Ever since there have been cities, there had been outdoor gathering places for the residents. As architect Robert Gatje notes in his book "Great Public Squares: An Architect's Selection" (Norton, $65), "Long before the motor car, but after the arrival of chariots and the horse-drawn carriage, there was a need for spaces within city or town that were more than a street or a crossroad — places for commercial exchange and public assembly."

Some started out as little more than a wide spot in the road; others were planned and designed as part of city building, but, Gatje says, "call them squares, piazze, places or platze, the essential elements of success are those of a sense of enclosure and pleasant usefulness."

In his book, Gatje talks about some of the world's famous squares: from Venice's Piazza San Marco and Rome's Piazza San Pietro, to Paris' Place Vendome, London's Bedford Square, Bath's Circus, New York's Rockefeller Plaza and New Mexico's Plaza at Sante Fe.

Salt Lake City has its own collection of squares, which serve a variety of needs and functions as well as offer a respite from urban surroundings. Among them are places such as Temple Square, Library and Washington squares and the Olympic Plaza at The Gateway.

From an architect's point of view, four criteria can be used to measure the "greatness" of a square or plaza, says Stephen B. Smith, architect and certified planner with GSBS Architects and former president of American Institute of Architects Utah. Those four are: sociability, use and activities, comfort and image, and access and linkage.

"You want a place that can serve varied sizes of groups, where a variety of different activities are possible, where there's an opportunity for seating, where people feel comfortable and safe and are not constantly looking over their shoulders, and should attract a wide variety of users that are multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-active."

David Garce, a licensed landscape architect with GSBS, who has worked locally and nationally (one of his projects was the National Museum of the American Indian) for some 25 years, agrees.

A lot of spaces occur naturally or have developed over the centuries, he says. "Sometimes you have a chance to start with a clean slate and create space with a specific function in mind. If you are successful, people will use it."

There are also a lot of intangibles involved; most people who come to a square will not look at the scale of space, the architectural design, the linear feet of seating. But they will know they like the place and want to come there, he says.

Temple Square is the oldest and most prominent square in the city, drawing not only local folks but a steady stream of visitors from around the world. It is also an example of a square that was built for a specific purpose, although use and purpose have evolved over the years.

The square was set aside four days after the arrival of the pioneers in Salt Lake Valley, as a place to build a temple. Originally 40 acres, the size was later reduced to conform to the 10-acre blocks of the rest of the city. It was not intended as a square per se, but as the Utah History Encyclopedia notes, "It gradually evolved into the present sanctuary that houses within its protective walls three significant pioneer buildings, two visitor centers and historic monuments — all within a beautifully manicured garden setting."

The addition of the Main Street Plaza on the east, which connects Temple Square with the office-building block, has further created a cohesive unit as well as provided a walkway through and a place to sit.

"The biggest use of the plaza is to walk through," notes Smith, "but the flowers, the grass all make it a very pleasant place."

Temple Square obviously has a different purpose than other squares, Garce adds. "It is very formal, symmetrical. But you get a feeling of order, of calmness here."

Washington Square is another early addition to the city. The block is the same size as that of Temple Square, but the lone building in the center, with trees, walkways and statues around the building, provide a park-like atmosphere.

The square, named for George Washington, was the site of the original pioneer encampment in 1847. The Romanesque City-County Building was built in 1890.

"The main purpose of Washington Square is as a foreground for the building," Smith adds. "It enhances the monumentability. If there was stuff all around, it would not be as effective."

But the square does get multiple use, particularly for such things as the annual Living Traditions Festival. One of its memorable moments came in 1995, when 50,000 people congregated there to hear that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Olympics.

Washington Square connects to Library Square on the east, allowing increased use for events like the summer Arts Festival.

In Smith's opinion, Library Square would have been more successful if the library itself had been moved around the other direction, allowing all the open spaces to flow together. But it is still user-friendly, he says, "and in many respects the back of the square is every bit as inviting as the front, with grass to sit on and shade trees."

TRAX also provides additional access; shows and vendors draw people to the site. "And there are some really cool spaces to move through," says Garce. "There are defined walls and walks, places so suited to the space that you almost feel as if you're part of the plaza, part of the art."

The Olympic Legacy Plaza is one of Smith's favorite squares. "There's so much variety, so many ways to use it, so many levels."

Foremost in the design is the Olympic Snowflake Fountain, which is a great place to cool off in the summer, but is used year-round by adventurous kids.

The design around it, with the rocks designed like canyons for water to run down, adds a lot of interest and well as provides places to sit.

The commercial space all around obviously gives the plaza a different feeling and brings large numbers through, he says. "It's a great place for people watching. It's not static. There's interest, variety and comfort, but it's different at different times of the year," Smith says.

It reminds Garce a lot of a new public square which has been created in St. George by GSBS. That was also an example of creating something new. The 10-acre space adjacent to the intersection of Tabernacle and Main streets includes a historic interpretive portion complete with a pioneer irrigation demonstration. There are water features and numerous assembly areas for concerts, arts festivals and town meetings, he says. So far, it has been very well-received.

There are many more squares in the state. "Many of them are little gems waiting to be discovered," Garce says. He urges people to get out and discover them, to think about what they add to the city. "Our public spaces help define what a city is, what a community is."

e-mail: carma@desnews.com