Revamping Leicester Square

It's one of London's most famous outdoor spaces and it's about to be transformed.

The redesign draws the eye to the famous Shakespeare fountain and statue.
The redesign draws the eye to the famous Shakespeare fountain and statue.

It's one of London's most famous outdoor spaces and it's about to be transformed. James Boley reports on the redesign of Leicester Square.

Leicester Square is one of London's best-known outdoor spaces. Located at the very heart of the West End, equal distances from Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, the landmark attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every day.

Therefore the decision to revamp the centuries-old space is a major undertaking, both for Westminster City Council, the local authority for the square, and for the chosen designer, whose work will be seen - and judged - at an international level.

The council plans to invest US$35.5 million in a redesign of the public space, aimed at transforming the area in time for the 2012 London Olympics. This is the first transformation of the square in more than 30 years, the last one being in the 1970s.

The council held a landscape design competition in June 2007, inviting seven firms to submit designs for the redesign of the square. The winners were UK-based Burns + Nice.

The company was contracted together with lighting consultancy DPA Lighting Association to provide the landscape and lighting concept design for the redesign of Leicester Square and its nine connecting streets.

A key concept of the design is a 200-metre long white curved bench, named The Ribbon, which snakes around the perimeter of the square.

"What we have done is to introduce around the edge of the garden a curvaceous granite seat which actually moves out as well as up and down," explains Marie Burns, director of Burns + Nice.

At present, there is a dominance of the paving, which means that the gardens are lost within their own square. By introducing a curved ribbon around the square, we are actually allowing the garden to become more dominant.

It means the activities associated with the garden, i.e. the seating, the relaxation, are brought out into the square itself.

The redesign also focused on making more of the famous Shakespeare fountain by realigning the pathways to radiate out from the centre, drawing the eye to the Shakespeare statue and fountain.

Upgrading the lighting was another aspect of the transformation. Working in collaboration with DPA Lighting Association, Burns + Nice developed a flexible lighting street lighting system allowing operators to provide greater ambience of the square at specific times such as during premiere nights.

With four cinemas in the central square plus another two in side streets, Leicester Square is renowned for its starstudded red carpet events.

The design also added lighting under the ribbon bench to give the impression the seating is ‘floating' at night. The four listed busts at the entrances to the square will also be lit at night.

Simplicity was central to the design, says Burns. "The design is very simple. It's achievable," she says. Rosemarie McQueen, director of planning and city development at Westminster City Council (WCC) agrees.

"If you have clean, uncluttered, well designed spaces, then people want to come and visit, they want to locate their business in your area," she says.

Working on one of London's most famous public spaces, the designers faced limitations in changing the square, of course.

There were various restrictions as to what could and couldn't be changed, from the square itself, to some of the historic elements such as the Shakespeare fountain and the four busts, which are listed buildings in their own right.

Getting the balance right between preserving the old and taking the area forward was a must, says McQueen.

"There is a balance between the fact there is heritage and history, but also a dynamic of the most modern and contemporary so the brief we set was something which actually modulated between those two," she says.

"We don't want to wipe away the history. We want part of that history to move forward and become part of the heritage of the future.

Not only did the design need to meet the approval of the local authority, but it also needed to receive the blessing of local businesses, and residents groups in the area, many of whom regard the square as ‘their front garden', according to McQueen.

The grass, the heart of the square, and the railings and trees for example were kept the same, although Burns said the firm is looking at changing the grass mix for greater durability.

The focal point of the redesign was making the most of the existing space for the people that use it, commented Sarah Porter, chief executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance, an organisation that represents the various business and property owners that reside in the area surrounding Leicester Square.

"We want Leicester Square to be a place loved by Londoners, where you don't just pass through, but linger and enjoy what is a truly unique place in the heart of the capital," she says.

"These inspirational designs will help transform it into a genuinely international destination, cementing its reputation as the UK's home of entertainment.
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