16 February 2018
Bedford Square, London
Bedford Square could easily be described as one of the most civilised and likeable corners of London. With its’ lush oval ‘garden’ framed by well-preserved Georgian palace-façade terraces, the square makes a widely acknowledged landmark. Not to mention the inner green reveals a most peculiar secluded idyll in the centre of London – if one manages to get hold of a resident’s key, that is.
Unlike the surrounding terraces, the turfed surface of the square has been subject to continuous alterations. Over the last 200 years at least four different layouts can be traced towards the image of today’s wild yet manicured greenery, proving its artificial construction that was perhaps more consciously composed than the buildings looking onto it. That is to say while the terraces owe much of their appearance to standardised materials and methods of construction, the green space that they encase has been continuously adapted according to the fashion of the time. Therefore, the square could be described as the more customised object and in this way, it becomes the protagonist within the Bedford Square ensemble. Moreover, the central green oval predates the rest of the square; the oval was first laid out in 1775 and this was then followed by the buildings, which were not built as a synchronised whole but developed house by house around the square and their completion sequentially framed the ‘squared’ form.
In this manner Bedford Square presents a long tradition of London Squares and their evolution since the laying out of Covent Garden in 1630. The invention of the early squares came
with an intention to initiate bright and airy suburbs by organising residential units around a loose grid of open spaces. Paradoxically, with the arrival of open space for London, the developer’s desire to limit public access into the squares grew. This was an effort to differentiate ‘the square’ from the vision of the customary common grounds such as Moorfields and Leicester Fields, which were accessible open spaces within the city and could be used as work spaces as well as for gatherings, for traditional games, celebrations and informal recreation for all.
Meanwhile, the intention of the square was to compose sanitised, calm and tidy living quarters suitable for the wealthy upper middle class and in this sense, a new form of open space was created; spaces that would stand in contrast to the overcrowded city of London inside the medieval walls. As a sanitisation tool, the squares were gradually enclosed; first by simple poles, wooden palisades and finally by iron railings with locked gates; the latter was made possible through parliamentary enclosure acts.
The locking of the squares made physically and spatially manifested legitimation inevitable; whereby, if a square was to be enclosed it would need to become visibly precious to all outside and provide a clear alternative to the city, to give reason for its enclosure. Consequently, the need for legitimation meant that trees and shrubbery were introduced to the London Square. Over the course of the eighteenth century, such green beautification evolved into a crucial instrument that rendered surrounding land as valuable speculative building ground. These actions allowed for a control over the territory; a move which was made from the viewpoint of land ownership under modern private property rights.
This was a reality rather different to the historic understanding of land ownership in feudal England: for better or for worse, all land, by definition, was accepted to be formally owned by the king, divided into manors and held by manor lords, who in return offered services to the crown. On a smaller scale this relationship of services for a right to use the land was mimicked in the lord/peasant relation within a manor. The common land in this system guaranteed the livelihood of peasants, no matter if it consisted of fallow land, a village green, wasteland around the village or arable common fields; regardless of these, the essence of common land lay in the rights to use it.
That is to say rights to the soil, for pasture and farming, rights to productively use the space for drying laundry, cooking or other forms of early co-working and rights to gather resources such as fire wood and building material, as well as rights to roam, ‘cruise’ and leisure freely. This common land has been lost gradually with a more and more centralised system of government in England. Yet a major event in its decease has doubtlessly been the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII from 1536.
Along with the English reformation, vast estates of church land were confiscated and given or sold to lesser noble and newly wealthy families and in this way, such land was taken out of the feudal system. This moment may be described as the point at which an understanding of modern private property emerged.
Within the proximity of London, it became most lucrative to develop the old manors into speculative building ground, as mentioned earlier. Among those estates: Bloomsbury was taken from the Carthusian monks of the London Charter House and given to the Earl of Southampton; and one of the squares laid out to propel this transformation – perhaps the most prominent after Covent Garden, was Bedford Square.
This is how the square which we so widely accept as a pleasant landmark can be associated with the capitalist praxis of speculative building, an apparatus that shapes London to this day. It should in fact be regarded as the most seductive instrument and however obsolete to land value it is today, the resonance of the square continues through its appealing spatial dominance. Hence, the square forms an anachronism which carries a brutal heritage of appropriating a working landscape and transforming it into a sanitised city. Bedford Square could therefore also be regarded as an impressive monument to the loss of common land in London – or in other words – ‘her’ burial ground.
All are welcome to attend the funeral of Common Land, which will be held on Bedford Square on February 23 2018, 6pm.