Recensie: The ethics of urbanism: Sennett’s open city

26 maart 2018 , door Reinier de Graaf

An impressive cocktail of informed references and personal accounts of, at times, humorous experiences, is probably the best way to summarize Richard Sennett’s new book Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. There is an episode in which Sennett, after having recovered from a stroke, exercises the Romberg maneuver in a park. Another part, a stinging incursion into the origins of the Venetian Ghetto and Heidegger’s role in the Nazi propaganda, shows that Sennett can be a virulent critic as well.

N.B. Eerder publiceerden we voor uit Sennetts Samen. Een pleidooi voor samenwerken en solidariteit en bespraken we De mens als werk in uitvoering.

The book’s eclectic collection of characters would not be out of place in a magical realism novel. Ordinary people appear alongside distinguished figures both from the present and the past: Immanuel Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Mr Sudhir (a dealer of stolen smartphones from Nehru Place in Delhi), Madame Q (a civil engineer from Shanghai) and, of course, Sennett’s much beloved Jane Jacobs.

Sennett’s answer

It is the voice of Jacobs that haunts Sennett throughout the book: “So what would you do?”, she asks young Sennett. At the time, he had no reply. After five decades of trials and errors (which he does not hesitate to mention), Building and Dwelling is Sennett’s answer.

The book identifies two kinds of cities: the city as a ‘built environment’ and the city as ‘how people dwell in it.’ To explain the difference, Sennett  resorts to the two words for city in French (according to Sennett the first language to make the distinction): ville, how the city is built,  and cité,  how the city is lived. In the reconciliation of the two lies the key to the ‘open city’: a preoccupation that has defined Sennett’s work from the beginning, both theoretically and practically.

It is interesting to note how, in searching for ways to resolve this ‘ethical problem’, Sennett is forced to distance himself from his almost sanctified Jane Jacobs. Taking Lewis Mumford’s, a long-time Jacobs critic, point, , Sennett admits: “She has no good idea of how to scale up from the local to the urban. […] infrastructure, like roads, electricity or water, needs to be built by scaling from whole to part.”

Ambiguous solutions

It is the final book in the trilogy dedicated to Homo Faber, that started with The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2009), which explored the relationship between making and thinking, and continued with Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation (Yale University Press, 2012), addressing the nature of cooperation, a skill to be acquired like any other craft. In Building and DwellingHomo Faber is the urbanist or urbanite that must make the city open.

Sennett finds inspiration in what he labels the Great Generation: Baron Haussmann, Ildefons Cerdà and Frederick Law Olmsted. Perhaps curious references for urbanists today, who are preoccupied with the cure-all-effects of digital technology. While Sennett does not ignore ‘the smart city,’ for him, the phenomenon is double-edged:  a “coordinative smart city will make us smarter,” whereas a “prescriptive smart city will dumb us down.” This is trade-mark Sennett: enveloped in ambiguity, for and against Jacobs, it reifies one type of modernity and renounces another. It both welcomes and rejects the advent of the digital – Leaving the reader forever in doubt about his intentions: does he just criticize modernism or modernization in general?.

Reinier de Graaf (born 1964) is a Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist and writer. He is a Partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), founded by Rem Koolhaas, and author of the book Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession.

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