Sitte in a Digital World

Photo of the Piazza dei Signori VicenzaCamillo Sitte thoughtfully explained the interior qualities of his favorite public spaces. Though generally open to the sky, they were surrounded by varied building types and furnished with stairways, arches, and sculptures. They were intimate and often irregular, with engaging views on all sides. He lamented the abandonment of plazas as daily life moved increasingly indoors.

Today life moves increasingly online, but the places we inhabit -- whether physical or virtual -- are no less important. Even looking out the window affects our state of mind. This is hard to measure, but it's fairly clear when we feel comfortable, depressed, inspired, fearful, or healthy in response to our surroundings.

Sitte envisioned outdoor space that didn't feel desolate. When we think of The Great Outdoors, we usually mean forests, mountains, rivers -- not cities. But in many ways forests have more in common with cities than with prairies or deserts. Drawing of the Piazza dei Signori from City Planning According to Artistic Principles, by Camillo SitteThey are full of proximate activity, and contain many unique places. I wonder how cities might eventually be considered part of The Great Outdoors.

It would be a stretch to think of online places in Sitte's terms, unless we include video games. Many games offer convincing and imaginative environments. They might help us understand the way people interact with physical spaces before building them. Although it doesn't seem possible to get a feel for a place before it is built, studying people's use of virtual settings can inform key decisions. This sounds expensive, but could save money in the long run.

Whether physical, virtual, or somewhere in between, environments affect the quality of our lives. Considering the factors that contribute to positive experiences, as Sitte did, is of great value. His observations have inspired generations of architects, planners, and concerned citizens to create and preserve beloved places.

(Photo of the Piazza dei Signori Vicenza from Flickr user Albert dj; Drawing scanned from p. 378 of Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning, by George R. Collins and Christiane C. Collins)


Brendan Crain said...

Perhaps it's not the physical appearance of online environments that we should be as concerned with; since the way we interact with a website is inherently different than the way that we interact with a physical place, I think it might be more beneficial to study the observations of someone like Sitte and determine what it was about the irregularity, open skies, and varied building types that created that prized sense of intimacy and comfort that he described. Understanding how pleasing physical public spaces impact human interaction could provide insight into how to create more intuitive, interactive online environments.

A better way to phrase the question, perhaps: what to great websites and great public spaces have in common?

petersigrist said...

I like your idea of looking to outdoor spaces for insight into developing better online environments. Maybe some day the two will become less distinct. Good question too. It seems that attracting some form of mutually beneficial participation is something that makes for great physical and virtual sites.