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Camillo Sitte: City Building According To Artistic Principles (1889)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011



Reviewed by Jack Penford Baker

INTRODUCTION

Written in 1889, Camillo Sitte’s book City Building According to Artistic Principles, is seen as the first publication to discuss the concept of Urban Planning. Cited still to this day, his critical analysis of the then modern planning principles and historical precedents paved the way for a new breed of theoretical practitioners in the art of Urbanism.



The book informally breaks down into three apparent sections. Initially Sitte outlines and documents what he perceives to be worthwhile paradigms of historical public spaces. Next he looks to the present, and systematically reveals the failures of the then modern city planning principals before finally outlining a set of solutions, presented in the form of a case study of Vienna’s own plazas, compiling the first significant documentation on what is now a global practice; Urbanism.

_PAST

The early parts of the book look towards the analysis of Sitte’s depiction of successful urban space. Through decades of travelling across Italy, Germany and other central European countries he discovered what he understood to be the epitome of city planning. Italian cities with Roman and Medieval influences portrayed Sittes’s ideology, an ideology that looked at the personal experience of individuals within the spaces of the city, not of the city as a machine. To him Roman spaces worked and still work, and it is with the past’s understanding of urban space that is fundamental in the understanding of the problem with modern city planning.



Piazza Della Signoria in Firenze, Italy, displays a crucial element of piazza design. Within the square Michelangelo created the infamous statue of David, originally planned to sit upon the cathedral, Michelangelo argued for it to be positioned in the square. Instead of positioning it in the centre for all to experience, Michelangelo insisted for it to sit adjacent to the palazzo entrance. A somewhat odd request, however the choice resembled an element of town planning that Sitte believes is crucial in modern times. By sitting the statue away from the central axis it removes any interference with circulation, and views to the entrances and buildings. The concept is taken further with the principle addressed to the positioning of churches. As an Englishman, one would always assume that churches be isolated and monumental in their context. However Sitte believes that churches within a square should sit not in isolation, rather on the contrary, as part of the perimeter. By referencing Rome he outlines how some 6 out of 255 churches sit on their own, a striking difference. “That the center of plazas be kept free”.
He further progresses to outline other key principles of ancient urban spaces that he believes have been lost in modern planning. With his reiterated reinforcing of the pedestrians experience as the true factor of success, Sitte states how the design of streets in successful precedents always revolves around that of the experience. Their designs follow key formulas, for example he believes that all entrances views into a plaza should not infringe on each other, and should enter from an obscure angle. Other such rules relate to the dimensions of the space, for example the squares width must be greater than that of the focal building’s height, but not be anymore than twice its size in order to create a welcoming space.
Upon all of the guidelines that Sitte mentions through the use of precedents, he emphasises the natural growth of such squares, and the passing of time as a fundamental key to generating the ideal plaza. A natural selection, whereupon cities develop and through time the failing are removed and the successful remain.

_PRESENT

Sitte believed that the approach of the then current town planners was a problem. To him the key shift in modern city planning was from an Artistic led ideology to that of a Service led, technocratic thought of mind. A city designed for machines, not for human beings.
The grid represented a critical failure in town planning. Sitte thought that the use of a grid led to inefficiency and hierarchically placed a critical element of town planning at the bottom of the list, public open space. The ‘grid’ is a service orientated approach. It concentrates on plumbing, hygiene, and the vehicle as the important elements, the public are seen more of a secondary if not tertiary component of the city. The ‘grid’ behaves in plan, but not section. It does not deal too well with difficult topography and land formation. The result leads to unused, unwanted space in the city that is normally deemed as suitable public open space. This idea frustrated Sitte, where the open space does not derive from anything, other than the offcuts, those irregular elements inappropriate for the built form. The open spaces should be around the activity, as in medieval squares, next to public buildings / markets / theatres. People flock to activity, the ‘grid’ eliminates activity.
Artistic principles were missing. It is those principles that generate a greater experience for the pedestrian and lead to the success of open spaces within cities. Sitte saw that the life of the common people has, for centuries, been steadily withdrawing from public squares, especially so in recent times. The lack of art acted as a catalyst for the transformation of the city into a machine.
Sitte saw the importance of the relationship between class and the public space. He outlined that the wealthy will always have other experiences driven by economy, the theatre and concerts for example, regardless of open space. Whereas the lower classes are affected significantly by those open spaces, ungoverned by their wealth. It is the parceling of plots, purely for economical considerations, that has become a problem in modern society and city planning. Sitte believed that the participation of art above all else affected those within a space.

_SOLUTION

Camillo Sitte concludes the book with his methods put into practice. Using the backdrop of his home city of Vienna, he adapts several existing spaces within the city to correspond to his beliefs. The Votive Church in Vienna sits isolated on it’s own, a characteristic deemed unsuccessful. He chooses to populate the plaza that envelops this extraordinary building. The building looks to create a series of smaller openings, looking to emphasise specific façades of the grand church, and concluding by manifesting itself into a comfortable experience for those that visit. 
His ‘Artistic Principles’ do not take that of a rudimentary lateral form. There is no list of rules to follow, on the contrary, Sitte’s book, for all of it’s accounts of modern problems, is rather chivalrous to the current state. For all the magnitude his practice today has become, he study was one of modesty. His work is that of the ‘Human Condition’, it utlises the terminology and practice of what we know perceive as Town Planning, to improve the urban form in which he lived. Using the backdrop of his home city of Vienna, he adapts several existing spaces within the city to correspond to his beliefs. The Votive Church in Vienna sits isolated on its own, a characteristic deemed unsuccessful. He chooses to populate the plaza that envelops this extraordinary building. The building looks to create a series of smaller openings, looking to emphasise specific façades of the grand church, and concluding by manifesting itself into a comfortable experience for those that visit. 
His ‘Artistic Principles’ do not take that of a rudimentary lateral form. There is no list of rules to follow, on the contrary, Sitte’s book, for all of its accounts of modern problems, is rather chivalrous to the current state. For all the magnitude his practice today has become, the study was one of modesty. His work is that of the ‘Human Condition’, it utlises the terminology and practice of what we now perceive as Town Planning, to improve the urban form in which he lived.

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