This is the commercial and social heart of Totnes. Physically it lies approximately in the middle of the High Street district. Below I give an overview of the design of the square itself. I’ll show more of how it is used over time.
The area of the square was once a market building, where vendors sold “just about everything” from individual stalls. The building was destroyed in the 1950s. (History and picture from transitionculture.org)
Now an open space, the square is used for a Friday and Saturday market and community events.
Immediately, it should be obvious that the square has a transportation function; the bollards and benches clearly define a travel lane. Those lane definers break the square up visually and functionally – the functional useable space for the square for large gatherings is essentially the area between the bollards and the buildings. If vehicles do have to utilize the space, I think it far better in this circumstance to do away with the lane definition and just let it be what it wants to be; one large open space.
Then there is the issue of the planters. In plan view they probably looked perfect. But in three dimensions all they do is cut up the space. In this climate, are they not needed for shade trees. The little edibles that are in them now look like those found in many community gardens: patchy at best. Edibles in the civic realm are very important symbolically, but if it is going to be done, it must be done wholeheartedly and not as some gimmick to demonstrate “sustainability.”
The benches don’t work for two reasons: they don’t create a spot for conversations and they create the awkward experience of having your back turned to the larger space, regardless of where you sit. In public plazas people like to stand and talk in the middle of the space, while they like to sit alone on the perimeter, the better to people watch.
The view out to the fourth side of the square – High Street – is quite handsome. Modest buildings of gentile proportion, with evident character of age found in the way they seem to lean against each other. The book store on the right in the picture below engages the space.
The paving pattern is conventional. Imagine the possibility of a more graphically interesting pattern if the lane definers and the planting areas were removed. This is an opportunity for a strong visual statement that would do nothing to impede the functionality of the space.
Finally, the buildings which frame the view into the square leave much to be desired. The arcaded building on the left creates a dead space, despite the “public art” adorning the lower wall. The free-form staircase leading up from the plaza serves only to highlight the dead corner behind it. The large glassed area it leads to is an enticement; what goes on in there? Unfortunately, whatever it is is hidden by the barn like Civic Hall structure spanning the space. The ramp at the right is too wide for the unappealing entrance it leads to. The connection under the building seems an after-thought. While a good idea functionally, an unpleasant space is created under the building. Better to have brought the entire building to ground level, created an indoor-outdoor relationship, and then had a connection through to the other side.
Despite the flaws, this space is used. I think that it has more to do with its location than with its design. In another location the design flaws would kill any true use of the space.