Crooked, open, modest; or: Imperfect, porous, negotiable

Inge Beckel
13. February 2020
For Richard Sennett, Nehru Place in Delhi serves as an example of an open city. (Photo via

The most recent book by Richard Sennett, grand seigneur of urban design and originally a planner himself, is Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. In it, following in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, he makes a vehement plea for open cities. Here are some thoughts on the book.

"Cities should open up opportunities, connect people to new people, free us from the narrow confines of tradition - in a word, the city should deepen experience. But modern cities work the opposite way: urban inequality restricts opportunity; spatial segregation isolates people into homogeneous class, racial, and ethnic groups; the public spaces of today's cities are not places for political innovation."

Richard Sennett [1]

The Built "Ville" versus the Lived "Cité"

From prehistoric settlements to medieval towns, places created by people have fundamentally presented themselves as compact aggregations of buildings. It was modernity that first made cities traversable with large vehicles and accelerated the life within. It was Georges-Eugène Haussmann, for instance, who brought order to the previously cramped Paris by cutting wide boulevards into the fabric of the city. At the same time, according to Sennett, the clarity and experiential feel of the places where people live have diminished. That is because "people move through a space and dwell in a place" [2] – with the understanding that "dwell" in this context means to linger, reside, live. The mid-19th century was the moment when the built corpus of the city, the ville, was separated from the social body of the city dwellers, the cité – and from then on, they would no longer develop in lockstep.

In the eyes of urban researcher and observer Sennett, it is clear that the ville and the cité should again be more closely integrated. But how? Sennett finds inspiration and ideas from both specialist literature and novels. He traces the sentiments and habits of protagonists and vividly illuminates facets from different cities and times. And he tells stories that he has experienced firsthand. Like the one about his encounter with Mr. Sudhir in Delhi, a merchant from whom he bought a replacement smartphone on the black market. Or the one about some boys from Medellín who lead strangers through the slums, which are still confusing and thus dangerous for those unfamiliar with the area. Or the one about walking with civil engineer Madame Q through a district on the outskirts of Shanghai, where, as a result of urban developments that took a different course than planned, sections of highway end in a no man's land.

"Urbanism's problem has been more a self-destructive emphasis on control and order, as in the Charter of Athens of the last century, a wilfulness which stands in the way of form's own evolution. The ethical connection between urbanist and urbanite lies in practicing a certain kind of modesty: living one among many, engaged by a world which does not mirror oneself."

Richard Sennett [3]

Cooperation Instead of Control

According to Sennett, the development of cities requires the involvement of expert planners as well as the city dwellers themselves. This contrasts with the approaches taken by Robert Moses, Lúcio Costa, or the young Le Corbusier, who developed their plans for New York, Brasilia, and Paris as "isolated" experts – from the top down. But also with the approaches of the Chicago School or Jane Jacobs, which sought to develop cities primarily through discussions with their inhabitants – from the bottom up. Both groups are needed: the urbanists and the urbanites. A good way to accomplish this is through real cooperation, not cases in which the community is simply told about decisions that have already been made. Sennett cites an example from Lebanon. There, enemy groups had met with an expert to discuss possibilities for reconstruction. The breakthrough came at the point when the expert departed and future action was placed in the hands of those affected, who had meanwhile been prepared for the process and suitably trained.

It is an example of cooperation, of teamwork between those drawing up plans and those living in the city. Sennett identifies many other methods or criteria as tools for planners and urban designers: practical measures that can be physically implemented or incorporated into designs. This includes, for example, the trait of porosity, of permeability. In his opinion, the interface between two neighborhoods inhabited by different population groups needs to have a building that attracts the public, such as a market hall. The goal is to create a meeting place for people who would otherwise hardly ever meet. After all, it has long been known that unfamiliarity and hence the fear of strangers can be reduced by encouraging encounters. 

"Awareness of, encounters with, addressing others unlike oneself - all constitute the ethics of civilizes. Indifference to strangers, because they are incomprehensibly strange, degrades the ethical character of the city."

Richard Sennett [4]

Paying Respect to Nature

Sennett generally advocates open and permeable urban systems. A term he introduces is "seed planning." By way of contrast, Sennett considers systems like the Athens Charter to be closed and rigid and less about being intractable, when he writes of "willfulness which stands in the way of form’s own evolution." With analogies such as "seed planning" and "form's own evolution," he draws a link to agriculture. Elsewhere in the book he writes: "Cities aren’t farmed today. Instead they are master-planned." [5] He ponders the notion that the same seeds, scattered over different soils, can variously lead to lush plant growth or no growth at all, depending on whether the soil conditions suit the plant and whether the site receives enough sun and water. The ability to flourish – whether the "source material" is physical or spiritual – depends on the context. 

With this analogy, Sennett draws broad parallels to Jane Jacobs. Not only did he have repeated conversations with her and undoubtedly learned from her, but the nature analogy is very reminiscent of the book that Jacobs published when she was 84: The Nature of Economies [6]. Although the Jacobs book focuses on human economic activity and the Sennett book centers on the creation and design of cities, the subtext in both is that human power is limited. Life – both economic and urban – never develops in isolation; it is always embedded within a context. It needs both the vision of possible good cities – as an intellectual and tangible human achievement – and an environment that nurtures that vision. This yields divergent living cities – each one unlike the other. Which is why the cities that Sennett regards as viable, and which he yearns for, should be open – and should stay that way.

[1] Richard Sennett, "The Open City," GSD Talks, lecture on October 17, 2017,  Harvard University Graduate School of Design, accessed on January 20, 2020.
[2] Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the City, London, 2018, p. 35.
[3] Ibid. p. 302.
[4] Ibid. p. 126.
[5] Ibid. p. 236.
[6] Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, New York, 2000.

Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City

Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City
Richard Sennett

368 Pages
ISBN 9780141022116
Purchase this book

This article originally appeared as "Gekrümmt, offen, bescheiden – oder: Gekerbt, porös, verhandelbar" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by David Koralek / ArchiTrans.

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