Camillo Sitte: City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1889)
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Reviewed by Thomas Sydney
Despite being written over 120 years ago, Camillo Sitte’s most famous work is still seen as relevant today as it was when published in 1889. City Planning according to Artistic Principles is not purely an attack on the modern planning systems of the time, but an attempt to define a unity between modern and artistic methods through the creation of suitable public space. Upon its publication a new breed of theorists and practitioners developed who were concerned with the city and its planning. Camillo Sitte was born in Vienna and it was here where he conducted the basis of his work. Whilst Sitte trained as an Architect, he had a strong artistic background and found prominence as an academic. He worked in a time of intense change in European cities as economic factors, sanitation and transport were becoming the most important influences on city planning - planning was becoming an exercise undertaken in plan on the drafting board, not on site in the street or the square. He travelled extensively throughout Europe visiting cities in Italy, France and Germany as well as his native Austria. Through his travels, Sitte observed how these cities had developed and established a set of principles by which he believed cities should be planned. These ideas were based primarily on the plaza and associated public space and were presented in City Planning according to Artistic Principles. The book is mainly concerned with the increasingly technical way our cities were being designed at the expense of traditional artistic methods. Whilst Sitte laments the loss of these artistic methods and techniques witnessed during his frequent travels throughout Europe, he accepted that modern techniques were required in city planning with particular regard to increased levels of hygiene and motorised traffic.
Sitte was concerned that impressive modern buildings were increasingly being seen against a backdrop of poor public space as all resources were poured into the architecture of a building, not its surroundings. From his travels, he saw the work of the Renaissance and Baroque periods as exemplar in their use and manipulation of public space and as such he wanted to achieve a unity between modern methods and the artistic techniques of the past. City Planning according to Artistic Principles maintains that the key element of successful city planning is the plaza or public square. There exists a context and history of use in these public spaces which make them vital to cities. When created and utilised correctly they create a backdrop to everyday life within the city, animating their surrounding buildings as well as providing a space to observe powerful buildings and monuments as they were intended to be seen. Sitte observed many plazas during his travels and defined three types of public plaza based upon their intended use; the palace plaza, the cathedral plaza and the town hall plaza. These public spaces concentrated all the prominent buildings of their type in one pure space within the city where all distraction and unnecessary elements could be excluded. Sitte cites the Palazzo Del Duomo in Pisa as an exemplar religious plaza where the placement of the cathedral, baptistry, crypt and religious quarters within one unified space creates a ‘pure chord’ rarely seen in today’s cities. One of the key characteristics of successful public plazas is their enclosed nature, restricting views out of the space and limiting endless perspectives. Aligned with this idea is that of buildings being built into the walls of the plaza. Sitte states that the centre of plazas are not suitable positions for buildings, the best location being tied in to the plaza walls to ensure the enclosure of the public space. He backs this stance up with his observations of churches in Rome where only 6 of the 255 churches are not attached to another building.
Sitte is also concerned with the position of monuments within public spaces. As with the siting of buildings, he believes that the centres of plazas should be kept free to allow essential lines of communication and sight to be maintained. He observes that modern plazas are often blocked by the installation of a statue on the central axis. A more suitable approach is the placement of items around the edge of a plaza which allows for more decorations as well as developing more dramatic environments for statues. The history of Michelangelo’s David is cited as an example of how modern thought has spoilt the appreciation of the famous statue. Michelangelo created the marble statue to sit in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. Its position here contrasted with the surroundings, emphasising the scale of the work; upon its relocation within an art gallery after over 350 years this contrast was lost. Through all this, Sitte’s main concern is that of space. He states that the plaza should define an area of suitable proportions that people could comprehend and understand the extent of the space. Sitte mentions that the increasingly large proportions of modern plazas is linked to the newly diagnosed condition of agoraphobia. City Planning according to Artistic Principles is also concerned about the increasing use of grid layouts for streets in the development of cities. Sitte uses similar principles to those of plazas to define how streets should work within the city; notably the definition of suitable space, the reduction of endless perspectives and the bending or re-routing of streets to avoid the creation of awkward junctions and plazas. Camillo Sitte accepts that modern systems of city planning cannot be avoided and can be of benefit if developed with artistic methods in mind. He draws attention to several examples of modern development from Germany and Austria which he sees as more suitable as well as highlighting several of his own exemplar projects which try to unite artistic methods into a modern city planning system. He concludes by presenting a series of proposals for Vienna’s Western Ringstrasse where he suggests several interventions to adapt the current city layout to create more suitable public spaces for the existing prominent and powerful buildings. These proposals ultimately fell on deaf ears as none were implemented. However, the ideas put forward by Camillo Sitte in City Planning according to Artistic Principles have persisted and found favour particularily with the Townscape movement of the 1950s.