Camillo Sitte – visionary of urban planning

Camillo Sitt

Camillo Sitte was born in Vienna in 1843. He was one of the first architects who theoretically and critically dealt with urban planning in the industrial age. Due to his architectural and aesthetic suggestions, he is even considered the “founder of urban architecture”. Historian Stefan Šolz from Charles University in Prague about it:

“Camillo Sitte was a professor, architect and urban planner. He worked in the so-called Gründerzeit, that is, in the last two decades of the 19th century. The urbanism of this era, as it was mainly shaped by Otto Wagner, was not exactly philanthropic. Time was determined by speculators, profit and addiction. They wanted to extract as much profit and capital as possible from every square meter of expensively purchased construction land. This means that everything is sealed and walled off with residential buildings as much as possible. The development was very nice in the inner districts of Vienna or, for example, in the districts of Karlín and Vinohrady in Prague. It was characterized by the chessboard construction and the lack of green areas.”

Urban planning as an art

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

In 1889, Sitte published his book “Urban development according to his artistic principles” and thereby achieved a high reputation beyond the borders of Austria-Hungary. He coined the idea that urban planning must be understood as a work of art and not just a matter of technology. He looked for models for his projects and theoretical work in ancient, medieval and baroque cities. He turned away from the pragmatic planning of his time, which depended entirely on sanitation, traffic and economic benefits. The focus of his deliberations was the central town square. He also emphasized the importance of open spaces, gardens, courtyards and curved streets for positive atmospheric urban spaces.

“Camillo Sitte was a dissident, a rebel at that time. He coined the principle: one square meter of greenery for one square meter of built-up area.”

However, his premises had consequences for his career:

“At the time that meant you couldn’t get an order in the capital. Although he lived and taught in Vienna, he was never allowed to plan there. And not in other important cities of the monarchy like Prague or Budapest. This means that he was banished to the periphery, which at that time was called North Moravia and North Bohemia.”

Přívoz: the only city according to Sitte’s concept

Ostrava-Přívoz (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The only city that was really built according to Camillo Sitte’s urban concept is Přívoz / Oderfurt. Today it is part of Ostrava / Ostrau. The most important buildings of Sitte are the neo-baroque town hall and the parish church in the neo-gothic style. The Church of the Conception of the Virgin Mary is the dominant feature of the center. Site not only designed the church, but also painted the interior. The architect assembled the center of Přívoz as a complex of seven blocks of houses around a rectangular central square. This was connected to the railway station by road. In his project, the urbanist wanted to combine architecture with applied art.

“Přívoz is the Mecca and Medina for modern urban ecology. We should not forget that we live in a time when this topic is hot. For today’s students in Vienna, and I assume also in Prague, Camillo Sitte is a visionary par excellence.”

More than a hundred years after his death, Camillo Sitte’s work continues to attract a lot of attention.

“Sitte bequeathed his entire estate, around 50,000 documents, including many plans and technical descriptions, to the Technical University of Vienna. The company Camillo Sitte, which manages the property, was founded there. In the last ten to fifteen years, these 50,000 documents have been thoroughly processed.”

royal plan capital Olomouc.  Urban extension designed by architect Camillo Sitte (Source: Olomouc Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 CZ)

Stefan Scholz is a member of the team working on the complete edition of Sitte’s writings and drafts. It is issued by the Technical University of Vienna. The task of the Austrian historian was to search for traces of customs in Bohemia.

“It was about looking for Camillo Sitte in the Czech archives. Especially in the cities where he implemented his plans. This particularly applied to Ostrava, i.e. Moravian Ostrava and Silesian Ostrava, the expansion of the city in Olomouc/Olomouc, which was partially realized, and then the unrealized expansion plan of Liberec/Reichenberg and Dubí/Eichenwald near Teplica. There were very rich finds there.”

The results of the research conducted by Scholz in the Czech archives are collected in the sixth volume of the Camillo Sitte Complete Edition:

Castle with three pipes in the Brdy Mountains (Photo: Mojmír Churavý, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“The first volumes contain his architectural projects and his writings. The third volume of the well-known program publication ‘Urban development according to artistic principles’ from 1889, which was already translated into many languages ​​at the end of the 19th century, was published here. The sixth volume is undoubtedly interesting. This was created on the basis of archival research in the Czech archives.”

Traces in Czech archives

Stefan Scholz specifies what exactly can be found in the last volume of the complete edition:

“Here we first see Sitte’s architectural designs, especially in the Czech Republic. These are individual objects that are truly custom built. Many people do not know that among them is also Zámek Tři trubky, i.e. the castle with three pipes in the Hills. In addition, many projects in Schlesisch Ostrava.”

The romantic hunting lodge Tři trubky near Plzeň/Plzen was built for Hieronimus Colloredo-Mansfeld, owner of the surrounding forests. The building had a representative purpose and was decorated with numerous trophies and artworks with hunting motifs. It also had its own water supply and hydroelectric power plant, and valuable exotic trees were planted in the surrounding forest. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the hunting lodge was nationalized and since 2014 it has been considered a cultural monument. In the future, the state plans to repair and turn the castle into a center for forest education and tourism.

The grave of Camillo Sitte at the Central Cemetery in Vienna (Photo: Andreas Faessler, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

But let’s return to Camillo Sitte and his traces in the Czech archives:

“The most important are urban development projects. There is Těšín / Teschen, the central project of Přívoz and expansion of Moravian Ostrava. Few people know that he was even invited to the division of Constantinople. And he made a plan for Laibach.”

Despite orders from all over the world, Camillo Sitte’s close relationship with Bohemia and Moravia had not only to do with his work, but also with his family roots:

“We know that his father Franz Sitte was born in the small village of Neukirchen northwest of Liberec. He came to Vienna before 1848. In the early days he worked there as an architect and craftsman. He did not belong to the top like Semper or Förster, but he still belonged to the upper middle class of Wilhelmine master builders in Vienna. Camillo Sitte was born and raised in Vienna. Although he has North Bohemian roots, he was born in Vienna.”

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