Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City

Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City

by Richard Sennett


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A preeminent thinker redefines the meaning of city life and charts a way forward

Building and Dwelling is the definitive statement on cities by the renowned public intellectual Richard Sennett. In this sweeping work, he traces the anguished relation between how cities are built and how people live in them, from ancient Athens to twenty-first-century Shanghai. He shows how Paris, Barcelona, and New York City assumed their modern forms; rethinks the reputations of Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and others; and takes us on a tour of emblematic contemporary locations, from the backstreets of Medellín, Colombia, to the Google headquarters in Manhattan.

Through it all, he laments that the “closed city”—segregated, regimented, and controlled—has spread from the global North to the exploding urban agglomerations of the global South. As an alternative, he argues for the “open city,” where citizens actively hash out their differences and planners experiment with urban forms that make it easier for residents to cope.

Rich with arguments that speak directly to our moment—a time when more humans live in urban spaces than ever before—Building and Dwelling draws on Sennett’s deep learning and intimate engagement with city life to form a bold and original vision for the future of cities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538217
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 394
Sales rank: 1,164,364
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Sennett is the author of The Craftsman, The Fall of Public Man, and The Corrosion of Character. He teaches urban studies at the London School of Economics and at Harvard University, and is a senior fellow in Columbia University’s Center for Capitalism and Society. For thirty years, he has directed projects under the auspices of the UN that aim to guide urban development in the twenty-first century.

Read an Excerpt


Introduction: Crooked, Open, Modest


In early Christianity 'city' stood for two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. St Augustine used the city as a metaphor for God's design of faith, but the ancient reader of St Augustine who wandered the alleys, markets and forums of Rome would get no hint of how God worked as a city planner. Even as this Christian metaphor waned, the idea persisted that 'city' meant two different things – one a physical place, the other a mentality compiled from perceptions, behaviours and beliefs. The French language first came to sort out this distinction by using two different words: ville and cité.

Initially these named big and small: ville referred to the overall city, whereas cité designated a particular place. Some time in the sixteenth century the cité came to mean the character of life in a neighbourhood, the feelings people harboured about neighbours and strangers and attachments to place. This old distinction has faded today, at least in France; a cité now most often refers to those grim locales which warehouse the poor on the outskirts of towns. The older usage is worth reviving, though, because it describes a basic distinction: the built environment is one thing, how people dwell in it another. Today, in New York, traffic jams at the poorly designed tunnels belong to the ville, whereas the rat race driving many New Yorkers to the tunnels at dawn belongs to the cité.

As well as describing the cité's anthropology, 'cité' can refer a kind of consciousness. Proust assembles from his characters' perceptions of the various shops, flats, streets and palaces in which they dwell a picture of Paris as a whole, creating a sort of collective place-consciousness. This contrasts to Balzac, who tells you what's really up in town no matter what his characters think. Cité-consciousness can also represent how people want to live collectively, as during Paris's nineteenth-century unheavals when those in revolt couched their aspirations more generally than specific demands about lower taxes or bread prices; they argued for a new cité, that is, a new political mentality. Indeed, the cité stands next to citoyenneté, the French word for citizenship.

The English phrase 'built environment' doesn't do justice to the idea of the ville, if that word 'environment' is taken to be the snail's shell covering the living urban body within. Buildings are seldom isolated facts. Urban forms have their own inner dynamics, as in how buildings relate to one another, or to open spaces, or to infrastructure below ground, or to nature. In the making of the Eiffel Tower, for instance, planning documents in the 1880s canvassed places in eastern Paris far away from the Eiffel Tower before it was built, seeking to assess its urban-wide effects. Moreover, the financing of the Eiffel Tower could not alone explain its design; the same, huge amount of money could have been spent on another kind of monument, such as a triumphal church, which was the monument Eiffel's conservative colleagues preferred. Once chosen, though, the tower's form involved choices rather than being dictated by circumstances: straight rather than curving struts would have been much cheaper, but efficiency alone did not rule Eiffel's vision. Which is true more largely: the built environment is more than a reflection of economics or politics; beyond these conditions, the forms of the built environment are the product of the maker's will.

It might seem that cité and ville should fit together seamlessly: how people want to live should be expressed in how cities are built. But just here lies a great problem. Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges.

In an essay on cosmopolitan life, Immanuel Kant observed in 1784 that 'out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made'. A city is crooked because it is diverse, full of migrants speaking dozens of languages; because its inequalities are so glaring, svelte ladies lunching a few blocks away from exhausted transport cleaners; because of its stresses, as in concentrating too many young graduates chasing too few jobs ... Can the physical ville straighten out such difficulties? Will plans to pedestrianize a street do anything about the housing crisis? Will the use of sodium borosilicate glass in buildings make people more tolerant of immigrants? The city seems crooked in that asymmetry afflicts its cité and its ville.

It is sometimes right that there be a mis-fit between the builder's own values and those of the public. This mis-fit ought to occur if people reject living with neighbours unlike themselves. Many Europeans find Muslim migrants indigestible; big chunks of Anglo-America feel Mexican migrants should be deported; and from Jerusalem to Mumbai those who pray to different gods find it difficult to live in the same place. One result of this social recoil appears in the gated communities which are today, throughout the world, the most popular form of new residential development. The urbanist should go against the will of the people, refusing to build gated communities; prejudice should be denied in the name of justice. But there's no straightforward way to translate justice into physical form – as I discovered early on in a planning job.

At the beginning of the 1960s, a new school was proposed for a working-class area in Boston. Would it be racially integrated, or segregated as were most working-class parts of the city in those days? If integrated, we planners would have to provide large parking and holding spaces for buses to bring black children to and from school. The white parents resisted integration covertly by claiming the community needed more green space, not bus parking lots. Planners ought to serve the community rather than impose an alien set of values. What right did people like me – Harvard-educated, armed with sheaths of statistics on segregation and impeccably executed blueprints – have to tell the bus drivers, cleaners and industrial workers of South Boston how to live? I am glad to say my bosses stood their ground; they did not succumb to class guilt. Still, the jaggedness between lived and built cannot be resolved simply by the planner displaying ethical uprightness. In our case, this only made things worse, our virtue-signalling breeding more anger among the white public.

This is the ethical problem in cities today. Should urbanism represent society as it is, or seek to change it? If Kant is right, ville and cité can never fit together seamlessly. What, then, is to be done?



I thought I had found one answer to this when I taught planning at MIT twenty years ago. The Media Lab was near my office, and for my generation it shone as an epicentre of innovation in new digital technology, translating innovative ideas into practical results. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, these projects included a super-cheap computer for poor kids, medical prostheses like the robotic knee, and 'digital town centres' to plug people living in remote areas into the doings of cities. The emphasis on built objects made the Media Lab a craftsman's paradise; this glorious operation entailed much furious debate, the diving down into technological rabbit-holes, and a vast amount of waste.

Its rumpled researchers – who never seemed to sleep – explained the difference between a 'Microsoft-level' project and an 'MIT-level' project as follows: the Microsoft project packages existing knowledge, while MIT unpackages it. A favourite pastime in the Lab was tricking Microsoft programs into failing or aborting. Whether fair or not, Media Lab researchers, being on the whole an adventurous lot, tended to snoot normal science as mundane and instead look for the cutting edge; according to their lights, Microsoft thinks 'closed', the Media Lab thinks 'open' – 'open' enables innovation.

In a general way, researchers work within a well-worn orbit when performing an experiment to prove or disprove a hypothesis; the original proposition governs procedures and observations; the denouement of the experiment lies in judging whether the hypothesis is correct or incorrect. In another way of experimenting, researchers will take seriously unforeseen turns of data, which may cause them to jump tracks and think 'outside the box'. They will ponder contradictions and ambiguities, stewing in these difficulties for a while rather than immediately trying to solve them or sweep them aside. The first kind of experiment is closed in the sense it answers a fixed question: yes or no. Researchers in the second kind of experiment work more openly in that they ask questions which can't be answered in that way.

In a more sober spirit than the Media Lab, the Harvard physician Jerome Groopman has explained the open procedure in clinical trials of new drugs. In an 'adaptive clinical trial', the terms of the trial change as the experiment unfolds. This is not following one's nose wherever it leads. Since experimental drugs can be dangerous, the researcher has to exercise great caution in the course of charting unknown realms – but the experimenter in an adaptive clinical trial is more interested in making sense of things that are surprising or intriguing than in confirming what might have been predictable in advance. Of course adventure in a lab can't be divorced from the plodding and plugging grind of sifting in a yes-or-no fashion. Francis Crick, who uncovered the double helix structure of DNA, remarked that its discovery came from studying small 'anomalies' in routine lab work. The researcher needs orientation, and fixed procedure provides it; only then can the self-critical work begin of exploring the odd result, the curious outcome. The challenge is to engage with these possibilities.

'Open' implies a system for fitting together the odd, the curious, the possible. The mathematician Melanie Mitchell has pithily summarized an open system as one 'in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution'. This means that complexity comes into being in the course of evolution; it emerges through the feedback and sifting of information rather than existing as in a telos preordained and programmed at the outset.

So, too, the open-systems idea of how these parts interact. 'Linear equations', the mathematician Steven Strogatz remarks, 'can be broken into pieces. Each piece can be analyzed separately and solved, and finally all the separate answers can be recombined ... In a linear system, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of the parts.' Whereas the parts in a non-linear, open system can't be broken up this way; 'the whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity.' His idea is easy to grasp if you think of chemicals interacting to form a compound: it becomes a new substance of its own.

Such views had a solid grounding at MIT. The Media Lab was built on the intellectual foundations of the Electronic Systems Laboratory, which Norbert Wiener, arguably the greatest systems analyst of the twentieth century, founded at MIT in the 1940s. Wiener stood on the cusp of an era in which large amounts of information could be digested by machines; he explored different ways to organize the digestive process. He was particularly intrigued by electronic feedback which is complex, ambiguous or contradictory in character rather than straightforward. If what he called a 'learning machine' could speak, it would say 'I didn't expect that X, Y or Z to happen. Now I'll need to figure out why, and how to re-tool.' This epitomizes an open-ended environment, though one inhabited by semi-conductors rather than people.

How would the open-laboratory ethos relate to a city? The architect Robert Venturi once declared 'I like complexity and contradiction in architecture ... I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.' Though attacking much modern architecture for its stripped-down, functionalist buildings, his words cut deeper. His is the Media Lab transposed to a city – the city is a complex place, which means it is full of contradictions and ambiguities. Complexity enriches experience; clarity thins it.

My friend William Mitchell, an architect who eventually took over the Media Lab, made the bridge between system and city. A bon vivant who frequented the nightlife hotspots of Cambridge, Massachusetts (such as they were in those days), he declared 'the keyboard is my café'. His City of Bits was the first book about smart cities; published in 1996, and so before the era of hand-helds, Web 2.0 interactive programs, and nano-technology, Mitchell's book wanted to welcome whatever the future might hold. He imagined that the smart city would be a complex place: information-sharing which would give citizens ever more choices and so ever greater freedom; the physical buildings, streets, schools and offices of the ville would be made of components which could continually be changed and so could evolve, just as does the flow of information. The smart city would become ever more complex in form, its cité ever richer in meanings.

In one way this technological fantasy was nothing new. Aristotle wrote in the Politics that 'a city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence'. People are stronger together than apart; thus in wartime, Athens sheltered a diverse range of tribes who fled the countryside; it also took in exiles who then remained in the city. Though their status was ever unresolved and ambiguous, these refugees brought new ways of thinking and new crafts to the city. Aristotle drew attention to the fact that trade is more vigorous in a dense city than in a thinly populated village, and in this he was hardly alone; almost all ancient writers on the city noted that diverse, complex economies were more profitable than economic monocultures. Aristotle was also thinking about the virtues of complexity in politics; in a diverse milieu, men (in Aristotle's time, only men) are obliged to understand different points of view in order to govern the city. In all, Aristotle calls the drawing of different people together a synoikismos, a putting together like 'synthesis' and 'synergy' – the city is, like Strogatz's equations, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

'Open' figures as a key word in modern politics. In 1945, the Austrian refugee philosopher Karl Popper published The Open Society and its Enemies. He asked a philosopher's question about how Europe had fallen into totalitarianism: was there something in Western thought which had invited people to scupper rational and fact-based debate among different groups in favour of seductive myths of 'we are one' and 'us against them' spun by dictators? The book's theme doesn't date, though The Open Society and its Enemies is in a way misnamed, because Popper analysed a long line of illiberal political thought rather than happenings in everyday society. Still, the book had an enormous impact on people engaged in those activities – particularly on his colleagues at the London School of Economics who were at the time devising the British welfare state, hoping to devise a plan which would keep its bureaucracy loose and open, rather than rigid and closed. Popper's student, the financier George Soros, later devoted vast sums of money to building up institutions like universities in civil society which reflected Popper's liberal values.

It might seem that the liberal values of an open society suit any city that contains many different sorts of peoples; mutual toleration will allow them to live together. Again, an open society should be more equal and more democratic than most today, with wealth and power spread through the entire social body rather than hoarded at the top. But there's nothing especially urban about this aspiration; farmers and people in small towns deserve the same justice. In thinking about urban ethics, we want to know what makes ethics urban.

For instance, freedom has a particular value in the city. The German adage Stadtluft macht frei ('city air makes you free') derives from the late Middle Ages; this saying promised that citizens could be freed from a fixed, inherited position in the economic and social pecking order, freed from serving just one master. It didn't mean citizens were isolated individuals; there might be obligations to a guild, to neighbourhood groups, to the Church, but these could shift during the course of a lifetime. In the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith describes shape-shifting in his twenties, once his apprenticeship was done. He availed himself of differences in the laws and mores in the Italian cities where he worked; these allowed him to adopt different personas to suit different patrons; he undertook a variety of jobs – metalworking, versifying, soldiering – as they appeared. His life was more open than it would have been if he had remained in a village, because the city set him free from a single, fixed self to become what he wanted to be.


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Copyright © 2018 Richard Sennett.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgements xiii

1 Introduction: Crooked, Open, Modest 1

Part 1 The Two Cities

2 Unstable Foundations 21

3 Cité and Ville Divorce 63

Part 2 The Difficulty of Dwelling

4 Klee's Angel Leaves Europe 93

5 The Weight of Others 121

6 Tocqueville in Technopolis 144

Part 3 Opening the City

7 The Competent Urbanite 171

8 Five Open Forms 205

9 The Bond of Making 242

Part 4 Ethics for the City

10 Time's Shadows 267

Conclusion: One Among Many 293

Notes 303

Index 323

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