The Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742
Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary
Camillo Sitte (1843-1903) was a noted Viennese painter, architect, theorist, and planner. He distinguished himself in the art of city planning culminating in his seminal work City Planning According to Artistic Principles with great influence and authority on the evolution of urban planning and its regulation on the European continent. This work has subsequently gone on to influence generations of urban designers and architects throughout the world.
City Planning According to Artistic Principles was an aesthetic criticism of the design of urban spaces as they were being realized at the end of the nineteenth century. While mainly concerned with urban planning, the book has had a deep influence on architecture inasmuch as the two are integrally intertwined disciplines.
For Sitte, the most important aspect of civic buildings was not the architectural form of the buildings themselves but rather their how their form, characteristics, and deployment as building blocks contributed to the character and quality of urban spaces. In preparing his work, Sitte travelled extensively to study the spatial structures of then-contemporary city plazas of his own native Vienna, in Paris, Salzburg, Rothenburg on the Tauber, Dresden, and dozens of other European cities, carefully sketching their physical planimetrics, elevations of their significant buildings, and placement of statues, fountains and other monuments within those spaces.
He similarly studied their earlier precedents in Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa. He applauded the practice in ancient Greece, Rome, and during the Italian Renaissance of deploying buildings of monumental character as the physical walls of those plazas and urban spaces. Imagining what civic life in these urban spaces must have been like in the times of Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Lorenzo the Magnificent, he reflected on how the architects and city planners of those times had designed aesthetically superior spaces reinforcing civic culture.
Sitte criticized the trend of contemporary urban planners to isolate the placement of significant civic buildings, churches, and monuments as celebrated objects, confronting them as to how such elements had been presented in former times, not as individual objects but instead as ornaments woven into the tapestry of the urban space.
He similarly criticized the regular, obsessive order of contemporary plazas being built by contrasting them to the irregularity of those of the medieval city. More importantly, he identified from a psychological viewpoint the importance of proportion to human scale as critical to the design of effective civic spaces. In so doing he opposed trends among his contemporaries towards broad, over-scaled boulevards, avenues, and squares, enjoining instead that, “a square should be seen as a room: it should form an enclosed space”.
Among his most valuable contributions to urban design theory and practice is his implementation of the figure-ground diagram. His diagrams, carefully drawn to scale, captured planimetrically the formal patterns of the urban spaces he studied. By delineating the solid masses of buildings (“figure”) against the negative space between them (“ground”) he helped popularize an invaluable tool in the analysis of civic spaces.