Building and Dwelling

Shlomo Angel Reviews Richard Sennett's New Book in WSJ

Professor Shlomo Angel recently reviewed Richard Sennett's "Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City" in the Wall Street Journal:

"Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City" can be read as an outline for a manifesto for the open city, presented side by side with a scathing critique of its opposite, the closed city. The former celebrates freedom and its manifest expressions; the latter celebrates order and control. More precisely, Mr. Sennett explores the connection between the built form of the city, which he refers to as the ville, and the conduct of human affairs in the city, which he refers to as the cite. What is of primary interest to him is the way in which the physical manifestations of the ville affect lived experience in the cite and, more pragmatically, how urban planning decisions that are focused on the shape and form of the ville could, and indeed should, make thought, expression and action in the cite more open and free rather than more regimented and restrictive.


In the second half of the book he goes further to define five design principles that can produce and maintain the open city. The first is the primacy of public realms -- be they busy streets, promenades, marketplaces or the Greek agoras of old -- where human interactions can intensify and multiply. The second is the porosity of urban boundaries: the creation and preservation of active in-between places that keep different urban realms connected rather than cut off from each other. The third is the punctuation of urban places by markers -- be they imposing monuments, murals or elements of street furniture -- that allow places throughout the city to escape repetitiveness and acquire distinctive character. The fourth is an evolutionary approach to urban form, where buildings are never complete, being repaired and repurposed over time. The fifth is a rejection of rigid master plans in favor of a collage aesthetic, where places gradually become differentiated from one another yet follow a common pattern language, a set of often unwritten rules embedded in the culture of the city that lend it a shared moral and visual aesthetic. Using some successful real-world examples, however anecdotal and small in scale, Mr. Sennett seeks to convince us that his vision of the open city shows us a hopeful, practical way forward as we try to think through the challenges confronting our cities today.

It is a cause for worry, therefore, that he does not address or mention the strongest counterexample to his vision: Singapore. Singapore is by no means a free and open place. This year, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Singapore's 151st in the world; Human Rights Watch decried its "draconian restrictions on public assemblies"; and Freedom House ranked Singapore 123rd in its Freedom in the World report.

Yet it many ways it could be the poster child of good urban planning. An island of 280 square miles with a population of 5.6 million (roughly one-quarter of the area of Rhode Island with five times its population), it is very successful on a substantial number of measures.

Read Angel's Full Review

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