The city of fragments

Words: Richard Sennett & Ash Amin

The Washington Post once, favourably we think, described Richard Sennett as a whirlwind of big ideas. In an exemplary demonstration of this skill, he talks about capitalist planning’s inclination towards tight-fitting solutions, the ongoing project of engendering a socialist city, coproduction versus designer-led urban interventions, and the need to think about cities visually rather than verbally

On a cold winter’s afternoon in January, the humanist scholar and writer Richard Sennett met with geographer and theorist Ash Amin in a “cosy room” of Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge to talk about urban design. Amin’s brief from this magazine was to explore in more depth some of Sennett’s statements and formulations expressed in a September 2013 lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. During this lecture, marked by Sennett’s apparent delight at returning to a familiar intellectual habitat, he spoke of the need to “find principles of design that scale up”. He also stated: “My thinking about urbanism has moved from a Jane Jacobs view to something that wants to take seriously Lewis Mumford’s idea that urbanism is not just about spontaneity and the local; but that design can make a city with a socialist character.” Underpinning Sennett’s interest in the possibilities of urban design as a collaborative tool is his particular and nuanced reading of the modern city: complex and multifunctional, it exists as a collage of different parts. Rationalising it, as much as intervening in it, requires a visual logic as much as verbal prowess, he tells Amin. “I think you have to think more like a modern artist, that is to think about collage and assemblage, think about fragments that are important to people. It’s a different kind of socialism.”

Ash Amin: Richard, a while ago you gave a talk at Harvard University, in which you spoke about the need to bring back notions of urban design, the concept of a city that could be designed. Can you saying something about what you mean?

Richard Sennett: One way to explain why I think we need to bring design back to the forefront of thinking about urban design goes back to a debate that occurred 60 years ago between Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs really defined the urban sensibilities that most of us have: face-to-face, communal, fluid and flexible. Her most obvious antagonist was Robert Moses, who was the master builder of New York, whose programme was inflexible and undemocratic, everything one loves to hate. But intellectually, her antagonist was really Lewis Mumford, who had a very different vision of the city.

He was trained as a technologist, and in fact, I think he was the person who coined the term “smart city”. He was a very sophisticated technologist. Moreover he was a socialist who believed in planning as an act of massive resistance against capitalism, but also in a more positive way, the mobilisation of an alternative vision, to bring people away from suffering. He thought that Jacobs’ emphasis on spontaneity and localism was both bad politics and bad urbanism: bad politics, because it privileged the spontaneous and informal in the face this massive capitalist system; and bad urbanism in that it didn’t give people a picture of the kind of city they would like, a good city. It privileged the process of interaction, but offered no plan to aspire to.

To cut a long story short, Jacobs was the dominant figure, because she is the person we react to emotionally. But I’ve come to believe that Mumford’s arguments are valid. There is another issue, a more technical one, which is that there’s no way to scale up in the way Jacobs thinks, from a community to an urban level, no way to infer from the life in the street, a complex life of hundreds of thousands of streets. Mumford’s idea was that this scale of movement from face-to-face to the whole was really the work of urban design. Now, for myself, I am interested in a particular technical system. It’s called “complexity theory” sometimes, or “open systems theory”. Unlike Mumford, I don’t think that what you arrive at is a clear and totalised image.

I see the city more as an assemblage of different parts, that don’t fit neatly together. His idea was that you create a whole in which everything has a rationale, balance and harmony, which came out of the Fabian Socialism that he knew as a young man in Britain, which created this garden city image. My idea is that we have to think in a more modern way about design, thinking the way the artists think about assemblage, which is the creation of a whole of disparate or not-fitting-together parts. How do you do that? That’s the scale of the problem that I’m trying to address.

AA: The modern city today is fast moving, it is extremely large, much of what goes on is hidden, and, in a sense, the real dynamism of the city partly lies in the nature of its constructed or creative chaos. I accept your desire to go back to certain design principles, but can we begin to talk about what the design principles of assemblage might incorporate, might look like?

RS: They would focus on the edges between places, rather than on the centre within, and they would look at the ways in which the edges between places can be both porous— which is a very big deal—and yet resistant, so that a community can keep some of its own identity, but exchange with its neighbours. That translates into very concrete issues of design. These include looking at how you redesign highways or traffic arteries. The transversable modern highway has been used particularly in South Africa and Latin America as a class divider, as a divider between the very poor and the very rich. You seal off the rich areas by throwing a highway down between them. How can we bridge that? How can we make that transport system more porous? Yet another version of this, which is more relevant to the Middle East and draws on what I observed in Lebanon, is how do you make the border between distinct communities—between Christian and Muslims in Lebanon—porous, without simply smooshing the community together? This was a great challenge of making something out of the Green Line in Beirut after the end of the civil war in 1990. It’s a reorientation of how we see the city. Of course, the centre still matters, but the edge is more exciting for design. To continue reading subscribe or get  a copy of the print edition


Richard Sennett (b. 1943, Chicago) is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Classically trained as a cellist, a hand injury in his adolescence prompted a change in career. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Harvard University, Sennett has devoted himself intellectually to the fields of ethnography, history and social theory. Through his many writings, starting with The Uses of Disorder (1970), he has explored how individuals and groups make social and cultural sense of material facts, notably their lives in cities and the labours they pursue. Since the 1990s, as the work-world of modern capitalism began to alter quickly and radically, Sennett began his ongoing project charting its personal consequences for workers. The Corrosion of Character (1998) is an ethnographic account of how middle-level employees make sense of the “new economy” and was followed by Respect in a World of Inequality (2002), an appraisal of the modern welfare state, and The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006). Two recent publications, The Craftsman (2008) and Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (2012), both explore the positive aspects of labour.


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