Camillo Sitte: The Art of Building Cities

Camillo Sitte - PlazasCamillo Sitte’s The Art of Building Cities is one of the acknowledged cornerstones of the whole edifice of books I really love about architecture and public space. This translation is from 1945, but the book itself was originally published in Vienna in 1889. Fin de siecle Vienna in the middle of its drive towards modernity, this is a curiously ambivalent book that looks to the past in order to reimagine an urban future. But it does try to look forward, and though not everyone reads it that way, this is from  Eliel Saarinen prefatory note:

Simultaneously with this understanding of such organic town pattern, and subsequently to a great extent as a logical consequence of it … there became laid an equally strong groundwork for such an understanding of architecture that even the architectural style-form must express contemporary conditions, and no other conditions. (iii)

This is essentially a look at what works about older cities, and it connects patterns in architecture and planning with patterns of social life. So it has half the equation I think is needed. The other half is how architecture and planning in turn shapes social life in the dialectic that Henri Lefebvre would explore among others. Sitte argues that the changes in the city reflect the changes in social life —  in medieval times much of life led on the street, because interiors cold, damp, uncomfortable. From the introduction by Ralph Walker:

The growing number of comforts within the modern shelter had, one by one, eliminated the desire for pageantry in the space outside. The underlying idea of the forum and the plaza, through out the ages the focal points of classical and medieval cities, took on less social and political meaning. (vii)

camillo-sitteBut on to Camillo Sitte himself. In the introduction he quotes Artistotle’s summary: ‘A city should be built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.’ Sitte continues

The science of the technician will not suffice to accomplish this. We need, in addition, the talent of the artist. (1)

From his words you would know the world has already entered the time of professional planners, architects, what Sitte calls hygienists. He doesn’t argue that they are not needed, but rather that they need to rethink their approach and incorporate, as he says, the artist.

Perhaps this study will permit us to find the means of satisfying the three principal requirements of practical city building: to rid the modern systems of blocks and regularly aligned houses; to save as much as possible of that which remains from ancient cities; and in our creation to approach more closely the ideal of the ancient models. (2)

Difference between then and now, I wish, as I say he had thought through more of the corollary.

Public squares, or plazas, were then of prime necessity, for they were theaters for the principal scenes of public life, which today take place in closed halls. (2)

But I like playing with this very different understanding of space that he sees existing in past and present:

In brief, the place of the forum in cities corresponds to that of the principal room of a house. It is to the city, so to speak, the principal hall… (5)

This is just lovely.

The interior temples and monuments are the stone myths of the greek people. The highest poetry and thought are embodied in them. (7)

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the details of public spaces, groupings of building and streets that work. In many ways the chapter headings summarise very nicely Sitte’s arguments.

I: The relationship Between Buildings, Monuments and Public Squares

This highlights again the importance of the public square in community life, and contrasts the squares that work well from the past with those that don’t from his present:

The fundamental difference between the procedures of former times and those of today rests in the fact that we constantly seek the largest space for each little statue. Thus we diminish the effect … instead of augmenting it … (11-12)

II: Open Centers of Public Places

This explores the many examples of monuments and fountains that sit not at the centre of the square, or in way of its foot traffic, but off to one side. This also applies  to churches — which I confess I find quite odd as I am so used to them sitting in open space in the US and UK. Like Gordon Cullen, though not nearly as explicitly, he is always thinking how people move through space, how they encounter buildings and the public places that surround them. He looks at both stone and emptiness and the way one relates to the other.

Buildings built in this way ‘acquire a double worth’. even without being surrounding by a void they offer up different views and compositions. (18)

Being written in 1889, this already feels as though it is part of the past, but this is the period when our present is forming — this critique is all too familiar:

This rage for isolating everything is truly a modern sickness. R. Baumeister in his manual on city building even raises this to the status of a working principle. He writes, ‘Old buildings ought to be preserved, but we must, so to speak, peel them and preserve them.” The object of this, then, is that by the transformation of surroundings the old buildings should be led to the midst of public places and in the axes of streets. This procedure is used everywhere and with special satisfaction in treating ancient city portals. it is indeed a fine thing to have an isolated city gateway around which we may stroll instead of passing under its arches! (19)

Peel them and preserve them — no better way to describe what has been done to too much architecture that should instead be living and peacefully subsiding.

III: The Enclosed Character of the Public Square

Such a simple rule, one so ignored so often in modern building.

‘The old plazas produce a collective harmonious effect because they are uniformly enclosed…In fact, the public square owes its name to this characteristic in an expanse at the center if a city. (20)

He looks at how it is enclosed, how street enter into it:

Careful study shows that there are many advantages to an arrangement of street openings in the form of turbine arms. (21)

It looks clear in the drawing, I think of the great wonderful squares of Prague or Krakow and agree with him on avoiding busy cross sections at each corner.

IV: The Form and Expanse of Public Squares

He looks at two forms of square — those that are deep and those wide. They set off different building types, deep plazas are better facing a church of slender form, city halls require broader, more expansive ones.

… The height of the principal building, measured from the ground to the cornice, should be in proportion to the dimension of the public square measured perpendicularly in the direction of the principal facade. (27)

I love this, can’t wait to wander some of the cities he describes in this way:

It is truly a delight for the sensitive observer to analyze such a plan and to find the explanation for its wonderful effect, Like all true works of art it continually reveals new beauties and further reason for admiring the methods and resourcefulness of the ancient city builders. (26)

V: The Irregularity of Ancient Public Squares

The opposite to today’s grids, but Sitte hardly needs to point that out, nor that this is due to their gradual historical development, but this is an important point:

Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character. Few people, however, understand why irregularity can avoid giving an unpleasant appearance. We must study a map to understand it. (30)

Always we turn to Italy — Padua, Verona, Florence, Palermo. To give you a taste of the many maps that fill the book:

sitte-piazzas

VI: Groups of Public Squares

The groupings of squares! To an American this is a wonderful extravagance indeed, also wonderful to move from one enclosed, irregular square to another as my European wanderings can attest.

On Venice:

There is such an expanse of beauty here that no painter has ever conceived an architectural background more perfect than its setting. No theater ever created a more sublime tableau than the spectacle to be enjoyed at Venice. It is truly the seat of a great power, a power of spirit, of art, and of industry which has gathered the treasures of the world upon its vessels… (37)

VII: Arrangement of Public Squares in Northern Europe

The difference he notes, which I had noted already, was that in Northern Europe churches tend to sit more separately — usually because they have been surrounded by graveyards. (Where was everyone buried in this Italian cities of stone I wonder?) Yet these small churches that form the fabric of the city or town are still generally not fully centered in a square, rather they often set to one side.  There is, however, often a large plaza in front to set off the facade. Still, they are approached in various ways that creates interest, surprise, wonder.

30006047876_fdc6c6948e_k-2

Sitte doesn’t simply look to the ancient, he likes too the Baroque arrangement of squares, the way that

… art came to control vistas of the great three-sided plazas, churches, palaces, formal gardens, sumptuous approaches to important buildings, as well as nature’s masterpieces. (50)

This would include the Plaza of the Palazzo Pitti at Florence, that of the Capitol at Rome. Thus:

The development of Baroque style differs from the history of earlier styles in that it did not evolve gradually. On the contrary, like modern styles, it came full panoplied from the drawing board as an invention. We cannot, therefore, attribute the banality of modern planning to the fact that it has precisely the same kind of origin. We insist, simply, that the straight line and geometrical patterns should not be made the aims of our planning. (51)

The Baroque is the idea of a theatre-type perspective…he gives the example of Würzburg Residence:

30006045486_609df0d6b7_k-2

He writes:

Every modern university or group of public buildings laid out around large and small open spaces generally follows some variant of the Würzburg Residence plan — a large court or yard at the center with smaller courts at either side. (51)

Looking at the picture I though god damn, it’s so true.

VIII: The Artless and Prosaic Character of Modern City Planning

Ha.

Open space that should serve everyone actually belongs to the engineer and hygienist. All of the art forms in town building have disappeared one by one so that we have scarcely a memory of them left. (53)

IX: Modern Systems

Ah, the grid. He writes here at the beginning of the grid. It’s funny looking back, that actually it got much worse than the grid, comparing New York for example, to the suburbs.

These systems accomplish nothing except a standardization of street patterns. They are purely mechanical in conception. They reduce the street system to a mere traffic utility, never serving the purposes of art. They make no appeal to the sense of perception, for we can see their features only on a map. (59)

He looks at street patterns and traffic — traffic! Ah, 1889, this was just the beginning, but this kind of diagram is also very familiar.

fig82-83

X: Modern Limitations on Art in City Planning

What I like most is that actually this is not just a nostalgic looking backwards, though I wouldn’t fault that too much given the delight that these old city spaces bring and the importance of thinking through just why. Sitte writes:

Many of the old structural forms are simply out of the question for modern builders. While that may disturb the sentimental, it should not plunge them into a sterile nostalgia. Decorative construction without vital function is but temporary and of questionable value. Time makes inexorable changes in community life, and these changes alter the original significance of architectural forms. (69)

But now more and more, we see how architectural forms result from community life…

Great population increases in our modern capitals, more than anything else, have shattered the old forms. With the growth of a city its streets widen and its buildings grow taller and bulkier.

Written before the first skyscraper mind.

Intense human concentration has meant intense increase in land value, and neither the individual nor the city government can escape the consequences. Subdivision and street opening have proceeded apace, Street after street has been cut through old districts, giving birth to more and more city blocks. (69)

This economic understanding of development was unexpected, I’m not sure why though. Still, it is almost uncanny to see the way that Sitte foresaw the architectural and planning future.

High land costs encourage greater intensity of land use, and this, in turn, supports certain structural forms. Modern lot plotting tends to exalt the cube motif in architecture. (70)

XI: Improved Modern Systems

So looking to his future, our present which is one Sitte did his best to prevent and I appreciate that, he writes:

Our study has already indicated the obvious need for innovations to overcome the effects of the ill-famed rectangular system. (74)

I’m almost glad he didn’t know there would be worse. He didn’t see bureaucratic and state planning as the answer — though private planning wasn’t the answer either.

Personal ambition, artistic individuality, and enthusiasm for work of one’s own responsibility are factors that do not fit into public administration. In fact, they are incompatible with official discipline. (82)

Sitte foresaw the great wind corridors of our modern times as well:

While it is possible for a pedestrian to stroll without discomfort in the old inner city, he is immediately enveloped in clouds of dust when he steps into a modern part of the City. Open plazas, where street openings draw in wind from every direction (like the new City Hall Plaza of Vienna) feature beautiful wind spirals throughout the year… (87)

I haven’t yet been to Budapest and Vienna, but Sitte upholds the first, describing Budapest:

where stand the finest and most greatly admired urban areas along the Danube, where the river is made a magnificent feature of the City itself. Sooner or later, the Danube can have an equally fine effect on Vienna. … Should, then, a gradual slum development be permitted in the meantime? Should not the senseless and immensely costly rectangular system be abandoned? (85)

He really hates rectangles.

XII: Artistic Principles in City Planning — An Illustration

Again Vienna, always back to Vienna, it was his city after all. But there is much to think on for all cities.

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

3 thoughts on “Camillo Sitte: The Art of Building Cities”

Leave a Reply