Peter Buchanan on Foster+Partner’s balancing act between the needs of traffic and pedestrians, the ceremonial and the everyday, the old and the new

World squares for all: Trafalgar Square’s transformation

Central London’s richly varied public realm — its streets and squares, parks and public buildings — is a legacy of its long history, throughout which many of these elements have undergone successive modification. Although the twentieth century added its modifications, and infrastructure such as Underground lines and stations, as well as the cultural complexes of the South Bank and Barbican, it contributed little else of major consequence or quality. But the burgeoning optimism in the run up to the Millennium, and the introduction of Lottery largesse, led to several additions and improvements to London’s public realm. Museums were upgraded and extended, the Tate Modern created by conversion, two new footbridges erected across the Thames and an improved walkway fashioned along its southern bank. The architect privileged to contribute most to this transformation is Foster + Partners, responsible for the Great Court of the British Museum, the Millennium Bridge across the Thames and World Squares for All, even if only a portion of the latter was implemented.

World Squares for All started as a masterplanning study of how to upgrade a substantial portion of central London, much of that which is the civic and ceremonial core of the UK – which had once been that of the British Empire too. Extending from a little beyond Trafalgar Square at its northern end to beyond Parliament Square at its southern end, the area involved extends from the edge of St James Park on the west to the Thames to the east. It thus incorporates the major institutions of British government, its Parliament and the various ministries along Whitehall, Westminster Abbey replete with its royal associations, the National Gallery and the local outposts of major Commonwealth countries. Full of history and fine architecture, the area is also subject to a wide variety of landowners and supervisory bodies.

As the project title indicates, the goal was to better adapt this well-known and symbolically charged area of international significance to the use and enjoyment of all Londoners and visitors. This required synthesising, through detailed urban and architectural design, the inputs of many sorts of consultants, including traffic engineers and analysts of pedestrian movement, and designers of hard and soft landscaping. It also entailed extensive consultation with the many landowners and bodies involved with the area. It was thus a fiendishly complex project, the final understated product of which, even more than is usual with urban design projects, reveals little of the diversity of considerations synthesised in shaping it – a hallmark of skilled urban design.

Although Foster + Partners refurbished the Treasury and built the National Police Memorial, both within the World Squares area and both commissioned at much the same time as the study, the only proposal of the original masterplan to be executed was the remodelling of Trafalgar Square. Its triumphant success indicates what would have been achieved if more had been implemented, particularly in refurbishing the rest of what was to have been the central armature of the scheme: Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Whitehall, the broad ceremonial route that links them. A key theme that emerged slightly late in the process was to have been the contrasting treatment of the two major squares and the areas around them, a contrast that would have enriched their separate identities and meaning, and so those of London too.

The belated idea was that Parliament Square become not just an extension of the churchyards between it and the religious buildings flanking it but that, together with all the smaller spaces around and behind these buildings, it be developed on the peculiarly English urban model of the cathedral close, a quiet and soft green enclave of grass and trees between walls of venerable masonry. Unfortunately the enchanting aptness of this idea, and the enrichment and intensification of symbolism and meaning it would have brought, seem not to have been properly appreciated, nor the relevance of such things to what should be the goals of urban design. This is not only about such things as the convenience of pedestrians and traffic, and aesthetic coherence, but also about shaping places of contrasting character and meaning, so contributing variety to a city. Better yet is if this is done in a way that evokes or grounds the scheme in local history. The commission to redesign Parliament Square was later given to others and largely treated as a stand alone project. Lacking this larger logic, nothing eventually came of it. But this is probably a better outcome than to have executed the wrong scheme; the option remains to implement Foster’s scheme in the future.

World Squares for all marked a confluence of the personal ambitions of Norman Foster with larger forces then in play, not least the increasing awareness in London of the transformations being undertaken in other European cities and of the relative failings of parts of central London, particularly in prioritising vehicular traffic over pedestrians. The successful refurbishment of the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy (Foster’s first involvement in a historic building), followed by the unsuccessful attempt to get Lottery funding to rework the public realm in the South Kensington cultural, museum and university enclave (the so-called Albertopolis proposal), left Foster keen to intervene again in a historic setting. Preferably this would involve urban design, which he felt was undervalued at the time, in a key part of central London ripe for improvement. To generate ideas as to what could be done and how to accomplish them, a regular series of breakfast meetings was convened in his Battersea offices starting in 1995. Besides Foster and Spencer de Grey, the group included Bill Hillier and Tim Stonor of Space Syntax Laboratory, whose input had been crucial to the seminal but unexecuted Kings Cross master plan. The other regular attendees were: Ricky Burdett, then of the Architectural Foundation and later to launch the first, very successful series of Evening Standard debates on the future of London: Peter Heath of Civic Design Partnership, an independent urban design consultant with a particular interest in working in historic contexts; and Erica Boulton, who was to help publicise the emerging ideas.

Because Foster had recently been commissioned to refurbish the Treasury, it was inevitable that attention would focus on the area around it. The first proposal to emerge from these meetings was to purge Horse Guards Parade, a little north of the Treasury, on the edge of what became the World Squares site, of the civil servants cars that clogged it daily and to refurbish this. Opening to St James Park on the west and edged by Horse Guards building by William Kent (probably London’s finest Palladian building), Foster argued that the parade ground should be opened up to the pedestrian public realm, which might even be expanded by closing Horse Guards Road to vehicular traffic. This proposal was campaigned for by the Evening Standard, London’s evening newspaper and, although nothing happened immediately, it this has now been implemented.

World squares for all: Trafalgar Square’s transformation

Foster’s first major chance of enhancing London’s historic public realm came with gaining, through competitive interview, the World Squares for All commission only slightly later in 1996. Over the decades prior to this, many proposals had been made for transforming Trafalgar Square and elements in its surroundings (such as the connections to the South Bank, the major cultural centre on the other bank of the Thames), better integrating them with each other and into London. One well publicised scheme, for instance, was Richard Rogers & Partners competition entry for an extension to the National Gallery that was to join with Trafalgar Square via a tunnel under the road above its northern edge. Again, all such proposals had come to nothing, not least because there was no clear single or collective client with the power and will to execute them.

But activity nearby, such as the proposed reconstruction of the Hungerford footbridge and a sequence of proposals by different architects to improve and extend the South Bank complex, as well as widespread awareness of how other European cities like Barcelona and Paris were upgrading their public realm, increased the pressure for concerted action. Eventually Government for London, the body which administered London for the then Conservative government (which had disbanded the democratically elected Greater London Authority) announced the World Squares for All commission and, moreover, was prepared to undertake the role of convincing and coordinating all the different bodies, some 180 of them, with interests and responsibilities of various sorts in the area.

Foster + Partners won the commission by offering not a design but rather a commitment to a particular approach. Based in rigorous analysis of existing pedestrian and traffic movements in the area, by Space Syntax Laboratory and traffic engineers in Halcrow & Partners, this would only then generate equally rigorously tested proposals to ameliorate the problems found which would then be presented for discussion and negotiation with all interested parties. The almost contemporaneous commissions to design the National Police Memorial and refurbish the Treasury building, both within the area included in World Squares for All, were coincidental.

World Squares for All

The title of the study given at the outset by Government for London clearly expresses its intentions: that this area of international significance, where was shaped not only English and British history, but to some degree that of many other parts of the world, be made more accessible and usable for everybody, Londoners and visitors. Amongst the things specifically asked for in the brief were improvements to the pedestrian experience, which at the time was subordinated to the flow of traffic. The brief even suggested investigating closing to traffic one side of each of the two main squares. Also sought were improved pedestrian access to public transport and, where possible, improvements to the movements of buses. (This was prior to the introduction of the congestion charge.)

To undertake such a study and prepare a masterplan required a multidisciplinary team. To the group that attended the breakfast meetings were added Halcrow Fox as traffic engineers, Peter Walker and Partners as landscape architects and Davis Langdon Everest as quantity surveyors. But equally important to the success of both the original study and the remodelling of Trafalgar Square was the contribution of members of Government for London, particularly those who chaired the client meetings which included representatives from English Heritage, the Royal Parks, Westminster Council, the Houses of Parliament, and London Transport. Especially important were the roles played by Liz Meek and, even more so, Joyce Bridges, who helped to progressively win over all the relevant bodies, had the ear and confidence of everyone involved and were able to report directly to the Minister of the Environment, John Prescott, and his relevant deputy, Glenda Jackson.

Also immensely important in ensuring success was that once the team had analysed the existing situation — using the convincingly rigorous computer modelling, with their relatively easily read graphics, of Space Syntax Laboratory and Halcrow Fox — no single design solution was proposed. Instead, a series of eight different kinds of opportunities for improvement were offered, ranging from minor interventions such as improved pedestrian crossings, up to the more radical solutions involving road closures and changes to listed historic fabric. After two months of consultation these were brought together into four conceptual approaches, again of increasing levels of intervention. This clearly conveyed the openness of the team to the inputs of others and the readiness to seek a solution not through imposition but negotiation and consensus. In retrospect, Spencer de Grey still sees this approach as exemplary and is convinced that, without it, it would not have been possible to implement such a radical approach as was eventually agreed for the whole site and achieved in remodelling Trafalgar Square.

The study started with Norman Foster and Bill Hillier, accompanied by members of their offices, spending much of a day exploring the area in some depth. They observed patterns of movement and use, and the reasons for some parts not being better used, and made immediate suggestions as to their remedy, as well as for other possible improvements. Almost all these observations and proposed solutions were confirmed with more rigorous measured observation and merely improved upon with further work.

Crucial to the functioning of the whole area would be the improvements made to the three components that constitute its central armature, Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Whitehall, the broad street that connects the two squares. Trafalgar Square was already visually splendid and pivotally positioned where Whitehall and the Mall – the ceremonial routes to Parliament and Buckingham Palace, respectively – meet the Strand leading to the City of London. But although used for political rallies and celebrations, and visited by tourists, the central square had little day-to-day use by Londoners. The reasons were obvious: it was isolated in a swirling maelstrom of heavy traffic; and it was impossible to traverse on a direct diagonal. The stairs down in the two northern corners followed a convoluted route and oriented those descending them to proceed along the sides of the square. It was immediately obvious that a broad stair down directly in front of the central portico of the National Gallery would facilitate the diagonal crossing of the square and so also its use for other purposes.

It was also apparent that the broad pavement overlooking the northern edge of the square was little used while that on the other side of the heavily trafficked roadway outside the National Gallery was dangerously narrow, particularly with people queuing at the bus stops along it. These problems would vanish and access to the square be further improved if this roadway were closed to traffic and pedestrianised. Also observed was the considerable number of tourists who risked life and limb to reach the triangular traffic island on which stood the equestrian statue of Charles I. Crossing to it, the reason became obvious: this island commanded much the best panoramic view in the area, not only of the National Gallery, and the square and Nelsons Column in front of it, but also vistas down Whitehall and the Strand and through Admiralty Arch to the Mall. It was the ideal place from which to take photographs.

In contrast with Trafalgar Square, a key problem of Parliament Square is that – despite its symbolically charged location and the views from it of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey – it lacks visual presence. It too is little used, again because it is a traffic roundabout and the pedestrian crossings to it are weak. Here it was clear that closure of the south side would not only make the square more accessible but also, by extending what had been their churchyards, improve the settings of both Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s church in front of it. Also noticed on this initial reconnoitre was that although Whitehall links the two major squares, few tourists walk its length. Instead they tend to walk from Parliament Square to see Lutyens’ Cenotaph and Downing Street, and return, and walk down from Trafalgar Square to see the Horse Guards and Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House, and return. To those who know about Space Syntax the reason for this is clear: Whitehall’s gently curved alignment prevents one square from being seen from the other, so removing the incentive to walk between them.

To back up the masterplanning study, more rigorous and exhaustive, and so convincing, analysis was undertaken by Space Syntax Laboratory. Axial analysis was undertaken, plotting on a map the long axes of all spaces and assessing the average number of turns required to access each of them from anywhere else in the area – what Space Syntax refers to as its “integration value”. This confirmed that the centres of both squares were poorly integrated into local pedestrian movement patterns. Then the pedestrian movements of 10,000 people who lived in, worked in and visited the area were traced. As part of this process, pedestrian counts were taken at 306 locations (169 of them within the study area) at differing times of the day, the positions of all pedestrians plotted at specific instants, and their movements tracked. This all confirmed the initial observations and conclusions drawn from them. Only one person, for instance, was noted crossing Trafalgar Square on each of its diagonals during these periods of observation.

As well as informing the proposed changes, axial analysis was then applied to predict the consequences of changes such as the proposed road closures, improved pedestrian crossings and construction of the central stair on the north side of Trafalgar Square. This showed clearly how much better integrated each square would be in the local movement network, and so how they would be brought alive by day-to-day public use. Also confirmed by this analysis was the viability of Space Syntax’s proposed inducement to pedestrians to walk the length of Whitehall. Enhancing the existing Privy Garden, which is visible from both squares, as a public place, it would become an enticing destination and rest place midway along Whitehall.

 When the project was initiated, Trafalgar Square already had a strong visual image so that people all around the world would immediately recognise it. A large and somewhat amorphously shaped space, its strong visual identity was achieved by flattening its centre between retaining walls that bounded three sides as well as by the axial relationships between elements within this central square and the long façade of the National Gallery that edges the northern side of the outer square. Thus Nelson’s Column aligns with the central portico of the museum and Lutyens’ two fountains seem almost to align with the lesser porticoes to each side. Flanking either side of the outer square are Canada House and South Africa House and closing the north-east corner is St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Visually memorable as all this may be, the problem was that the levelled-off centre was ringed by a maelstrom of traffic and so accessed primarily by tourists – and by Londoners’ only on special occasions.

 By contrast, Parliament Square had, and still has, little visual presence or identity. It is merely a flat patch of grass and paving, also set in the midst of traffic swirling all around it, and recognisable only from the flanking buildings, in particular Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. There is little reason to visit the centre of the square and few do so. Linking these two squares is Whitehall, a broad street flanked by major ministries and two of central London’s outstanding works of architecture, Inigo Jones Banqueting House and William Kent’s Palladian Horse Guards. Set in the centre towards the Parliament Square is Lutyens’ small but potent Cenotaph where the war dead are commemorated each year. But despite the fine buildings along it and the tourist throngs visiting Trafalgar Square and the Horse Guards, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, few tourists walk the length of Whitehall. That is largely because, with its kinked alignment, the squares are not visible from each other and few visitors realise that Whitehall connects these prime tourist sites.

To prepare the competition winning scheme, the design team that included Foster and other members of his office, Bill Hillier and Tim Stonor from Space Syntax, and Peter Heath was soon expanded include the engineers Halcrow & Partners. This was because early analysis by the Foster and Space Syntax members suggested one side of both squares should be closed to traffic and pedestrianised. Traffic engineers were thus needed to make this argument and prove that alternative, equally satisfactory arrangements could be made for the circulation of vehicular traffic. Having won the competition it was decided that, since the input of the traffic engineers was so crucial to the credibility of the proposals, the team should be headlined by an engineering firm that included traffic engineers. In this case Atkins was chosen, partly because Peter Heath now worked for it. This was the team that implemented the Trafalgar Square scheme.


Trafalgar Square

The remodelling of Trafalgar Square is only the latest in a long series of changes it has undergone over time. John Nash first cleared it in 1811 as part of his improvements to central London and it started to take some of its present form when Sir Charles Barry created the flat centre enclosed by retaining walls in 1840. Prior to Foster’s intervention, the last major alteration had been Sir Edwin Lutyens’ remodelling of the fountains, as late as 1939. Whatever the functional problems identified in the World Squares study, the square already had a visually potent identity immediately recognisable to many around the world. This came not only from the buildings which edge it, that include the National Gallery and St Martin’s in the Field to the north (both Grade 1 listed Historic Monuments), and Canada and South Africa House (representing two of the ex-Empire’s, and now the Commonwealth’s, largest dominions, and also listed monuments) to the west and east respectively. Aptly enough, all these buildings, like the monuments in the square, are in some form of classicism, the style of Empire since the days of Rome. And except for Landseer’s lions at the base of Nelsons Column the sculptures are all of military leaders or monarchs’ in military dress.

What really gives the large and somewhat amorphously shaped square its visual coherence and memorable form is the recessed flat centre with its bounding walls and the visual alignments that Nelsons Column makes with the central portico of the National Gallery and that the fountains seem to make with the flanking porticoes. At the time of this study all of these had become seemingly sacrosanct listed monuments. It says a lot for the determined negotiations of Government for London, the compelling and readily communicated case made by Space Syntax Laboratory graphic analyses and the open mindedness of English Heritage that considerable, if also very respectful, change was eventually permitted.

As a result, when democratically elected local government was returned to London in the form of the Greater London Assembly (GLA) under Ken Livingstone as its first Mayor, the remodelling of Trafalgar Square was ready to go. All the agreements had been negotiated and the £25 million budget already allocated. The GLA readily gave the go ahead, though it also, and quite correctly, asked for the inclusion of a lift for the disabled near the northern central stair and for public toilets and a coffee shop to be recessed behind the retaining wall to either side of it.

Despite the agreements reached with English Heritage and others, Foster recognised that the proposed alterations to traffic routes, especially the closure of the north side of the square to traffic, would provoke widespread scepticism. He thus thought it politic if the project be lead by a traffic engineer rather than an architect, whom some might see as impractical idealists. Instead of Halcrow Fox, Atkins was chosen, partly because it had recently remodelled of part of the nearby Strand which leads into Trafalgar Square, and was thus very familiar with the area and had up to date models of traffic flow and so on, and partly because Peter Heath had recently joined its urban design department.

Atkins was to contribute a considerable improvement to the masterplan design for the square. Instead of extending the Charles I island into an elongated triangle at the head of Whitehall, it was proposed that it expand into an enlarged oval roundabout. This solution works much better in every way, not least in easing traffic flows in all directions. To achieve this, the southern edge of the main square would no longer curve further out but remain as it was, allowing the creation of a substantially sized island around the statue and safe pedestrian access to it. In fact every traffic lane around the square has been subtly realigned, often to improve pedestrian crossings.

As well as the closure to traffic of the roadway along the northern edge of the square a bit of road has been closed to the east of the statue of Edith Cavell and north of the steps of St Martins-in-the-Fields. Entering this paved space when arriving from the north, it now forms a kind of antechamber heralding the presence of Trafalgar Square, which is partially visible from it. And from here it is now possible to walk taking an only slightly curving diagonal route to the new broad stair and down it and across the square to exit to the south of Canada House, as it also possible to take an only slightly distorted diagonal route from the end of Pall Mall East, down the square and out to the south of South Africa House.

Despite the initial resistance of some parties to interrupting the listed north wall and balustrade with this stair, it is now wide enough to allow more or less diagonal descent into the square. It has been designed so carefully as to seem as if it had always been there, the original balusters being reused atop the side walls to it. Great care also went into the design of the handrails, for which there was no immediate precedent, that had to be substantial enough to fit the scale of the stair and square and yet include side rails scaled to the human hand. Similar care and negotiation with English Heritage and others went into the design and detail of the bronze and glass box of the lift on the upper level.

The success of the remodelling is now obvious in the large throngs found on the square and upper terrace in front of the National Gallery on any sunny day, and also by the numbers of people who now traverse it on their way elsewhere. It also hosts regular public events of various sorts organised by the GLA. And though the crucial idea of “way finding”, of making more pleasant, legible and convenient pedestrian connections between parts of London, has not really been taken forward in the way Foster intended, it is nevertheless now possible to walk all the way from Leicester Square, to the north of Trafalgar Square, to the South Bank cultural complex and have to cross only one major road.

This text is an updated edition of the essay ‘Central London Masterplan,’ which was first published in Norman Foster Works 6, Prestel (2013).

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