Appel à communication: The architecture of public squares, 19-21th centuries (Florence, 21-23 juin 2012).

The architecture of public squares. Continuity and change in urban spaces from the 19th century to the present
Conference, Florence, 21 – 23 June 2012

Deadline for applications: 7 January 2012

The foundations for art-historical research into public spaces were laid at the dawn of Modernity with the works on historical squares by Camillo Sitte, August Schmarsow and Albert Erich Brinckmann. Over recent years, the « Piazza e Monumento » project based at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut has intermittently also dealt with aspects of public squares and urban spaces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
These are now to be further explored within the framework of a conference that will address questions of continuity and change, of new parameters set by the avant-garde and the permanence of traditional patterns of urban development, as well as the influential « spatial concepts » of the « European city » since the late nineteenth century. The period under consideration will stretch into the twentyfirst century, to encourage the discussion of contemporary trends relating to the globalisation and commercialisation of architecture and public space.
Papers may address ways of handling existing spaces, whose form and function are the result of a ‘longue durée’ of modifications and remodelling, but also the planning of new, homogenous spaces that can be implemented anywhere within the city. What changes can be observed in the relationship between interior and exterior in squares and public spaces within shopping malls, gated communities and virtual public utopias?
Particularly considered in global contexts, public squares have demonstrated that they continue to play a central role in struggles for democracy and as spaces devoted to self-assertion – be it through the erection or destruction of monuments or through the performance of other social and political activities. Critical analysis of decisive changes in urban planning at the end of the nineteenth century are famously reflected in Camillo Sitte’s much quoted « City planning according to artistic principles » of 1889 – a book whose fortuna is a perfect illustration of how Modernism contested tradition. Sitte’s writings remained influential amongst exponents both of the more conservative strands of Modernism and of Postmodernism. Le Corbusier eventually disparaged Sitte’s « urban planning » as a « curved donkey path ». Yet Modernism itself made references to architectural history; and while nostalgic conceptions of the Italian piazza or other European models were rarely of prime concern, a sophisticated handling of the past is evident in Modernist works in spite of their stylistic originality. On a political level, this is documented both within totalitarian regimes and democratic societies. Careful examination of the design and building of urban spaces in the twentieth century produces seemingly contradictory results of diverging formal developments: traditional blueprints that continue centuries old patterns of urban structuring through axes, perimeter blocks and parallel borders, street space and surrounding walls are contrasted with open spatial structures that establish an unrestricted interplay between solitary structures within a cityscape and which are connected to new forms of movement or traffic. These are examples from extreme opposites of the structural spectrum: from a fluid urban landscape on the one hand, with its volumes that « affect space » (Sigfried Giedion) seemingly turning architecture into monument, and to traditional, hierarchical city structures on the other hand. They form the poles between which diverse spatial concepts are located in the twentieth century.

The considerable surge in developments triggered by economic, social and political pressures for change that cities were exposed to in the late nineteenth century is almost unparalleled in architectural history, as are the comprehensive expansion and remodelling of cities in the wake of the birth of nations, or the widespread destruction as a result of both World Wars and the ensuing reconstruction efforts – each according to widely differing intents and concepts. Shrinking cities, megacities and the hubris of speculative large-scale projects raise questions regarding current parameters of urban and social space, of political and societal representation and the relationship between private and public sphere.

1) How did fundamental changes in function and meaning of the public square come about and what role (also in a negative sense) did images of the much-discussed « European city » play in these developments?
2) Which typologies and spatial concepts are called upon and what are the concrete political implications of these choices? To what extent is there an engagement with history, be it the history of the location itself or through the representation of greater contexts?
3) What role do interpretability and the forming of new traditions play in the restructuring or construction of public spaces?
4) What is implied by these interventions into urban spaces? In particular, how are political contents formulated in different contexts and how are they translated into public spaces?

The conference is directed at art historian and scholars from related disciplines working on questions regarding architecture, history, cities, and spatial perceptions.

The lectures should not exceed twenty-five minutes and can be held in German, English, Italian or French. Please submit your proposal of max. 2.800 keystrokes along with a brief CV by January 7th 2012 to :

or by post to:
Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut
Forschergruppe « Piazza e monumento »
Direktion Nova
Via Giuseppe Giusti 44
I-50121 Firenze

Further information


Leave a Reply