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Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the Ci...

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

Renowned sociologist and public intellectual Richard Sennett’s forthcoming book, “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” is a sweeping, interdisciplinary examination of urban planning and urban life. Sennett sets an ambitious goal at the outset of the book, to reconcile the two disparate veins of practice within the urban planning discipline, the titular “building” and

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Renowned sociologist and public intellectual Richard Sennett’s forthcoming book, “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” is a sweeping, interdisciplinary examination of urban planning and urban life. Sennett sets an ambitious goal at the outset of the book, to reconcile the two disparate veins of practice within the urban planning discipline, the titular “building” and “dwelling.” In this effort, Sennett takes readers on a journey that begins at the very roots of the modern planning discipline in the nineteenth century, through present day, and our uncertain urban future. Throughout the book, Sennett includes a well-curated list of references to adjacent fields of study, providing a number of entry points for readers with interests or experiences outside the design disciplines. This inclusivity and comprehensive vision is the book’s greatest strength, especially when compared with diagram-intensive books written by architects, laden with insular references to obscure philosophical theories. While “Building and Dwelling” is well-researched and academic in its approach, it is also impeccably paced, never getting bogged down in esoterica, but always driving toward Sennett’s main thesis. While his conclusion, like many books in the planning and design genre, is decidedly inconclusive - the journey through the planning practice is one that is remarkably empathetic and entertaining.

Sennett begins by expanding on the title with a handy metaphor, borrowed from a quirk of French linguistics, and referenced repeatedly throughout his examination of planning practice:

“...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 came first to sort out this distinction by using two different words: ville and cité.”

The dichotomy between these two terms becomes a touchstone for Sennett to refer to repeatedly throughout his book, a shorthand reference to the divide between physical structures and plans, the so-called “built environment,” and the cultural practices that inhabit those structures. To lay a (demonstrably unstable) foundation, Sennett begins at the outset of modern planning in the mid-nineteenth century with an examination of three major figures: Baron Haussmann, Ildefons Cerdà, and Frederick Law Olmsted, whose interventions in Paris, Barcelona, and New York all grappled with the ville/cité relationship.

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

All three of these figures had limited formal training and prioritized different urban forms. In a narrative that is familiar to students of urban design, Baron Haussmann’s wide boulevards served both a transport and political purpose. Cutting through sclerotic neighborhoods favored faster connections between key nodes of the city, while also allowing better military circulation and fewer barricades, which were common during political uprisings. Sennett argues that this model prioritized traveling through space over the experience of place - a common theme that re-occurred in the 20th century with the work of Robert Moses, and again in another form with the observations made by Robert Venturi in “Learning from Las Vegas.” It logically follows, then, that improving mobility decreases dwelling, or to use Sennett’s terms, “the networked ville has diminished the cité.”

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

Cerdà took a more humanist approach, using a grid scheme to improve mobility and create an urban fabric, but employing the chamfered corners of each block to open a space for dwelling, a ville that enables a cité. While the additive grid in Barcelona did create a logic allowing for humanist neighborhoods, where pedestrians could mix and mingle or enjoy a cafe or bar, Sennett argues that the logic is too closed, creating a monoculture of block types that can be nearly impossible to break from as the city grows. The similarity of form creates economic weakness and allows Sennett to introduce additional dichotomies central to the rest of his exploration, that of complexity vs. simplicity and closed vs. open systems. Sennett wants to favor cities that are complex and open, allowing for a richness of life and somewhat ambiguous meaning, cities that inspire but also allow for future growth and interaction. For Sennett, Cerdà’s cellular model becomes a limiting form, lacking in resilience without sufficient variety:

“The remedy seems clear: the alternative to monoculture in the built environment is a collaging of different building types, people, and activities, which may appear visually and socially a mess, but in the long run will prove more resilient than a single-species environment. Open-systems thinking counsels exactly this kind of mixing; the whole then becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Put another way, the fabric does not tear so easily.”

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

In concluding this survey of modern planning’s origins, Sennett explores the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and his crowning achievement, the design of Central Park in New York City. Among Olmsted’s goals for the park was to create a place for mixing of racial and social classes, a place open to all. Olmsted kept the walls around the park low, to invite residents to enter and mix - a stark contrast from Haussmann’s desire for crowd control. Yet the democratizing intent of the park was soon subverted, with the immediately adjacent housing proving suitable for mansions open only to the wealthiest New Yorkers. Sennett goes on at length to suggest that the “nature” of Central Park is just an artificial construction, ecology superseded by design and engineering - which he reads as pleasure obscuring the role of labor. This suppression of labor Sennett views as a sanitization that deadens life, as would happen after the 20th-century clean-up of Times Square. Like Cerdà, it would appear Olmsted is also too closed in his approach.

Sennett pairs this capable summation of planning’s origins with a discussion of urban psychology and sociology, as examined by Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and other theorists, and promptly carries the ville/cité debate through the work of Chicago School sociologists in the late nineteenth century and Le Corbusier’s dramatic (or traumatic, depending on your view) Plan Voisin scheme to redevelop Paris in the early twentieth century. Again the pacing is perfect, as the book could easily be slowed by unnecessary details while covering familiar territory for Sennett’s readers. But Sennett skillfully pauses the speedy overview to share the personal narratives of two of his contemporaries, detailing the debate between the pre-eminent postwar urbanist thinkers Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Sennett’s personal account provides a respite from the academic tone of the book’s early chapters - in later chapters he also includes helpful anecdotes from his travels and practice, but it is rare and refreshing to see personal accounts of theorists many readers may have only encountered in an academic setting.

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

For Jacobs, master planning was a destructive force. In countering the heavy hand of Robert Moses, whose invasive freeways and Haussmannian inclinations could have destroyed much of New York’s pedestrian street life, Jacobs advocated for mixed communities and neighborhood control, a bottom-up view where neighborhoods could determine their own destinies. Sennett concedes that Jacobs de-emphasized specifics on the built environment in favor a specific vision of a democratic cité:

“She advocates informal relations which are slow growing; this is a question of the rituals of neighbours which develop by chatting at a laundromat or taking children to and from the school year in and year out … Jacobs argues instead for ‘gradual money,’ which is modest in amount, addressing modest, everyday needs: building a play place, investing in street furniture or trees, a loan to the local grocery for a face-lift. In all these ways her urbanism breaks with Paris - from Haussmann to Corbusier. She celebrates irregular, non-linear, open-ended paths of development. Slow-time dictates, in turn, a certain kind of urban scale. Small is where slow happens.”

Lewis Mumford, by comparison, saw this strategy as insufficient, as Sennett puts it: “slow, small process as a political strategy seemed to him not strong enough medicine to contest the big developers and the construction companies.” In Mumford’s view, a positive design with a defined form was needed to engage people and rally them around a future vision. Jacobs was too open-ended for Mumford, or in Sennett’s frame, “the ville has to lead the cité.” Mumford criticized Jacobs for missing the big picture, that some consideration, intentionality, and predictability had to take place in the city as a whole, and that the goals of neighborhood empowerment represented a disempowerment or cession of control to the masters of the city. Sennett concludes his recap of the debate at an impasse, when he challenged Jacobs to provide a more specific view of the ville, just to have her ask him “what would you do?”

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

While Sennett may not satisfyingly close this gap, his even-handed examination of the division between ville and cité continues through some relevant modern examples. In looking at the stresses of modern megacities in the developing world, he takes extremes from each side, the top-down ville-oriented planning of Chinese cities like Shanghai, where frantic construction and world-class infrastructure have led to disaffection, anomie, and loss of community, and the informality of a city like Delhi, where the unfinished development of commercial real estate in Nehru Place has led to a thriving informal economy, a grey market of tech goods and services that has triumphed any planner's vision for the development. Sennett uses these examples to explore the forces of globalization and capital investment in the urban form. In keeping with the book’s interdisciplinary approach, this necessary introduction of finance alongside design, sociology, and political science is to be commended.

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

Specifically, Sennett introduces yet another dichotomy shaping urban development, that of core vs. opportunity investing. The twenty-first century has seen increasing detachment of cities from the regions and nations they are in (a topic covered at length by Sennett’s wife Saskia Sassen in her book "The Global City") and are increasing their exposure to the forces of global capital. Opportunity investing seeks a good local deal, where a globalized investor tries to swoop in faster than a local investor can, and realize an opportunity that sets into motion many future deals. As in the case of the High Line Park in New York City, a comparatively small investment in a park intervention drives a cascading effect of increased value in the surrounding blocks and neighborhoods. These quantum leaps, akin to venture capital investment, are decreasing in number as the urban revolution becomes more well-understood. As Sennett writes, “a generation ago it wasn’t clear that cities were going to grow so fast in the south or regenerate in the north. Today there are fewer short-sighted owners like those who sold to the Canadians creating Canary Wharf. A more sophisticated model of development has come to the fore.”

Sennett’s use of “sophisticated” to describe core investment is an interesting choice, because while the financial analysis of core investing may be more rigorous, the vision and understanding of the specifics of place are less well developed. Core investing reduces the characteristics and interrelated elements of place to a set of abstract specifications, where the floor-area ratio, population, and purchasing power of the citizens frames an investment. In Sennett’s example, this development of the ville threatens the informality of Nehru Place, where the vibrancy of the market that has sprung up there is in threat of being reduced to a recognizable investment vehicle. Conversely, in Shanghai, the new modern buildings have sprung up seemingly overnight and displaced much of the traditional housing types and low-slung neighborhoods. In an overcompensation, the traditional shikumen housing in neighborhoods like Xintiandi has become a fetishized experience, with coffee shops and bars catering to Shanghai’s trendy elite, homogenizing a once vibrant and mixed community. Indeed the fetishization of the past and of meaningful vernacular architecture has resulted in the importation of other older building types from around the world, including illusory Tudor, Dutch, and Bauhaus villages. Sennett’s frame here extends well over the modern challenges of displacement, gentrification, and globalization.

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

In a section on urban demographics, Sennett examines models of urban integration and assimilation, from Venice’s Jewish ghettos and the modern rise of nationalist sentiment. Again he offers helpful frameworks to digest a series of disparate historical and disciplinary references, sorting the types of co-existence into alien, brother, and neighbor archetypes. His examination of geographic segregation in the ville as compared with the civility and sociological adaptations of cohabitation in the cité is a fascinating survey of the bonds of mutual trust that make urban life possible. It also sets up examples of modern planning practice within the scale of a corporate office like the Googleplex, which seeks to create an urban experience within the confines of a workplace. If the breadth of this exposition seems too vast, it is - but it works thanks to ideal pacing and Sennett’s strong narrative construction. Surely there are scholars that could take issue with some of Sennett’s more quickly referenced topics and ideas, but the experience of leaping from historical to modern, from sociological and cultural to political and financial is enjoyable from this reader’s perspective.

As Sennett moves deliberately toward the book’s conclusion, he enumerates the aspects of a more ethical, open, and equitable urbanism, while addressing the pending concerns of sustainability and resilience in a rapidly changing world. He provides anecdotes from his own practice about the physical tools of placemaking and participation, including ruminations on the benefits of providing citizens with modular styrofoam models they can manipulate and how to facilitate co-productive dialogue on problematic conditions within the city. Even at this late stage of the book Sennett introduces yet another dichotomy in exploring responses to climate change, detailing the differences between mitigation and adaptation. In Sennett’s view, mitigation strategies seek a hard preventative backup system or resistance to a chaotic event, as a seawall might resist the surge from a devastating storm. Adaptation, on the other hand, works with the force of the disruption and thinks not about preserving existing systems as they are, but rather in reducing overall possible damage - he gives an example for adapting Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, where a mitigation strategy might be to build a bigger wall around a power station, an adaptive one might move that power station to higher ground, resizing it appropriately. One can read the open-closed and ville-cité divisions again in this example.

Book Review of “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City” by Richard Sennett

Throughout the book, Sennett concludes that there is no satisfactory way to reconcile “building” and “dwelling.” However, the analytical framework is helpful in considering any particular intervention in today’s urbanism or that of previous eras. The critical mistake for planners, in Sennett’s view, is to even consider such a conclusion possible or desirable. Working in the medium of time makes it impossible to predict future conditions and adaptations, but it is the role of the planner to make openness possible. Sennett writes:

“Planners can, though, aid this process: we can propose forms, and if necessary we can confront people who are not living in an open way. But urbanism’s problem has been more a self-destructive emphasis on control and order, as in the Charter of Athens in the last century, a willfulness which stands in the way of form’s own evolution.”

Sennett’s clear-eyed acceptance of ambiguity and planners as a conduit for that condition makes for a book that is an enjoyable meditation on the past, present, and future of urban life.

How do you observe the divide between building and dwelling in your city? Is one dominant over the other, and has that changed over time? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Images by Andrew Kinaci, abragad, goodfreephotosAurelien GuichardMetropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New YorkJ. Patrick FischerAdam GeitgeyHermann Luyken, and U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen.

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After graduating from Princeton University with an A.B. in Architecture and a Certificate in Urban Studies, Andrew Kinaci set out to the Midwest to break out of the insular world of academia, and into the direct service of non-profit work. After a...

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