Drawing the city in black and white: Sitte
Author: Glòria Serra Coch
Drawing influences thinking as thinking influences drawing. Is it true?
In 1889 a pamphlet is published in Viena: Der Stadtebau nach setinen künstlerischen Grundstätsen, City Building According to Artistic Principles. The author is Camillo Sitte (1843-1903) an Austrian architect that achieves great success with this text. In this book, Sitte analyzes the urban and artistic character of old cities with the aim of, afterwards, presenting an assessment of current urban projects and studies. Although we can clearly state that Sitte’s publication widely affects the conception of posterior urbanism, however, it is not clear if this influence can be labeled as positive or negative. [Christiane and George Collins]
However, my aim is not to discuss this publication but to extract some considerations about the way cities are displayed in 2d drawings. Camillo Sitte illustrates his book with a series of drawings that allow him to compared different situations in several cities. To be able to easily trace these comparatives, these drawings display some common factors. He analyzes different existing squares by drawing their floor plan always at the same scale and with the same technique: the black versus white, empty versus full. The repetition of elements represented in a common synthetic method allows an easier visual comparative.
What is the key aspect of using the black and white as a representation method? The most relevant is probably the use of a graphical expression that reduces the existent to a binary form, its minimal expression. In this way, information is compressed in a very simple representation. The extensive analysis of the real model before its synthesis in a drawing together with the simplicity of understanding that this representation brings with it gives the possibility of capturing the information in several different levels. By suppressing the extra information, the drawing succeeds in showing the essence of the object displayed, in this case, a city or a square. These “simplifications” allow the possibility to capture the proportions at first sight. Revealing what construction or ornamental lines could hide.
In addition, a thorough observation of Sitte’s, and general cities, drawings, from a purely formal point of view can also contribute to give us a different kind of information.
For instance, it is interesting to observe the similarities between the squares of Gràcia neighborhood (Barcelona) drawn by the architect and urban planner Solà-Morales with a Mondrian painting. The first case aims to synthetize the city by simplifying its structure to reach an understanding of its soul and aggregation system. We could say that the structure of Gràcia if far more understandable in one of these drawings than if we observe the neighborhood in an aerial picture. In this way, the 2d representation achieves to condense the main pillars that structure the area. This process could be clearly assimilated to the abstraction path that Piet Mondrian follows in his paintings.
When the urban plan can be related with the pictorial composition it becomes convenient to start considering what is exactly that they share. Mostly, it is interesting to understand which aspects are the urban representations aiming to that establish these similarities. Could it be that, sometimes, architects prioritize the beauty of the drawing more than the veracity of the existing? ¿Do they think that the beauty of the floor plan will guarantee a beautiful realization? On the opposite side it could also be considered that this way of representing, close to the artistic drawing, allows a better display of the main concepts. Proportion, composition and shape make hidden aspects suddenly apparent.
In the case of Camilo Sitte, some main reasons to use this type of drawing can be presented, First of all, the possibility of facilitating the reading comparing the different cases but also the need of translating clearly the importance of proportion in urban spaces. However, his drawings do not show a clearly binary technique but alternate the solid with the stripped pattern contrasting with the empty white paper. The addition of a third layer is not related with a more realistic understanding of the existing but with a further abstraction of the drawing. The solid texture is not related with the elements with more physical presence in the reality but with those with more importance in his written analysis. In this way, Sitte uses his drawings as an analytic method explaining his personal ideas and not the direct existing.
These observations bring the notion of graphical expression being able to condition the way of thinking. It is quite accepted that the language we use affect the way we conceive thoughts; would not it be sensible to also consider the system of representation used by architects and urban planners as a great conditioner of their work? We think what we draw and we draw what we think.
All in all, it could be stated that representation systems present two aspects that connect them with the understanding of the model. Firstly, the effort of analysis and synthesis needed to translate a real or planned situation into a graphical representation brings with it a deeper and more complete understanding of the original. Secondly, the drawing, thanks to its new formal image, displays some relations of proportion, balance and dimensions that were not noticeable by looking at the real model.
The square is the empty space of a city by definition and, therefore, the white in the drawing is one of the images mostly related with this kind of place. The gap between building directly opened to the sky, the spot where the old city breaths. This type of images are repeated during the history of urbanism, in text, critics, conversations and, mostly, drawings, where the buildings are displayed as a solid black pattern and the square is the white space left in between.
However, there is another aspect of the square that might be as important as this first obvious one. Especially in Mediterranean culture, this space is also the center of activities, where the heart of the city beats. The agora of the ancient Greece, the forum… Everything happened there, was decided there and everybody would meet there.
Is then appropriate to understand the square as the vacuum? Would not it be more correct to present it as the urban core of activities and life, which spreads through the contiguous streets to characterize a whole area of the urban agglomeration? Probably, although Sitte drew them in white, this conception of square would be closer to his ideals.
To illustriate through a graphical representation this idea, we can use again the Gràcia drawings of Solà-Morales. In some versions, the empty spaces are covered by a solid dark pattern that enhances its distributing effect. In this drawing we clearly see the conception of a square as a core, and the given effect is of a substance concentrated in a spot that has been spilled and gradually expands though the paths at hand. At the same time, proportions are seen in a completely different way compared with its opposite version. A similar effect to the one that the artist uses when, by placing his painting in front of a mirror suddenly sees the wrong proportions and twisted lines. A technique to avoid prejudice?
Drawing influences thinking as thinking influences drawing. With the availability of new technologies that offer standardized systems of representing the existing, a new danger has been introduced in the design and planning process. The ideas, conceptions, strategies and project architects, urban planners and designers might conceive can be limited by regulated representation systems.