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A square deal ... Emma Abbott takes a look at Nottingham's new Old Market Square and asks 'what exactly makes it so special?'.


There aren't many public spaces that leave a mark on the heart and soul but one place that will remain dear to me is (the old) Old Market Square in Nottingham. The beating heart of the city, it was where I observed the locals, rested during a shopping spree, and met with friends before going for a drink or two. My clearest memory of the square is when I and thousands of others celebrated England's 4-1 victory over the Netherlands during Euro '96. Those halcyon days!

That's why I was so surprised when I read the historic 1920s square was to about to get a makeover. I asked myself "What's wrong with the square as it is now?"

On the up

The square's redevelopment is part of a series of regeneration schemes in the city. From the transformation of the Lace Market district in the late 1990s, to the introduction of the tram system (Nottingham Express Transit or NET) in early 2004, Nottingham has seen an unprecedented amount of investment over the last ten years. And it's not stopping there.

Plans are now afoot to regenerate the city's Southside, Eastside and Waterside areas which includes spending ^400 million on the Broadmarsh shopping centre.

Together these areas would cover 300 football pitches, making it one of the largest regeneration sites in the United Kingdom.

When set against this background the decision to revamp Old Market Square doesn't seem quite so strange. As it stood, the square no longer reflected the city's aspirations.

Councillor Alan Clark, portfolio holder for neighbourhood regeneration, explains: "We took the brave decision to seek a range of funding which would provide us with enough capital to go ahead with the Old Market Square scheme.

"It was controversial but we agreed with advice from the Civic Society that activity is the most important thing about a square. It's all about animation and accessibility. We wanted the people of Nottingham to say 'let's go and see what's happening in the square'. Following this principle meant taking out the square's multiple levels which hindered access and activity--it meant a redesign."

Back to Square One

In October 2003 Nottingham City Council launched its international design competition 'Square One'. Over 200 teams from around the world entered. Those who made it onto the shortlist included Conran and Partners, Gillespies (Leeds), Hopkins, Stig L Andersson and Patel Taylor.

In the end the competition was won by Gustafson Porter who in their scheme synopsis described the square as "the city's guardian space, a safe haven, a place to regain energy, wait and meet friends, be diverted momentarily from one's daily routines and to experience spectacular and well organised civic and cultural events."

The synopsis must have struck a chord with the Square One Evaluation Panel--chaired by English Heritage and Les Sparks of CABE. The group was unanimous in its decision, and heralded their chosen design as "an excellent interpretation of the competition brief that can deliver all the public's expectations of what a new square should offer."

Fortune favours the brave

Gustafson Porter's design includes seating areas formed of grey, black, white and beige granite blocks. The different colours reflect the surrounding buildings and also indicate level changes.

The water feature comprises a reflecting pool, a 1.8m waterfall, rills, 53 jets and a scrim. These are arranged as terraces, and is illuminated at night using fibre optics inlaid into each water jet.

The water terraces are designed so that they can be drained to be used as viewing terraces or a mini amphitheatre.

A dynamic line follows the boundary that once divided the Saxon and Norman boroughs of Nottingham.

The square's past, as well as its future, had been well considered.

"We felt the design worked because it balanced permanence of features and interest around the outside edges with a space flexible enough to use for major attractions and events. The quality of lighting was also really important and the design made good use of this," continues Clark.

Neil Porter, director of Gustafson Porter, explains: "It was important that our design aligned the square with the organic topography and the classic formality of the adjacent Council House. Our intention was to create an elegant, multi-functional space that will stand the test of time.

"Our aim was to provide a relaxing space for informal daily activity as well as an exciting destination for events and local markets."

A critical eye

The Civic Trust recently described the square as 'clutter free', 'contemporary', 'careful' and 'unfussy'.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many locals--and landscape architects--have hit out at the new look. One local deemed it "a big, empty, blank place", and one went as far to say it is "flat, featureless, boring, uncharacteristic, generic, unnecessarily modernised with a slightly clinical feel to it." These statements echo Dr Alan Barber's letter to Landscape (May 2008) that described the design as an "illiterate, Stalinist slab".

But have they missed the point? One year on from its opening Gustafson Porter has collected numerous accolades, including three Civic Trust awards, (the Outstanding Contribution to the Public Realm award and two special awards), Nottingham's Lord Mayor's Awards for Urban Design and most recently a RIBA Award.






The judges of the Civic Trust Awards said: "This new layout has brought significant improvements to the public realm; it is accessible, easier and more attractive to use as a venue for events. The previous low walls, steps and sunken areas were difficult to navigate and the remodelling now provides mostly level access around."

According to Cllr Clark the redesign has undoubtedly fulfilled its ambition of bringing the people of Nottingham and further afield to the city centre. The Light Night in February 2008 attracted more than 45,000 people who enjoyed an evening of entertainment, light trails and cultural events.

On the night, the Nottingham Eye Giant wheel opened and was a major focal point of the activities. The wheel was so popular it remained open for three weeks longer than planned.

Hundreds of events have been held there since the reopening in April 2007 and a glance at the diary on the square's website (yes, it has its own website) shows the trend is set to continue. There are few weekends when something isn't going on.

"The Old Market Square has now become a major destination for people in its own right in a way that, with the best will in the world, the 1920s design didn't do," says Clark.

As with so many things, beauty can be found in what cannot be seen and touched. It's the exhilaration of viewing a city for the first time from the sky, or whizzing across an ice-rink on Christmas eve, or the joy of dancing with thousands of others.

So how does one measure the success of Gustafson Porter's design? Is its success based on whether or not it pushes the boundaries of design? Or on whether it delivers a space that really works for the client and the users?

If it's the former, then the jury is still out, but if it's the latter then Nottingham's new Old Market Square is unarguably a triumph.


At a glance Old Market Square

* Old Market Square is one of the oldest in the UK and the second largest after Trafalgar Square.

* The new plans for Old Market Square were drawn up in 2004.

* The project started on-site in August 2005, following consultations with the public, stakeholders, political and local interest groups, health and safety experts and the police.

* Over 6000 tonnes of earth has been moved to level the square.

* More than 4000 tonnes of concreate base slabs have been placed to provide the foundation.

* Approximately 6000 metres of electric cabling has been laid to provide power for events.

* Over 10,000 square meters of new granite stone paving has been laid--an area bigger than a professional football pitch.

* A 4400 square metre water feature has been built.

* The old toilets now hold a water tank the size of a small swimming pool and a state-of-the-art control room for the technology behind the square's electricity and water supplies.

* 13 Gingko Biloba and Pin Oak trees have been planted around the square.

* Five lanterns and two flag poles from the former design have been refurbished and returned.

* Since the opening celebrations 800 new shrubs and 4000 bulbs were planted.

The team

* Landscape Architects: Gustafson Porter Ltd

* Engineers: Arup

* Contractor: Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Ltd

* Main square lighting: Speirs & Major Associates

* Water terrace lighting: Group C Ltd

* Water feature specialist: Ocmis

* Pedestrian study: Space Syntax Ltd

* Conservation Consultant: Jules Renfrew Associates

* Quantity Surveyors: Davis Langdon LLP.
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Title Annotation:NOTTINGHAM
Author:Abbott, Emma
Publication:Green Places
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Previous Article:Country matters: in May Kent County Council officially launched its 10 year Countryside Access Improvement Plan (CAIP), to ensure that walkers,...
Next Article:Q&A with Neil Porter, director, Gustafson Porter.

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