Except in this case, it isnt square at all. This is Piazza San Spirito in Florence, which was formed in the 13th century.
This piazza takes the form of a trapezoid and is bound completely on two sides by mixed use buildings. The north end is bound by San Spirito Church – designed by Brunelleschi, more on that later – with an alley leading to an opening to the east. The fourth side is separated from the piazza by a narrow street. This piazza is the center of the Oltrano district of Florence.
The boundaries of the open space are approximately 420’ in its north-south dimension and approximately 150’ in its east-west dimension. The center of the piazza – the “designed” portion – takes the form of an elongated oval, or a rectangle with rounded corners, of approximately 150’ north-south by 90’ east-west.
The tallest buildings are four very tall floors. This is epitomized by Palazzo Guadagni, which anchors the southeast corner of the piazza. There is a statue of Cosimo Ridolfi, a 19th century Italian politician. An unadorned octagonal fountain sits in the center of the space. The piazza is traffic free. Except for simple unmulched planting beds the square is paved with rectangle stones. Fifteen shade trees flank the center space. Two cast iron decorative light poles stand on the north and south sides of the piazza.
Many of the ground floors on the east side are comprised of restaurants, stores and souvenir shops. It appears that many daily necessities could be found there. The west side buildings are residential for the most part. A small market operates along the south side Monday through Saturday. Children play. Most tourists don’t make it this far away from the predictable sights, so the diners are mostly locals.
The San Spirito Church was to be Brunelleschi’s masterpiece of perspective and use of materials. His vision for the interior was to use architecture to create lines of perspective that would focus the viewer’s eye on the altar. In 1400, this was a new idea. The façade remains unfinished, simple plaster over rocks and stones, a perfect companion to a simple space.
There is a classic human scale to the place. As this isn’t on a main thoroughfare, people don’t seem to be in a hurry. There is nothing too demanding in the surroundings. It feels like simple the heart of a vibrant, real neighborhood.
There is much to be learned by this design of space. How many of us as urban designers will ever be able to achieve such grace? If we strive to do so, we must learn with Zen-like concentration that purity of design which makes it possible.
For a great take on what it is like to actually use the square as an outdoor living room, read this