Urban Design in the Footsteps of Camillo Sitte

by Peter Kellow

 Street in Toulouse, France

Beauty has always paid better than any other commodity and always will.

 

—Frederick Law Olmsted

 

 

Camillo Sitte published his book on urban design, Der Städtebau—known in its later English translation as City Planning According to Artistic Principles—in Vienna in 1889. It was an immediate success in Austria and Germany. Its influence continued such that as late as 1922, the German planning magazine Der Baumeister could write: “The book is still a revelation—like a constellation gleaming in the sky, unaffected by the passing years and fashions. It still retains, without effort, its position among the great number of books that have appeared in city planning and related fields during the last decades.”1

The book’s influence outside the German-speaking world was uneven and slow to take off. The first translation was the French one of 1902, by Camille Martin. A Spanish one followed in 1926, and a Russian translation became available the same year. The first English translation did not appear until 1946, in the United States. Prior to that, Sitte was known in the English-speaking world only through two commentaries that had appeared in important books on urban design, Raymond Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice (1909) and Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets’s American Vitruvius (1926). Today, Sitte (pronounced “Zittuh”) is respected in most urban design circles, though he is often unread or misread. This neglect is regrettable, for his work has never lost its vitality and is particularly relevant to the New Urbanist movements now flourishing in America and Europe.

Sitte’s was not the first book on urban design, but, leaving aside the odd reference to this subject by Leon Battista Alberti and Vitruvius, he was the first to bring aesthetics into the picture. Previous works by the German planning professional Reinhard Baumeister and others had proposed only formal design and accentuated practical aspects, such as health and transport. The innovation of Sitte was to recognize that this approach could not lead to the most beautiful cities. Everyone understood the need for beautiful buildings, yet the idea that the way an ensemble was constructed could itself constitute an artform was new. Everyone could see the beauty of the old towns and cities around them, but no one had thought to analyze what made them beautiful. Sitte did this and went further. He deduced some principles from these revered places that could be applied by a modern urban designer in order to achieve something like the quality of these old towns. Sitte believed that their aesthetically satisfying arrangements were the result of an intuitive sensibility that had existed in previous times and been lost. Thus, an essential aspect of his project was to facilitate good design by substituting formulated principles for the missing intuition.

Street in Poundbury, Dorset, EnglandOn reading Sitte, it is easy to be so taken by the revelations of the first eight chapters, which use examples of late medieval and Renaissance cities, that one overlooks his discussion in the last six chapters of Baroque and modern planning. There is little excuse for this misreading, for, in his introduction, Sitte emphasizes that the origin of all Western “plazas” lay in the ancient world, in the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome.

In his subsequent analysis of late medieval and Renaissance plazas, Sitte discusses the sense of enclosure that these places create; for him, this is essential to how they work aesthetically. Above all, enclosure is determined by the way views in and out are restricted, according to the angle at which the streets enter. Sitte analyzes this with reference to many examples of plazas in Germany and Italy. He also discusses the placement of statues in these spaces, and the way that the height and width of major buildings fronting onto plazas relate to their proportions and dimensions. Even so, the most important principle we need to take away here is that of enclosure. In an enclosed place we lose our relation to what is outside. We define our position solely according to the plaza that contains us.


Although Sitte revered late medieval plazas, he saw Baroque planning as especially relevant to modern urban design. In his own designs, included in the book, it is Baroque that he uses. Sitte shows how Baroque achieves the essential quality of enclosure, albeit in a different way. The Baroque avenue, for instance, although linear, is invariably terminated by a monument or building. Furthermore, both medieval and Baroque enclosed plans succeed because of the effect they have on the viewer in the street. Only in this way can urban design be aesthetic or “artistic.” The fact that medieval is informal and Baroque formal simply means that they provide two different models for aesthetic urban planning, with no particular preference assigned to either. Both can provide visually pleasing views in a city.

Sitte also affirms a very important underlying principle in urban design, one that, in the frequent interpretations of him as merely an advocate of the picturesque, is often overlooked or misunderstood. He was very critical of a form of urban design he saw everywhere in his own day, and which was becoming more prevalent. This he called “block planning.”2 Old towns, whether medieval or Baroque, had been laid out primarily as streets and open spaces. Modern towns, however, were designed from the point of view of blocks, so that the spaces left between and around those blocks comprised the streets and open spaces. Many might think that these two methods amount to the same thing, but the gulf between them is fundamental to understanding Sitte. If you start from streets and spaces, you can assign a hierarchy to them so that, for instance, there is a principal route with minor streets leading off from it. This gives us a reading of the town and a way of naturally finding our way around it. We pursue the principal route to traverse the town, and then home in on our destination via the smaller routes. Visually, the principal route appears continuous: the buildings lining it are side-by-side, and only as we approach the exit to a minor route does the latter figure prominently in our view.

This is the principle that Sitte cites in his attack on the urban form he saw becoming prevalent in his own day—the gridiron. This was used across Europe in, for example, the vast nineteenth century extension of Barcelona, the “Eixample,” yet Sitte focused on its almost universal deployment in the United States. Indeed, the gridiron determines almost exclusively the character of such cities as New York, especially Manhattan. For Sitte, the gridiron has “in its veins not a single drop of artistic blood.” Through it, “art is forced into silence.” The worst tendencies of block planning are implicit in the gridiron, for all public space is merely leftover space after the blocks are laid out. There is no enclosure anywhere—at every position you are part of a movement between blocks. Furthermore, the gridiron entails seemingly endless crossroads, the particular object of Sitte’s ire. These are the antithesis of enclosure, for they offer endless vistas in all directions and are disastrous for traffic circulation. Sitte performs a detailed analysis of traffic movement, showing that crossroads yield endless confusion because there are fifty-four different possibilities of movement at a single crossroads. Of course, he did not have the advantage of deploying traffic lights, which surely can be seen retrospectively as an admission of failure. Traffic lights became an inevitable feature of the gridiron, so much so that “Walk/Don’t Walk” lights have become a symbol of Manhattan the world over.

Sitte surely has a point with regard to circulation, yet most people regard New York as a beautiful city where art—far from being “forced into silence”— is abundant everywhere. How is it that Sitte’s principles contradict our experience? I would argue that it is not because his principles are wrong, but because they are not applicable to New York and other fine gridiron cities. Rather, we have two quite different ways of reading and appreciating a city. Which one we use depends upon what we see on the ground.Plan of Seaside, Florida, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Architects, 1984

As I have said, Sitte admires late medieval and Baroque urban design, and argues that these depend on the sense of enclosure that they create. But not all cities aim at enclosure, and neither do all urban spaces and routes. Enclosure, while psychologically and aesthetically satisfying in many cases, cannot be the principle on which all cities are designed. When confronted with enclosure, we react to it as such, but when we confront something different, we read it differently. When, for instance, we arrive at a crossroads in Manhattan, we do not find ourselves regretting the lack of enclosure, either consciously or unconsciously. Rather we read our given environment in a different way. Instead of orientating ourselves according to urban enclosure, we do so according to a sense of what I would call “land continuum.” This refers to our primal sense of occupying the surface of the earth and is surely natural to humans. Enclosure reverses this, while the grid develops it. By setting out roads at right angles, with frequent intersections, we can locate ourselves in the land continuum. People often praise New York because it is easy to find your way with the system of numbered avenues and streets. What these give us is similar to the latitudinal and longitudinal mapping of land. The psychological need to position ourselves in the land continuum is as powerful as that to experience enclosure. I would criticize Sitte for not taking sufficient account of these alternative ways of locating ourselves. In trying to see recent urban design through Sitte’s eyes, therefore, we should take account of this shortcoming and allow that there is a place for the grid.

Sitte partially acknowledges this point, in effect, when he writes that the magnificence of enclosed places cannot be replicated in every part of a city, even saying that we should reserve a part of the city as a “Sunday best.”3 To clarify this, I would make a further distinction between the “special place” and the “everyday place.” The former is normally enclosed and forms a focus for activities that are civic or social, often used for activities important to political life, such as ceremonies, meetings and demonstrations. It is a universal rule that, when people seek to be entertained or to socialize, they naturally gravitate towards the old centers of cities, where enclosure can be found. (Here is where bars and restaurants, for example, are most successful.) If such a place does not exist, the city is likely to be far less lively and have fewer businesses providing entertainment. Everyday places are where we work and shop, and mostly where we live—although habitation is not contrary to the character of a special place. I would also contrast the special place and the everyday place by identifying the former as a “destination” and the latter as part of a “network.” For Sitte, as I have said, the former goes back to the Greek agora and the Roman forum. The best special places give us a feeling of having arrived, of having reached a center of gravity. Incidentally, the necessity for such a civic heart was recognized by America’s City Beautiful movement (which knew nothing of Sitte), notably by Charles Mulford Robinson in Modern Civic Art (1904), one of the movement’s key tracts.

Considerations of enclosures/routes, special/everyday and destination/network raise the vexed question of whether streets should be “crooked” or straight. This matter has always accompanied discussion of Sitte. American and European New Urbanists find themselves on different sides of this argument, which is one way of distinguishing them. I will take a well-known example of each to illustrate this difference: Poundbury, Dorset, and Seaside, Florida. Both apply the lessons drawn from existing traditional towns and thus represent a departure from our era’s mainstream forms of planning, yet their results are quite different.

It is often held that Sitte advocated replicating the “organic” qualities found in late medieval towns. Collins, however, writes that Sitte “himself warned against the copying of ancient towns, especially as regards their irregularities…. His followers…fell into exactly that habit, and he was blamed for it.”4 (Much of this confusion arises from the fact that the English edition of 1946 includes a chapter on streets that had nothing to do with Sitte.) Whether it came from Sitte via his “followers” or not, this idea is surely a primary determinant of Poundbury’s “look,” for the views created within it are informal or irregular. Old towns have achieved their organic quality by growing up bit by bit, and contemporary designers often ponder how to replicate this quality in a town conceived all at once. Can this, in fact, be done successfully? Sitte is clear on the question: “Can the accidents of history over the course of centuries be invented and constructed ex novo in the plan? Could one, then, truly and sincerely enjoy such a fabricated ingenuousness, such a studied naturalness? Certainly not.”5

So, in spite of Sitte’s firm opinion against this type of urban design, does Poundbury succeed? Let us try to answer this question by comparing an old crooked street in Toulouse, France, with a view in Poundbury. The street in Toulouse has an undeniable charm owing to two factors. First, it is curved, creating enclosure, a prime feature for Sitte in the success of old towns. Second, a variation in the building façades entertains the eye. Poundbury possesses both qualities, yet our response to it is different. In Toulouse, Sitte would perceive naturalness and, in Poundbury, contrivance. The latter’s designers sought to replicate the effect of organic design by generating a random element in its layout. Sitte would say that organic and random are not the same, and that you can never fool the viewer into believing one is the other.

Meanwhile, in Seaside, attempts to suggest the organic are wholly absent. Here we see the designers’ intention immediately, for their hands are fully visible in the town’s mostly formal layout. There is no mistaking the semicircular layout of its central area as randomly or organically generated: the street layout is formal but not repetitive, and nothing appears random. There is variation in the design of the houses, but there is also considerable consistency of materials in order to create a harmonious effect.

Sitte would have had reservations about both examples of New Urbanism. Poundbury does have its central “special destination place” (its “Sunday best”), but Sitte would have found its “everyday” networking area contrived. He would not say that there can never be virtue in a new design’s irregularity, but he would wish it to appear deliberately orchestrated and conceived. This is the challenge Sitte would lay at the door of Europe’s New Urbanism.

By contrast, Sitte would approve of Seaside’s “everyday” aspect and its network of residential streets, which avoids the relentless gridiron of block planning and offers a clear hierarchy. What Sitte would criticize here, however, is the lack of any strong sense of enclosure in the central area. In America, a fine recent example of enclosure’s “artistic principles” is Fort Worth’s Sundance Square, completed in 2013 by David M. Schwartz, which effortlessly became a destination place. Europe has never lost this principle, and Sitte would say that America’s New Urbanists need to rediscover it more powerfully.

 Sundance Square, David M Schwartz, Architects, 2013, Fort Worth, Texas

 

 

Notes

 

1. George R. Collins and Christine Craseman Collins, Camillo Sitte and the Birth of Modern Planning (New York: Random House, 1965), 58.

2. Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, trans., George R. Collins and Christine Craseman Collins (New York: Random House, 1965), 102–04.

 

3. Ibid., 92.

 

4. Collins and Collins, 55.

 

5. Sitte, 111.

 

 

 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2015, Volume 34, Number 3