City Square: Public or Private

Shiyun Fan and Yawen Gao




City squares, which served as a trade market at the beginning of urban formation 6000 years ago, has developed into a planned open public space in urban planning. As the growth of cities, increasing amount of architectures resulted in crowded city fabric. Thus contemporary people spared open spaces in front of some significant civic buildings such as government buildings or churches for public gathering. From then on, the main function of city squares has been stereotyped as an open space for mass rally.

Through our study of Tiananmen Square in the last project, we started to realize that city squares engaged with politics more than their ostensible publicness. [1] Obviously, the city square plays an important role in this politic affair. For further study, we assume that in monumental city squares, architecture and urban design give spatial and visual form to distinctive relationships between rulers and publics. 17th-century Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican, 19th-century Trafalgar Square in London, UK, and early 20th-century Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea are the three historic spots we choose to examine our hypothesis. While the Vatican square per se together with its influence to the urban fabric propagates the religious power of the Catholic and Pope, Trafalgar Square and Kim Il-sung Square are both used to promote their respective governmental figures, however, in different ways. Memorials were established on Trafalgar Square to commemorate public heroes, equivalent to governmental figures, yet it is the overall layout of Kim Il-sung Square along with its surrounding architectures.

[1] In retrospect, students gathered in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989 to protest the lack of democracy of the government. Their protest resulted in massive amounts of death and police brutality, which is now known as the Tiananmen Square Incident. In 2009, journalists were excluded by the police from Tiananmen Square in an attempt to hide the event.


Frontcourt for Pope

St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, 1656-1667, Gian Lorenzo Bernini 

As the earliest public square among the three, St. Peter’s Square, redesigned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667, reinforced its religious significance with its grand scale as well as its position in urban organization. Four hundred years ago was the Age of Baroque, as well as the epoch when Pope led the city planning. In 1656, Pope Alexander VII demanded his favored architect Bernini to build a square as an appropriate forecourt of St. Peter’s Basilica. To achieve the appropriateness, the architect had to renovate the unintentional old city organization, compromise with the Egyptian obelisk at the center, and establish an open space for the faithful to see the Pope give his blessing (the major objective).

Fig 1.1 General position and Plan of Saint Peter's Square
Fig 1.1 General position and Plan of Saint Peter’s Square

Viewing the map above, it is apparent that the position of St. Peter’s Square is of significance for it sits at the entrance of the Vatican City just as an antechamber of the city state. Generally, St. Peter’s ­ Square consists of three main parts, a vestibule in front of it now lying inside Italian territory, an oval plaza (the major part) with two colonnades on either side, and a trapezoid square connecting St. Peter’s Basilica. The entire route approaching the church reinforces the sublime position of the religion together with the Pope in the believers’ mind. The vestibule from Italian territory directs people straight towards the grand square. The view first is narrowed by the blocks on the either side of the vestibule but suddenly expansive when one hits his destination, the oval plaza. Along the West-east axis of the Saint Peter’s complex, while the 25-meter high Egyptian obelisk is admired at the center of the square, Saint Peter’s Basilica, the superior Catholic church, opens its arms to embrace the faithful and respectful. The obelisk occupies the center then diverge the flock stepping towards the church.  Walking along the lifting terrain, the trapezoid square ends the openness of the oval square, presents the grandness of Saint Peter’s Basilica, then exempts the restlessness in people’s mind, leading visitors to their temple. Along this pilgrimage route, the vertically huge columns and horizontally extensive square exert the holiness on the populated.  Also, examining the plan of the oval square, with its long axis along with North-south direction and the obelisk at the center, another cross, which is more extensive and in a more gigantic scale than the one embodied in Saint Peter’s Basilica, appears.

Fig 1.2 The obelisk at the center of Saint Peter's Square
Fig 1.2 The obelisk at the center of Saint Peter’s Square
Fig 1.3 Mass on Saint Peter's Square. Note that the higher position where Pope stands than the believers.
Fig 1.3 Mass on Saint Peter’s Square. Note that the higher position where Pope stands than the believers.

However, unless engaging itself with human activities, the architecture per se will never realize its intrinsic meaning. According to Pope Alexander VII’s requirement, the Saint Peter’s square was redesigned “so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the facade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace”(Norwich 1975 P175), which causes a stage effect in the square. At every mass, the Pope stands at the portico in the middle of the church façade with thousands of hundreds of believers looking up to. Also, the general audience are restricted in front of the stairs of the church, keeping distance from the Pope and the church. With the massive capacity of 500,000 people, it seems that the gigantic scale of Saint Peter’s square benefits people to build up the connection with their shepherd. However, it is the gigantic amount of believers who benefits the religion to corroborate its influence and significance. Thus, the monumentality of the square, which is elusive in terms of its massiveness per se, is materialized by the human activities.


Antechamber for Government

Trafalgar Square, London, UK, 1820s to 1840s

Compared with the religious representation of St. Peter’s Square, Trafalgar Square are built mainly for political use. While the whole construction of Trafalgar Square shows the dominance of ruling class, the Nelson Memorial Column propagates military mighty of the Great Britain. Trafalgar Square once was the King’s Mews at just North of Charing Cross. Until about 1820, Charing Cross always operated as the northern gate to Whitehall Palace (where contains the British ruling class) as well as the only way to approach the palace by land. As Charing Cross was the entrance of the area where lived the Nobility and Gentry, Trafalgar Square would be the forecourt, thus the communication point between the upper and lower class of the city. However, it would be a false image that the British head decided to Trafalgar Square in order to open a window to the inferior. Instead, Trafalgar Square was built to distance or repel the so-called anti-government “mob” from the center of power as Charing Cross appeared to be too close to the royal complex. Such intention of separation can be verified when examining Arbuthnot’s opinion to the plan of Trafalgar Square. Arbuthnot, the host of the renovation and re-organization of London, once stated that,

“a great benefit to the Metropolis in the way of free communication from one end to the other” (for carriages, that is, Arbuthnot never described any other sort of traffic) “but would also have the advantage of getting rid of vast numbers of bad and unsightly houses (and their occupants – Rodney Mace) which at present crowded together in the vicinity of St. Martin’s Church, which would add considerably to the beauty of that part of the Metropolis”. [2]

Fig 2.1 Plan of Trafalgar Square
Fig 2.1 Plan of Trafalgar Square


Fig 2.3 Analogy of Nelson Memorial
Fig 2.2 Analogy of Nelson Memorial

It is notable that the “free communication” throughout the Metropolis was just for carriages. At an age when only upper classes could afford to employ carriages as their transportation, apparently, both the patron and his designers planned the city to fulfil only the Nobility and Gentry rather than all the citizens.

Then the Nelson Memorial was decided to be erected at the southern edge of Trafalgar Square in 1840 after General Nelson sacrificed thirty five years ago. During the first half of the nineteenth century, sculptural memorials populated among the aristocracy. Yet it was the French Revolution and the wars between Britain and Napoleon from 1793 till 1815 that changed fashion that the Government began to finance public memorials for direct didacticism. Just in the wars with Napoleon, General Nelson became the public hero but the saver of the Government’s face. The British army and navy kept defeated by the French until Nelson and the British Fleet encountered Napoleon and his army in Egypt in 1798. Besides, Nelson led the British fleet to the victory of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which eventually established the Great Britain as the number one position of sea power in Europe, which subsequently enabled the Britain to expand its economic and political power over the globe, which also resulted in his personal death. Not until 1840, 35 years after Nelson’s death, a committee was organized to prepare the memorial for the great general, for it was the time when the conflict between the ruling class and working class, as well as the capitalism and socialism, started to emerge. ­­This aroused sense of danger of British ruling class and made them realized that their people needed some nostalgic and chauvinistic sugar such as the national hero, General Nelson. After a competition or bidding for the Nelson Column, William Railton won the first prize with a design of direct simulation of the Corinthian capital on a column in the temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus in Rome, which was built to commemorate the fight against the enemies of Roman Empire. The wars of Britain against France or Napoleon seems the history was repeating itself. Thus the adoption of the column form for Nelson Memorial can be understood as the arrogance of England to boast itself as Roman Empire.

[2] Rodney Mace, “Charing Cross,” in Trafalgar Square: emblem of empire. (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 39.

Lobby hall for Official party

Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea, 1954

Fig 3.1 Plan of Kim Il Sung Square
Fig 3.1 Plan of Kim Il Sung Square
Fig 3.2 Plan of Tiananmen Square
Fig 3.2 Plan of Tiananmen Square


Another square for political use or dominant purpose, the Kim Il-sung Square per se emblems the official party of North Korea but also performs as an exclusive stage for political ceremonies. Opened in Pyongyang in 1954 without publication of the architect’s name, Kim Il-sung Square has almost the same organization as that of Tiananmen Square. Geographically, at the center of the capital city, it lies symmetrically along an approximately East-West axis at the western side of Taedong River. Four political and cultural buildings flanked the square just as the occasion on Tiananmen Square (comparison can be viewed in the following diagrams). On the northern side of the square sits WPK Party Headquarters and Korean Central History Museum while Ministry of Foreign Trade and Korean Art Gallery are set at the southern side. Though the Tower of the Juche idea stands across the river, one may think of it at the east end of the square because it is located along the East-west axis of the square, which is to mimic the Monument of the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square. At the West end of the square stands the Grand People’s Study House, a traditional Korean style building built in 1982 to celebrate Kim Il-sung’ s seventieth  birthday. All these buildings that surround or besiege the central opening appears to stifle the openness of the square.

The unique character of the square must be the specialized stand just in front of the Study House. Its construction reveals the main function of the square – an official place to hold military parades and party ceremonies. Also, the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il (Father and son, and the first and second leader of the Worker Party and North Korea) hang on the facade of the stand along with the seasonal banners. Yet formerly it was Karl Marx and Lenin’s statues hanging there to reinforce the socialistic nature of the nation. As the Kim Il-sung Square is the most common setting (almost the only setting) reported by foreign media, such substitution, though never admitted or announced officially, obscurely demonstrates the dominance of Korean Worker Party but the dictatorship of Kim’s Family.

Fig 3.3 Portraits Of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong-Il, Pyongyang, North Korea
Fig 3.3 Portraits Of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong-Il, Pyongyang, North Korea

Turn to the open space per se, the closest part to the reviewing stand is Taehaksupdang Road, then an approximately square rectangle, another road called Sungri Street, and another longitudinal rectangle. The former rectangular space is for parade or performance while the latter one is for audience or people. The political meaning embodied in this rhythmic organization can be easily abstracted as a political priority: firstly the leader, secondly the military power, lastly the general public. However, a middle-aged Korean woman, when interviewed after listening to the speech delivered by Kim Jong Un(the present leader of North Korea and its Worker Party) and viewing the military parade on the Square, said that she was encouraged by the parade and leader’s address, feeling confident about the nation’s future and people’s future. Besides other approaches to govern the domestic population, the ruling class of North Korea performance its power to direct or control the people by means of grand public activities, meanwhile propagates itself to the globe using these pictorial illustration.


To conclude after researching on the three significant squares, the monumental city squares appears to be the public space for the public but turns out to be the private room of the ruling class. Positioning at the center of respective capital cities, all three squares can be delineated as their antechamber. This space, just as in the household, is used to be looked at for the most time. Because of its nature and effectiveness of advertisement, the host displays his superb collections to exert his social and political aspirations on the neighbors over the world. The luxurious facade of St. Peter’s Basilica together with the huge colonnade of its square have been undoubtedly cherished as the gems the church and the Vatican City. As the Nelson Column on Trafalgar Square symbolized for England its mighty sea power and world dominion, the massive governmental and gallery buildings on Kim Il-Sung Square blurt out the grandness of their nation. Every individual is defined as insignificant by the designers or owners of these gigantic monuments. The public only act as the viewer to accept the organization of the “living room”, and indisputably the rules legislated by the hosts. But the population also has their elusive freedom to choose resist or not. The faithful in Vatican vow to obey their Pope and religion, likewise the Korean common praise and extol the present leadership of the nation. On the contrary, the seaman of basic level was incensed by the planning of Trafalgar Square for no memorial was built for the people who sacrificed for the national wars. They revolted but in turn was suppressed in both ways of laws and militaries as the same situation in Tiananmen Square. Thus the public is also the viewee watched by invisible eyes and manipulated by invisible hands. Or, maybe both of the public or rulers are performers on the stage of the square, witnessed by the enduring architecture, and eyes of history.



Link for the previous paper: Police exclude journalists on Tiananmen Square

1500-1750:  Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican

– “St. Peter’s Square,” Wikipedia, last modified on 3 October, 2013,’s_Square

– “Piazza of St. Peter’s,” GreatBuildings,

– Plan:

– Giacomo Galeazzi. “St. Peter’s returns to the Seventeenth Century,” vaticaninsider, Sept. 27th, 2011,

– “The Square – Piazza San Pietro,” Saint Peter’s Basilica,

– Google map,

– The Pope addresses the faithful in St Peter’s Square,

– Basilica St Pietro,

 1750-1900:  Trafalgar Square, London

– Mace, Rodney. Trafalgar Square, 1976. Laurence and Wishart, London.

– “Trafalgar Square,” Wikipedia, last modified on 11 October, 2013,

– “National Gallery,” Wikipedia, last modified on 6 October, 2013,\

– Plan(Google Map):

– Image for Victorian Trafalgar Square,

– Image for Nelson Memorial, the Victorian Web,

– Image for the capital of the column of Temple of Mars Ultor,

 1900-1989:  Kim Il-Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea

– Ryall, Julian. “Lenin and Karl Marx statues removed from North Korea’s Kim Il-sung Square,” Telegraph, 15 Oct, 2012,

– “Kim Il-Sung Square (Pyongyang)”, Wikimapia,

– “Lonely Planet review for Kim Il-Sung Square”, Lonely Planet,

– “North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un gives first speech at centenary parade”, YouTube, April 15th, 2012,



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