Kings Square Recovered: public history & play-testing in Gloucester (Part 1)

Four children in brightly coloured clothes lean on railings and gaze across a large pool with fountains. They’re backdropped by trees are in full leaf and the hulk of Debenhams department store, aqua-blue spandrel panels echoing the pool below. A smaller building with clerestory windows and a shaded arcade at ground level stands like a obedient little brother at Debenhams’ side. The summer sun casts a dark shadow on the paved floor, there’s not a rouge crisp packet in sight. This is Gloucester at its brightest, tidiest, its most modern (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Postcard of Kings Square, circa. early 1970s. Author’s postcard, original photographer unknown.

Described on its opening by The Citizen newspaper as “Gloucester’s example to the country”, how did this space – Kings Square – come to be a “city centre eyesore” in just a few decades? Kings Square Recovered was a public history project that attempted to dig into this question. It did so by inviting residents to help recover the square’s recent history by going on a journey through time and space via their smartphone. Funded by Voices Gloucester, the project was led by myself (Adam) and developed in collaboration with Tassos Stevens of Coney and Gloucester-based artists Maddi Staple and Dion Kitson. 

What might we learn about Gloucester by looking more deeply at the development of this important civic space? How could we invite residents to step back in time? Would they even want to? This blog explores some of these questions and suggests why a project like this might help to engage residents in the history (and future) of their city. It is split into two parts. This first part offers a fairly conventional architectural history of the square, drawing upon archival research undertaken during the project and informed by conversations with residents. The second part goes on to explain how the research was used in the development and testing of an interactive game that explored the history of the square.

Part I / From ‘example to the country’ to ‘city centre eyesore’

Created in 1927 through the demolition of an existing residential street pattern, Kings Square was intended by the Corporation of Gloucester to be “a square that might form the shopping and business centre of the City”. With limited means to develop the space, it’s remained a car park and through-route for many years, (fig. 2). But in the late 1950s plans emerged to pedestrianize the square (as has been recently trailblazed at Harlow New Town in 1947). “Pedestrian precincts are no new innovation”, remarked the City Architect (Mr J. V. Wall) in a 1960 paper to the Council, “Nor should it be considered that these were areas for quiet and retreat rather than reverse, they were areas of activity and liveliness.” A bold declaration that talks directly to Gloucester uniqueness, an rough-and-ready city (like all good cities!) in a very rural (and dare I say posh?!) county.

Figure 2. Kings Square, circa. 1930s, Gloucestershire Archives, D15467/5/1.

In what appears to be something of a virtual ‘land grab’ by the City Engineer (Mr J. H. Goodridge) from the City Architect, Goodridge seems to have quickly developed a plan for a three-stage process of development for the square. In Goodridge’s plan the forecourt to Bon Marché (which became Debenhams) is pedestrianised but traffic continued to flow around the rest of the square. It’s an odd arrangement that suggests a nervousness of doing anything too significant. The arrival to city of the architect and planner Geoffrey Jellicoe put paid to Goodridge’s more modest plan.

Commissioned to develop a plan for the city’s ‘central area’ – as brilliantly detailed in this brilliant blog – Jellicoe was a landscape architect and city planner who had recently designed Hemel Hempstead New Town. He brought to Gloucester a particular interest in the use of water in landscape design that would come to shape the destiny of the square (and as he had explored in his Water Gardens at Hemel Hempstead). Jellicoe plan, presented to the City Council in 1961, was a land-use plan (rather than an architectural plan) for the city centre. For Kings Square, it proposed a pedestrianised space linked with the rest of the city by a Via Sacra (‘scared way’) that followed the line of the city’s Roman walls. The plan proposed three key uses: an area for “nine fountain jets, illuminated at night”; an area for “paving with seats”; and a 10-storey hotel with a ramp to an underground car park (fig. 3). The hotel and car park would not materialise, but his vision for an urban square with seating and fountains would.

Fig. 3. Jellicoe’s outline plan for Kings Square, showing suggested location of fountains [31] and hotel [8]. Detail of city centre map from A Comprehensive Plan for the Central Area of the City of Gloucester, Gloucestershire Archives, B247/33014GS.

Like many plans, Jellicoe’s would sit on a shelf for many years, but the essence of his vision was retained when the moment (and crucially the finance) arrived to redevelopment the square. Three plans in Gloucestershire Archive reveal the square’s development from Jellicoe’s outline plan to realised scheme. Covering over a very narrow period between late 1968 and early 1969, the plans were designed by J. R. Sketchley, who now had the role of City Architect (and about whom not much is not, if anyone is looking for something to research).

The fist plan was approved by Gloucester’s Planning Committee on 2 April 1968 and establishes the key elements of Sketchley’s scheme: two large pools of differing heights, around which were organised an access road and ‘taxi office’, access to a subway and sunken toilets, and a two-storey restaurant (in place of Jellicoe’s 10-storey hotel). The sketch is dotted with circles that indicate the planting of over 40 trees. That initial scheme was developed in early 1968, with only minor changes, and the last plan arrived on 24 March 1969, which is almost entirely as built (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Final plan for Kings Square (March 1969). Detail of ‘Overall plan of Kings Square’, Gloucestershire Archives, GBR/L6/23/B8766)

Construction happened pretty quickly, with an opening ceremony in May 1972. As built, Kings Square was a vast, open landscape organised on a geometric grid with variations in the floor plane deployed to create more human dimensions and spaces. Often remembered as being constructed entirely in concrete, the square actually deployed three distinct materials, each providing a different texture to the square: firstly, concrete was used for the paving and vertical planes; secondly, a dark-red brick was used for the sunken area, wall and as a detail in the paving; and finally, water filled the vast pool and provided a contrasting texture with the concrete/brick. A fourth material and texture was argutely provided by the generous greenery of the trees and soft-landing (fig. 5).

Figure. 5. Postcard showing landscaped seating area and highlight the four-part palette of materials: paving, brick, water and leaf (circa. 1972). Author’s postcard, original photographer unknown.

The pools were definitely the square’s biggest feature. Commanding a central space around which everything else was organised, they comprised two rectangular pools with a differing water levels, across which a line of fountains projected water. Surrounded by railings, the formality of the pool was interrupted by a curved ‘bay’ of water across which stepping stones pass. It is these stepping stones that I remember as a child and which so many spoke to us about when they recalled the square. Vivid in people’s memories, they were clearly iconic enough at the time of opening to be the setting for a Bon Marche photoshoot! (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Models on the stepping stones, circa. early 1970s, Gloucestershire Archives, D10638/2/11/13 (copyright belongs to The Citizen Newspaper).

If the square was at its most playful with the stepping stones, it was perhaps at its most idiosyncratic in its toilets and subway access. Labelled the ‘sunken area’ in opening ceremony brochure, this is the least photographed and most functional element in the square, but also its most elaborate. A curving path leads below ground through a corridor of elaborate brickwork. From here residents were able to access the toilet or make their way through a subway that led them to the bus station. Ariel photography shows the vast area it encompassed (fig. 7).

Figure 7. View across the sunken area, Gloucestershire Archives, D15467/5/1.

Opened to great fanfare, the square later history is harder to detail there is less documentation in the archives and it was here residents were able to fill gaps in the ‘official’ archive. It clear from conversations with residents that the square entered into a period of managed decline, that would come to last many years. Key elements of the scheme were gradually dismantled and demolished. An early example is the partial demolition of the screen wall that bordered the pool, likely the result of increased fear about lack of surveillance and contemporary ideas about ‘designing out crime’ (fig. 8).

Figure 8. Partial demolition of screen wall that bordered the high pool, Gloucestershire Archives, D10638/2/11/13 (copyright belongs to The Citizen Newspaper).

For many residents, the decline of Kings Square impacted the mood of the city: “a pleasant spot was spoiled and run down with nothing being done”, said one resident. The pools and fountains, in particular, appear to have been critical to people’s emotional connection to the square: “when there was no water in the square it looked sad and depressing.” But many residents remember its former glory. As one resident put it so brilliantly, “it was a quite exciting and creative design, and quite unique. I mean it was a great massive lake in town centre!”

How to engage with the square history and people’s memories of it? In what way might the square’s history speak differently to older and younger residents? In what ways can smartphone technologies be used to bring the square to life? The second part of this blog explore the development of a game designed to be played in the square.

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