Palmanova, as depicted in 1598
WHY I LIKE IT…
Beautiful, rational but dull….. One of my favourite books is The City Shaped by Spiro Kostof, which explores urban patterns and contains many different and beautiful representations of urban form throughout history. One of the plans in this book that I’ve always been drawn to is Palmanova in Italy. The town was originally planned and built in 1593 as a military outpost, part of the Venetian Republic’s defences against the Ottoman Empire. The plan is orderly, intricate and shows a perfectly shaped town laid out as a nine pointed star, surrounded by a bastioned wall.
The town had three gates and the streets from these gates lead directly to the central town piazza which is hexagonal and was used as a parade ground. Mercenary troops were stationed around the edge of the town inside the wall, with Venetian troops, who were more trustworthy, closer to the centre where there was a military zone. Between this central zone and the bastioned wall was a civilian zone crosscut by streets radiating from and around the central piazza. Each part of the town had a clear and rational purpose.
Although this town was established primarily for military defence, those planning it were also trying to create a model town - a utopia. The design was intended to promote the development of a self- sustaining place with merchants, craftsman and farmers living in social harmony. The snag was that no one wanted to live there. To persuade people (who weren’t soldiers) to live in Palmanova the Venetian Government reputedly ended up taking the extraordinary step of pardoning prisoners and giving them properties there.
WHAT TO LEARN FROM IT…
Why though was this the first plan I thought of when asked to write this piece? Why is this rationally beautiful plan so seductive? Possibly because there is something extraordinarily attractive about the idea of order, patterns and structure that are easily understood. The idea that we can plan rationally, and through this deliver better places is still at the heart of a lot of our approaches to urban planning. However, it often feels like we over-rationalise, abstract and forget people; as a consequence we deliver too many places with ‘the great blight of dullness’ to quote Jane Jacobs. And Palmanova looks dull. Despite, or perhaps because of the pretty layout and order, I have no desire to go there although I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has.
Associate Director at SYSTRA, the international engineering and consulting group specialising in rail (passenger and freight) and public transport, leading the Movement and Place team, and developing SYSTRA’s urban design-led transport consultancy. Chair of the West Midlands Urban Design Forum.
Civil Engineering, Leeds University, Urban Design and Birmingham City University
Transport planning, urban design and civil engineering