Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning


Below are some thoughts and notes from the book Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning, 1986 by George R. Collins and Christiane Crasemann Collins

Camillo Sitte talks about the medieval city in terms of the design principles that could be extracted from it. What are some of the spatial methods used to achieve the artistic effects of the streets, squares and monuments? He gives examples in the form of nolli maps and explains how, for example, the old public squares of Mantua and its entrance streets are laid out according to the perspective of the man, not the aerial plan. Streets are hidden in view when one stands from one corner of the open space, allowing for the space to be enclosed and transformed from a simple open space to a public square.

There are some interesting observations that Sitte gave on the medieval city. However, I am not sure how trustworthy are his observations – do they exemplify the typical way of squares in the medieval city? Or are they simply one way of doing it? Another question is the question of, again, time in the medieval city. There seems to be a muted discussion on the aspect of organic growth of the spaces, especially in terms of squares. Sitte is taking the square as what he sees now as a conscious design. How informed are the processes of making spaces in the medieval city? If these cities are incrementally made through interventions of different individuals at different times, how do we then say that there is a collective consciousness that imposed certain design principles that Sitte has now we confidently pointed out? If we look at his observation ‘that the center of plazas be kept free,’ he tabulated his findings of the number of churches that are attached structures rather than freestanding ones (249:6). He then pointed out that out of the six freestanding churches, 2 are modern ones and he argues that there is a lesson to be learnt there to build new churches not in the middle of squares. There is a missed step in his argument in that medieval churches are the static point of reference within the city. Through the ages, buildings wrap around them, changing in typology, location, shape, size, height when it is needed. So the element of time is crucial in the formation of churches as being almost ‘eaten alive’ by the city as it grows. When we look at the problem of designing a new church, the opposite is true. The church becomes an insertion into an existing domain and it needs to carve out a space for itself without perhaps covering up the whole facades of existing buildings. The middle then become a natural selection.

The issue then perhaps lies in how planning allows for buildings to become attached to the church over time. So that the church can begin to take on the role as a watermark pole against which the changes of other buildings are measured.

(to be updated further)

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