When the Austrian architect and artist Camillo Sitte (ZIT-uh) first published The Art of Building Cities  in 1889, his native Vienna was nearing completion of the Ringstraße—a grand boulevard of parks and public buildings that follows the path of a former wall around the perimeter of the old city. The ring road, along with its many individual site plans, was an immense canvas for late 19th-century urban planning, and Vienna’s prominence as a leading capital of Europe ensured that the project would help define the modern city. There is a tendency among advocates of traditional urbanism to have a rose-colored view of such 19th-century city planning projects. Yet for Sitte, both the successes and failures of the Ringstraße were salient as he wrestled with the central question of his book: As the modern metropolis experienced explosive growth, which aspects of traditional urbanism could be “saved from the heritage of our ancestors”?
An exceptionally sophisticated site planner, Sitte focused on aesthetic details at a level of depth even rarer today than it was in fin-de-siècle Vienna. While studying the cities of the Old World, he identified several valuable principles that by his time had already been lost or become neglected. Sitte lamented the decline of pre-modern urban characteristics and a gradual loss of wisdom from the town-building traditions that had shaped Europe prior to the rise of industry. Today, scholars often see Sitte as a leading light of the renewed focus on aesthetics that permeated the work of urban planners in the late 19th century—an accolade that he deserves.
But if all Sitte had offered before his death in 1903 was a critique of his own time, he would have been forgotten long ago. What has kept architects and urban planners coming back to him for over a century is a more inquisitive look backward: a close reading of the traditional forms that gave European urbanism its essential character. In the immediate decades after Sitte’s book was published, 20th-century urban theorists such as Raymond Unwin and others looked to Sitte for guidance when applying the time-tested traditions of town-building to the smokestack cities of the industrial age. Closer to our own time, prominent New Urbanists such as Andrés Duany and Leon Krier have taken inspiration from Sitte’s focus on the art of creating places, as they seek to deemphasize the functionalist approach that dominated much of 20th-century city planning.
Reading Sitte elicits a mixture of admiration and exasperation. While he is undoubtedly correct in many of his unfavorable comparisons between the patterns of traditional and industrial urbanism, he may also hold city builders—especially those working in uniquely dynamic historical moments—to an impossible standard of refinement. Yet despite these faults, Sitte is still appropriately placed in the canon of great urbanists, one of those classic thinkers who anyone concerned with the future of the city cannot ignore.
One of Sitte’s foremost concerns is the placement of monuments. Today, features like statues, sculptures, fountains, and obelisks may seem mere afterthoughts to core questions of urban planning. For Sitte, who considered the fine art of planning to extend down to the precise details of every urban space, such a presumption about ornament could not be more wrong. In his approach, the decision as to where a monument would be placed was as important as the choice of the object itself. He laments a tendency (which has continued) to select points along geometric axes as locations—especially when such points lie in the center of large open spaces, where the visual impact of any object will be diminished by its distance from observers and the dimensions of the surrounding space. Throughout his writing, Sitte returns to a deep distrust for the technician’s affinity for regular shapes, and for decisions that look tidy on a draftsman’s plan. Instead, he provides compelling evidence that a more sophisticated approach to site planning allows for frequent departures from the tyranny of right angles and rigid proportions.
Sitte argues that the historically and artistically correct practice is to situate monuments—especially sculptures—to the side of primary thoroughfares, often near the entries of buildings. This is a way of contextualizing their presence with the other physical details of the built environment. It also ensures that the largest proportion of passers-by will experience them close up. Among many fine examples, he offers two intriguing instances of the placement of public sculptures by Renaissance masters in Italian cities to illustrate the artistic component of site selection. First, he looks at the original site of Michelangelo’s David, in Florence:
This gigantic marble statue stands close to the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the left of its principal entrance, in the exact place chosen by Michelangelo. The idea of erecting a statue on this place of ordinary appearance would have appeared to moderns absurd if not insane. Michelangelo chose it, however, and without doubt deliberately; for all those who have seen the masterpiece in this place testify to the extraordinary impression that it makes. In contrast to the relative scantiness of the place, affording an easy comparison with human stature, the enormous statue seems to swell even beyond its actual dimensions. The sombre and uniform, but powerful, walls of the palace provide a background on which we could not wish to improve to make all the lines of the figure stand out.
Sitte notes caustically that David has since been moved into a gallery—an “art prison that we call a museum”—where it is severed from the enriching urban and architectural contexts that Michelangelo had wisely selected. (The original remains indoors today, at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze; a full-sized replica now stands on the site chosen by Michelangelo.)
Building on his use of fine art to illustrate his principles of placemaking, Sitte also examines the siting of Padua’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, a large bronze sculpture by Donatello located to one side of a piazza and vast basilica, rather than on a central axis:
[W]e may be astonished by its great variance from our rigid modern system, but it is quickly and strikingly seen that the monument in this place produces a majestic effect. Finally we become convinced that removed to the center of the square its effect would be diminished. We cease to wonder at its orientation and other locational advantages once this principle becomes familiar.
He further explains the traditional placement of monuments at the edges of busy spaces by using an analogy between finished public squares and the furnished rooms of private houses. Today, as we have for centuries, we tend to place art around the perimeters of indoor rooms.
Sitte’s recommendations for what today we might consider unconventional siting of monuments dovetails with a tradition in southern Europe, dating from classical antiquity, in which the centers of public plazas were kept open and clear (with some exceptions made for fountains). This practice began in ancient times, when these spaces were primarily used for community activities that drew large gatherings of people. Over time, many of these activities moved indoors, but the tradition of open space remained.
Sitte’s analysis is always driven by a close reading of practices from the past. He primarily focuses on Medieval and Renaissance towns in Italy and Germany, with occasional ventures into neighboring lands and more ancient times. The Art of Building Cities includes dozens of hand-drawn plans of plazas adjoining churches, city halls, markets, and other central gathering places.
The contention that ornamentation must respect its context is consistent with Sitte’s recommendations for the larger characteristics of public spaces. He calls our focus to the fact that, traditionally, churches in southern Europe were built into existing streetscapes—that is, most old Italian churches were attached structures rather than free-standing buildings. As with monuments, he favors the siting of iconic buildings, such as churches or city halls, at the perimeter of a plaza, with only a selective exposure of façade space; and he has harsh words for the more recent trend of placing monumental buildings in the center of open spaces. Sitte also calls attention to the proportioning of plazas in relation to the key structures whose vistas they will facilitate. “We can distinguish,” he argues, “between two kinds of public squares, those of depth and those of expanse.” The former, he believes, is most appropriate opposite the tall but often narrow façade of a church. The latter is better suited to the space across from the front of a typically wider city hall.
Always skeptical of overly rationalistic designs, Sitte is adamant about the value of irregularity. He contends that the modern desire for symmetry is misguided. Looking back to the history of the concept of symmetry, he writes:
Although [symmetry] is a Greek word, its ancient meaning was quite different from its present meaning…. The notion of identical figures to the right and left of an axis was not the basis of any theory in ancient times. Whoever has taken the trouble to search out the meaning of the word … in Greek and Latin literature knows that it means something that cannot be expressed in a single word today…. In short, proportion and symmetry were the same to the ancients.
For Sitte, the ancient meaning of symmetry is something closer to harmony than to a bilateral reflection. He argues that the more rigid definition is a product of Renaissance times that began to haunt the thinking of architects and planners, diverting them from the more nuanced harmonies of older, more irregular designs. Returning to the topic of public squares to apply this interpretive lens, Sitte notes that irregularities on the map are rarely discordant in actual experience. Instead, he contends that they can provide more interesting vistas, better proportioning, and even ideal sites for civic art:
The typical irregularity of these old squares indicates their gradual historical development. We are rarely mistaken in attributing the existence of these windings to practical causes—the presence of a canal, the lines of an old roadway, or the form of a building. 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.
This point about urbanism is broadly consistent with Einstein’s famous observation that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” As Raymond Unwin and others have observed, curved streets create an inherent sense of mystery, because their vistas reveal themselves only gradually, as one’s movement changes one’s perspective. That which has not yet become visible, but which we intuit to be there, compels us forward and holds our attention as it does so. Compare this to a typical grid, where streets, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “follow like a tedious argument.”
To illustrate the value of irregularity, Sitte offers an example from Verona. Situated in a V-shaped bend of the Adige River, the northern Italian city is surrounded on three sides by water, and accordingly benefits from a topography that has long required an efficient approach to land use. The old blocks of Verona focus on the Piazza Erbe, which is located at the approximate center of the city’s elbow in the riverbend. Its long, lozenge-like shape—wide in the center—creates an attractive enclosure. The space’s framing by irregular streets, shaped by topography and building variety, allows for a sense of mystery, with vistas revealing themselves from various perspectives. Despite its geometrical oddity (when viewed on a two-dimensional map) the square feels well-proportioned at street level. In addition, the variety of its building facades, refined over many years, adds texture and color, while a tower serves as a visual focal point. Perspectives benefit from a plaza with proportions that, intentionally or by fortunate accident, maximize their effects.
Numerous criticisms of contemporary planning—which read like philippics against bureaucrats, technicians, and their procedures—appear alongside Sitte’s attempts to integrate the wisdom of traditional artistic principles into the rapidly developing world of the late 19th century. These grievances against urban planning practices would be familiar among anyone who studies the field today: a tendency to prioritize vehicular traffic (then streetcars and animal-drawn carts) over pedestrians in ways that benefited neither class; a focus on technical considerations to the exclusion of aesthetic ones; a forgetfulness about history; and the uninspired nature of government edicts that shape land development. On this last point about the nature of planning bureaucracies, Sitte is especially biting:
Even if we assume that every official has the ability, knowledge, background in travel and training, innate artistic feeling, and imagination to conceive of an effective city plan, a number of officials acting together in a bureau would produce only barren, pedantic stuff of a dusty official flavor.
To improve the planning process, Sitte advocates reintegrating the essential artistic components discovered in a historical urban fabric—qualities like perspective, complementariness, proportion, irregularity, and so forth—with the necessary advances of modernity, including sanitary systems, transportation infrastructure, and contemporary construction practices. In fact, one of the strongest architectural lessons that some readers take from Sitte is an appreciation of the value of building in ways that respect a structure’s historical context; he is indeed critical of artificiality in all its forms, including attempts to replicate a time that no longer exists.
In keeping with his faithfulness to setting and not pure aesthetics, Sitte also provides a detailed analysis of traffic patterns at several types of intersections—tallying potential collision points between carts and pedestrians. His drawings are presciently similar to the diagrams that would one day delineate vehicle lanes, crosswalks, and traffic signals in the age of motor vehicles. Yet Sitte’s conclusion from this analysis does not advocate for a more orderly set of traffic controls; rather, once again critiquing an overly rationalistic approach, he suggests that the use of a more traditional, non-gridded street pattern will reduce the chance of congested intersections.
Sitte closes The Art of Building Cities with a close aesthetic analysis of several site plans along the Ringstraße in his native Vienna. His general assessment of the state of development there is that the architecture is well done, but the site planning is lacking in sophistication, largely because it has left an excess of open spaces that fail to either complement the buildings or define the plazas. Accordingly, he offers several ideas for changes to the spaces surrounding key buildings, including the Votivkirche (Votive Church) and the Rathaus (City Hall). Unsurprisingly, he suggests modifications that would bring these sites closer in line with traditional city patterns. His specific recommendations include the development of additional structures in the vast, undefined plazas that would create a sense of enclosure around the facades of the landmark buildings; the removal of streetcar tracks from their immediate proximity; and the use of various new structures to harmonize views by blocking the visibility of clashing, neighboring buildings. “We should always follow the principle,” he writes, “of harmonizing everything that can be seen in one view, and we need not concern ourselves with that which cannot be seen. That is the road to practical effect, and it will never lead us astray.”
The Art of Building Cities is a rich, dense book. Considering the wealth of information it contains, it is also deceptively short. Sitte’s insights about proportioning, site selection, and the benefits of irregularity remain particularly valuable to urbanists. At the same time, his criticism of Industrial Age planning is too harsh—especially in retrospect, with 20th-century planning failures such as urban renewal now in clear hindsight. The builders of the late 19th century may not have reached the zenith of artfulness and local authenticity as cities expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. And they certainly could not replicate the construction of neighborhoods that the settled cities of medieval and Renaissance Europe had achieved organically—and presumably without conscious planning—over the course of many centuries of refinement. But in light of the pressures of the industrial era—including historically unique economic and population growth—many 19th century architects and planners deserve credit for incorporating more thoughtful applications of tradition into their plans than those of subsequent eras would do.
Ultimately, Sitte’s contempt for contemporary urban planning creates a paradox for his legacy: the very instinct that drives his criticism also fuels a call to planners to return to the essentials of town-building practices. And by defining certain simple devices from long-standing traditions of urban civilization, Sitte makes his most important contribution: providing a set of discrete, implementable ideas that urban planners, even in faster-moving times, can use to achieve more artful results.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.