps, facing the sun and the canal, are a great success.  All good. Grannary Square is a little blank and empty – but can be expected to fill up with people and uses as Argent’s King’s Cross Development gathers steam.

As I was pressing the button to take the photograph, below, a distraught mother ran to me and cried ‘Excuse me – why are you photographing my children?’. She accepted my explanation and said that her husband was a photographer and often had similar complaints. I asked why she was troubled. ‘I don’t know’ she said ‘I just feel that it is my job to protect my children’. It reminds one of primitive peoples’ idea that something belonging to them them has been ‘taken’ when the camera clicks – and of girls who both want to be looked at and do not want to be looked at.  Lin Yutang commented that ‘All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress’. Do mother’s want their children to be admired?
The zany zig-zag is an installation by the Swiss artist Felice Varini and is entitled Across the Buildings. I believe it will only there in 2013 and will be sorry when it goes. See

30 thoughts on “Is Grannary Square London's finest new public open space?

  1. Christine

    Grannary Square does appear to be a good public space – and surprisingly the space seems designed to complement its urban surroundings (including the architecture which partially encloses the space).

    The water feature is predominantly the playground of young children. Perhaps this is the reason for the parental concern you experienced?

    The reason that Australian indigenous people object to photographs being taken and the faces of indigenous people being shown after death has to do with the soul.

    I am not sure when girls decide that they want to be looked at to be undressed. However, in the first instance when they are little they want to look pretty (its a girl thing) so a pretty dress helps, then around the teenage years as they are developing their own look they want to look fashionable.

    After they decide they like some particular boy they may perhaps decide that they want to look desirable. I am not sure if all or any girls want to look universally desirable (hence the idea of unwanted attention)!

    So mother’s probably don’t want their children looking desirable to men? Admired is perhaps a different attribute again. What are the children being admired for? And how does a mother know this?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I visited Tooting Commons yesterday and took a photograph, from the public park, of the gates of Tooting Bec Lido. It is famous as the largest swimming pool in the UK – and it is a very popular outdoor pool. Two Afro-British security guards ran out and told me taking photographs was agains the law. I explained that they could control photography within the lido but that taking photographs from outside the gates was legal. They got cross and grabbed hold of me and my camera. I asked them to call their manager or the police. They did both. Two sensible policeman arrived in about ten minutes, at which point the guards let go of me. They looked at the pictures on my camera and agreed that they were perfectly OK. When the policemen agreed to spead to the guards I said I would not make a complaint. But I am regretting it and, unfortunately, I did not notice that my roughing up by the guards had damaged my reading glasses. When I got home I looked up the problem on the web. It became serious c2000 and is becoming a real problem for people who take photographs. Even using a mobile phone near children can be regarded as suspicious behaviour. I begin to feel like a Jew in the Nazi era.
      Thank you for your comments on the female psyche. Can you also help me to understand the psyche of parents who worry about adults taking photographs which include their children? Without evidence, I have a suspicion that there is a dash of guilt feeding the frenzy. Not having as much time for their children as the previous generation, I think they might be responding by being over-protective. Or maybe they think 90% of child abusers are strangers? In fact 30% are relatives and 60% are acquaintances. They probably let both these groups photograph their children.

  2. Christine

    Perhaps the public needs more information on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate photography of children. This is probably why mothers, parents and security guards are worried by any and all photography of [their] children. The internet now is such an uncontrollable space and all it takes is for one photograph to be posted.

    That was the test that the policeman applied in deciding whether or not you could validly complain about your treatment. So perhaps the security guards had a legitimate right to question you afterall?

    It seems like from the reactions you are getting it is dangerous to be 1) a man 2) with a camera 3) in a public space where there are children present at the moment? So the public does seem to need to be more informed if only so that you can go about your normal life as a landscape architect. Or else employ a female student to do your photography for you?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, it is safer to be a female photographer in public spaces in the UK. Do male photographers in Australia have similar problems? The police were fair and friendly to me in this week’s incident, asking if I would like to make a complaint against the burly security guards (had I done so, it would have been for assualt). But I have a sense that the police are part of the problem. They have not been popular with the public in recent years (because of many cases in which they have falsified evidence in their own interests eg the Hillsborough disaster) and they may be making a bid for popularity by over-zealotry in the popular cause of protecting children from harm.

  3. Jerry

    Tom, why every time when you take pictures, the police would come? I visited the places in London so many times, only that day with you, we have been caught by that security:(

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      It is more like twice/year than every time and the reason could be that you look like a sweet and innocent young girl – and I look like a ‘dirty old man’. Also, as mentioned above, people are not well informed about the use of statistical evidence in criminology.

  4. Christine

    It may be Tom that there is a general suspicion of males taking photographs in public? Perhaps you should send a young male landscape architecture student to take the photographs to test out ‘sweet’ and ‘innocent’ as opposed to merely ‘girl’?

    Good comments by Jerry. Yes POE’s are always valuable.

    There has been a trend to include moveable deck chairs in some public squares recently. [ ] It seems to work well because 1) it provides more flexibility to the use of the space 2) it enables people to make their own choice about how and where they want to sit within the space.

    The fountains are obviously child friendly as they are robust enough to be played in, don’t have barriers at the edge.

    Also they and are not deep enough parents to worry about children drowning and have good supervisory qualities for parents watching children ie they are flat and open.

    The colours of the square also assist with child supervision as they are predominantly neutral or natural enabling parents to focus on the colour of their children’s clothing.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      It would be a great application for the experimental method. Another hypothesis worthy of testing is hats. I really dislike baseball caps but find them to be the only headwear which keeps the sun out of my eyes and does not blow off when cycling. They also fit in my pocket when necessary. It could be that an ‘older man’ in a baseball cap indicates who person who still thinks of himself as young in some respects.
      I agree about the moveable chairs – the Jardin du Luxembourg is the famous example. I had not thought of the safety aspect of the childrens play fountains but it is intuitively correct.
      Are the people in Fed Square watching cricket on TV? or are they practicing an alternative to slip slip-slop-slap?
      Jerry: please can you explain your idea about how colour affects the quality of an urban square, and what is good about the colour in Grannary Square.

  5. Jerry

    Thanks for your comments. Color affects peoples’ emotions, as is well known. Designing a public open space peoples’ emotion. So, color could affect the use of POS.

  6. Christine

    Yes, you could try different hats too in your experiment. One good conversation on age was about a Judge having to make a ruling on who was eligible for retirement living (or something similar) for planning purposes. I am not sure what the age threshold was…but judges still consider themselves in their prime in their 70s!

    Architects like Harry Seidler tend to keep working ie until he died at 92 and Oscar Neimeyer until past 100!

    It is possible that the people at Fed Square (Federation Square is the full name – ‘Fed’ Square is an Australian-ism) were attending a local outdoors radio station event.

    The photographs of the Jardin du Luxembourg are gorgeous. It would be interesting to do a comparison of it with both Fed Square and the Granary as public spaces.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am looking forward to being in my prime years, by the judges rekoning, but am unconvinced about my joints and muscles being in their prime then. Current indications do not point in that direction!
      Re public open spaces, I think they are like trees: they need a good seed, good soil, good care and a long time to grow. Re Grannary Square, I think it has passed the first two stages but will need good care and a a good period of time to become excellent. The history of Leicester Square, in London, is interesting. It has been re-designed lots of times and, at last, I think they have got it right. Urban designers need to learn from Thomas H. Palmer’s Teacher’s Manual (1840) ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’? It’s an expensive policy, but correct.

  7. Christine

    I am sure we could easy find some elite athletes much your junior who would love to muscles and joints in the same condition as yours.

    Fortuneately for Judges, their profession doesn’t call for the use of joints or muscles primarily but for brain power.

    It looks like Leicester Square was once a true square at least until the 1880s? Do you know much about its twentieth century history?

    And, well yes, I am sure you want to avoid a hat with black and white stripes, however good they look on zebras. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There must have been a very good designer involved in the evolution of the zebra.
      Re British judges, there are many laments in the press that they seem so unfamiliar with events in the past half-century. But in my one experience as a juror the judge’s familiarity with urban patois was cringe-worthy.
      Yes, I have read about the history of Leicester Square. It is great that the space has survived, without being Gezi-Taksim-ed, and I think the change of use from residential to entertainment centre justifies the changes in the design.

  8. Christine

    Yes the design of the zebra is rather excellent.

    The issue of the evolution of urban space certainly seems to be vexed. Fortuneately not all disputes are as heated as Gezi-Taksim obviously was.
    [ ]

    Perhaps Leicester Square was never a true square? [ ]

    It is interesting in this rendering to note the difference between the enclosure of the surrounding buildings and the fenced enclosure?
    [ ]

    The formal changes don’t give you much of an idea why they occurred, although there does seem to be some sort of continuity from the greenfields appearance? [ ]

    For example did the 2nd WW bombings have an impact on the evolution of the square? [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      ‘Square’ is a nice word but linguistically inaccurate for a ‘small urban public open space’. My guess is that plain-speaking Englishmen noticed the geometry as a leading characteristic of the new spaces being made in seventeenth century Europe. Leicester Square, for sure, has never had this geometry. The drawing of the fence raises another problem: most of London’s squares were not designed for public use and many of them remain ‘residents only’, even when there are very few residents left. As you note, a few ‘squares’ were public spaces eg Moorfields. Bombing allowed the creation of some new squares but I can’t think of any old London squares which were lost in this way. Open spaces tend to survive longer than buildings (eg Old Palace Yard becoming Parliament Square) and my guess is that Grannary Square will outlive most of the surrounding buildings (especially the ones now being built!).

  9. Christine

    Leicester Square in the rendering with the fence seems to have two sides with carriage traffic and two sides with pedestrian promenades? There must be a reason for the fencing of these urban parks?

    There is an early image of Hyde Park in Sydney showing something of this arrangement – and it seems to be that the fenced area is turfed while the area outside the fence is a dirt road.

    I am not sure if there was a general change in the design of these public open spaces when the roads were paved or if the roads and promenades surrounding Leicester Square were paved?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      London’s residential squares were fenced in order to control their use by residents only. Many are still managed like this and although the policy seems unfriendly to the general public it makes the spaces safer for families. I would like to see much clearer distinctions between (1) private open space – gardens (2) communal open space, for a group of residents (3) public gardens – controlled but free access (4) public parks, freely open to the public but managed for specific objectives and normally fenced (5) ‘wild’ open space: unfenced, freely open to the public, uses not restricted but ‘managed’ to the extent that mountains, moorlands, deserts and beaches are managed.

  10. Christine

    The development of parks is obviously different in Australia because of the difference chronological development of the cities. However, there is undoubtedly some similarities in the thinking across continents and eras?

    So some early pictures of Hyde Park Sydney:
    [ ] and [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      If a design historian came across those photos of Australia, I think he/she, would be able to guess that the people who made them were more influenced by England than by other European countries.

  11. Christine

    As a British colony in its earliest history this undoubtedly true of NSW – New South Wales.

    Although, my comment refers to the presence of fences as a seperating device, between road and green space?

    I am not aware that the issues of public commons or feudal arrangements of land ownership were ever a consideration in the NSW colony. (The Squatocracy never became established).

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      In the ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s there was strong support for ripping down park fences. People said ‘Why should we want to keep people out? Let them in.’ I remember going a lecture where we were shown photos of parks with railings. They were compared to prison bars. Then we were shown photos of how much better the place was without these cruel bars. But I never heard of any follow-up research to discover if removing the bars increased or decreased use of the parks. I think it decreased – because safety became an issue. In the good ‘ole days there as a Park Keeper who ensured that the park was well-tended, the plants were looked-after and the people were safe. When the fences were removed the safety was removed. Instead of there being a park keeper, mobile gangs of young men in dark green sweat shirts turned up in light green vans. They mowed the grass and they left.

  12. Christine

    Hmmm. Yes, Hyde Park does seem to have been known sometimes as ‘The Common’ in its earliest days.

    It was also used as a field of exercise for the troops. Two days after its dedication as Hyde Park it was the site of Australia’s first official horse race meeting held by Macquarie’s regiment! Meetings continued to occur there until the establishment of the Sydney turf club.

    It was also the site of the first rugby (the Sydney club v the Australian club), cricket (between civilians and officers on the Commons and the 17 and 39th regiments in Hyde Park)and boxing meetings (a passtime of the NSW Corps).

    Hyde Park was not turned into a public gardens until 1856.

    Any more clues about those fences?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      London’s Hyde Park was also used for military displays.
      Etymologically, a park is an enclosed place (ie it is ‘imparked’) and I still incline to the view that if it is not fenced or walled then, though it may well be a wonderful green space, it is not a park. So fences had two roles (1) keeping some humans and animals out (2) keeping some animals in, or protecting some humans (et women and children in residential town squares).
      In medieval England a common was unfenced land which belonged to the lord of the manor but on which the commoners enjoyed rights.

  13. Christine

    Hmmm. Well the Common was split off from the Domain. It’s original name was Phillip Domain as it was an open area set aside for the Governor’s exclusive use. The Domain apparentaly was encroached on in subsequent years and fights over attempts to reclaim it was one of the causes of the Rum Rebellion!

    Governor Macquarie when he arrived built stone walls around the gardens to Government House and the Government Domain – and separated them from Hyde Park (which at this time was not a public park had recreational and military uses).

    So, in a manner of speaking, Government House was probably the manor?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes: the terminology and landuse management you describe is feudal. Domain derives from the Latin for master. The modern French domaine is from the earlier French demaine and Old French demeine, from the Latin dominicus ‘of or belonging to a lord’. ‘Dominate’ has the same etymology.
      The ‘commons’ were scraps from the lord’s table which came to be enjoyed as of right by the common people.
      London’s Hyde Park also began as a royal domain and was used for military displays when, after the English Civil War, it was opened to the public.


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