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

Words by Richard Sennett & Ash Amin | 20 May, 2014

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.

AA: Conceptually, there’s something really quite tantalising about the notion of the city as a bordering project. That bordering might involve, as you intimated, a sensible use of infrastructures and highways, and of mixed buildings and mixed communities. Do you think the virtual arena has a role to play here in the process of bordering?

RS: Absolutely. I may be too much of a true believer in this. [Laughs] I think there are ways to make a city—I wouldn’t call it virtual—to make a city online. I don’t think it’s an either-or phenomenon, but I think a lot of the desirable experiences that we want in a visible place can also be made in an intimate space. What I’ve written about this is— and this is why I’m so interested in craftsmanship and understanding physical emotions—is that a lot of the complexities we see in the material world, we don’t know how to translate into the online realm. It’s very primitive. For instance, when I did the study of cooperation, I found that the ideas that people have of cooperation online are much more conceptual than the kind of mediations and dialogic relations that they have face-to-face. We don’t know how to write programmes online yet, which reflect the complexity of interaction that people have materially. I believe it can happen.

AA: If we took online and placed it at the same level as, say, art and sculpture, and then imagined how these creative media could help us in the bordering project, for constructing useful bridges between communities and between different parts of the city, in a very aleatoric sense, do you think the challenge here really is one of visualisation?

RS: I do. People think in images. We have visual ways of reasoning, just as we have verbal ways of reasoning. One of the things that I think was quite unfortunate in the 1980s and 90s was the idea of thinking of the city exclusively in verbal terms, as a language. This goes very far back to Wittgenstein’s idea that the limits of my language are the limits of my experience, a completely false idea, in my view. I think the work of picturing is a way of thinking about what things should be like, and it is remarkably not done in urbanism.

AA: Who should be the principle agents of picturing in the city, the kind of city that you want to see designed?

RS: This is where I think high-tech comes in, because formerly that would be the province only of people who are very skilled designers. One of the things that’s interested me is how to make design online something that is accessible to people who are not trained designers. I tried with Ricky Burdett. We created programmes for urban design online, a simplified version of computer-aided design (CAD), which meant that our students who were economists and sociologists, after a couple of weeks of preparation, were actually able to design a street or hospital. Not well, but the technology made it possible for them to picture ideas they had about different kinds of social processes and spaces.

I’m up on all of this. I know that you could resist it by saying that if you measure the actual technological and sociological complexity that most technicians have, it’s so primitive that you would think, “Screw it!” But I think it’s everything to aim for.

AA: Would you imagine in this context, a smart city that consists of rolling-out legible and usable software to every single social domain in the city, so that in the design process you get slum dwellers, schoolchildren and their teachers, university professors and their students designing what they want to design? You see where I’m going? Effectively the grand project here becomes one of the same technology being made available to a multitude of communities.

RS: You have to distinguish what kind of technology you’re talking about. The commercial smart city technology is predicative. That is the algorithms are written for how people should behave in a certain way. And, that’s what sells. Great examples of these experiments are Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates or Songdo, near Seoul in South Korea. The algorithm does the thinking, and they tend to be stupefying to people who use this technology. They have no inductive field of their own.

Another way to do this, which is smarter and more democratic, organises big data so that people have a lot of information that they couldn’t get by an induction. They still make choices based on where they are. An example. If you were using Google Maps, the programme would say to you that this is the shortest means to get from point A to B, but this other route is more interesting sociologically. You’re in a different kind of world of writing programming. Such and such a route to get from point A to point E is more democratic than taking the shortest route. You’ll be exposed to more difference. We don’t write technology like that, and to do what would require a totally different mind-set—and that mind-set exists.

That’s what open systems theory is all about: the understanding of complexity, and indeed the creation of complexity. It’s not the kind of technology that IBM or Google is currently selling. In fact, to go to your kinds of themes, that’s a technology of surveillance. It’s much more Foucauldian, and much more expensive.

AA: Let’s address your principle of craft—of crafting borders and crafting the city. The conundrum, in my mind, is in the multiple, multiplex, dispersed and decentred city. One way to bring the parts together is to have a kind of Jamesian universe, a pluri-verse of 1001 hands doing the crafting, wherever these hands are, and wherever these minds are. Does that encapsulate your thinking?

RS: I think that’s too romantic. One of the practicalities of this is that most people, because they’re not being pushed to develop their visual intelligence, create the most conservative designs—because that’s what people know. This is a great irony of democratic design in The Netherlands. What the demos wanted was a version of 19th century Dutch housing. People have no experience of the research into form. One way out of that practically involves coproduction with a skilled designer. La Marqueta in Spanish Harlem comes to mind for me. You have a skilled designer build three or four different models, present it to the community, and talk. That sort of coproduction marries craftsmanship with democracy. I’m really interested in that as a model for planning. I’m not interested in democratic planning, which assumes that people spontaneously go for good. I don’t believe that. On the other hand, I don’t think they should be foisted with a preferred model. The whole idea of coproduction is that you have a discursive realm in between, in which skilled designers—like myself—make proposals, which are then explored in the community.

AA: But the complex city, even when you’re using expertise properly, given the multiple nuances, still produces conflicts of design: design against design.

RS: That’s life.

AA: How do you reconcile these conflicts?

RS: Maybe you don’t.

AA: Does democracy go a step up into the parliament of things in the city? What is the parliament of design in a city?

RS: Why do you need resolution?

AA: Some things need to be fixed: streets, highways, the boundaries of the neighbourhood, the form of buildings.

RS: That’s true, but this is purely functional. This brings in another principle of all open systems—incompleteness. Sometimes the “resolution” is that the form is left incomplete, which is also true of democratic processes. The idea that we need resolution, catharsis, that things need to be finished, is tyrannical if it becomes the whole of the process. In planning of streets, we don’t need to resolve everything. Building typologies should allow for indecisiveness. Does that bodega really go on the corner or in the centre of the street? For me, a lot of open systems planning—just as with Linux in your computer—is about leaving the domain of the unresolved intact, and deciding what gets unresolved and what gets finished.

The issue here is about infrastructure. What kind of infrastructure has to get resolved and what doesn’t? In my view, there are basic efficiencies, which have to be resolved—like clean water, and sufficient electricity and a grid. But what doesn’t need to be resolved is applications of electrical grids, like where do you light the street, how bright is it. Once you’ve got the grid in place, you can be flexible about those indeterminates. And, that kind of difference is important to understand. There are the elements of infrastructure, like water, which have to be finished systems, and then there are those elements, like energy, which can be left more indeterminate. The issue here is to have, in some areas of infrastructure at least, a loose fit between form and function. What open systems theory does is try to research where the loose fit exists and where the tight fit doesn’t. Almost all of capitalist planning is oriented to tight fit. It’s how you get the kinds of efficiencies that you can drive surplus value out of. It is a mechanical fit and you can make it cost.

I’m very sympathetic to the idea of people, as they do in many slums, tapping into the electric grid to steal electricity. But I’m very unsympathetic to the idea that people tap into open flowing water. I’ve been arguing with UN Habitat that they should be putting their money into water pipes, rather than into fixed electrical delivery. But that’s the level of specificity, programmatically, that thinking about open systems leads you to.

AA: This is a subterranean infrastructural urbanism, where you get the arterial system right, but not the injunctions that follow from it. Is that what you’re getting at?

RS: Yes, that’s part of it.

AA: The reason I ask that question is because a number of us urbanists agree that spontaneous urbanism is problematic.

RS: Yes, it’s a recipe for weakness.

AA: We further agree that just interactive urbanism isn’t good enough, and we agree to the need for design and controlling the arterial system. The question that begs is then, what remains of utopia in the urban context? Is your proposal a new kind of backdoor utopianism?

RS: Yes! [Laughs] I’ve never thought of that phrase, but that’s what it is. The idea is that utopia is expanding both technologically and socially the level of indeterminacy. You can’t do it infinitely, as with water. But, it’s pushing the limits of the indeterminate. The more indeterminacy you have, the more coproduction you can have. It’s the techniques of doing that, that matter.

AA: Does the utopian element here reside in the nature of the process, the democratic nature of things? Or, do you still want to bring back, again through the back door, a vision of the whole, a sense of the good city? Because so much of the city today is mostly bad, particularly for the poor and the marginalised and the excluded. So, in your scheme of things, there would be no notion of ex novo, as a sense of what a good city is?

RS: What I don’t think you can do is draw a socialist city. That’s what Mumford thought, that you could do it. I don’t believe that. 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. It’s a socialism that experiences events rather than totalised history, but in which people are free to experience those events. What I’m talking to you about is the logic, for instance, of working with people in slums, so that the slum can grow from within. It’s the logic that Alejandro Aravena tried to practice in Chile with incomplete forms of housing. I think it’s a way of working, which says that when we talk about the image. And what we’re talking about is modern images: fragments, assemblages, collages. Sometimes they will be very abstract as in the work of Michael Sorkin, whose the images don’t look like cities—they look like Barnett Newman, but they have a logic which is readable as urban. A lot of visual urbanisation is so representational. It’s like the 19th-century notion of art: this is what the good city looks like. We don’t do representation anymore in other forms of visual arts, so why should we do it in urban design?

AA: Urban design still lays down some of the baselines of the urban commons. Then, the designers, planners and politicians have to make sure that these deliverables of the urban commons reach those that need it.

RS: This is a question I wanted

to ask you: Is the commons actually a place in which people’s ideas are enacted by representation politically? That is, does the commons look like a parliament? If you take what I was just saying before, if we don’t believe in representation in active design, why should we believe in representation as a principle of establishing an urban commons? To make that very concrete: my idea of the urban commons is people going into unknown territory to talk with strangers. It’s not having a city bureaucracy. It is about people coming back from experiences of going into foreign territory, places where they don’t belong, doing things that they have done before. That’s that commons. The commons is that experience of getting outside of the familiar. And, that’s what a lot of visual art is about. It’s about ways of seeing that you haven’t seen before. Why shouldn’t we adapt that same principle to politics?

AA: I’m entirely sympathetic to that view. Essentially you’re spelling out the nature of an agonistic commons in an urban context, which is great, but at the same time, let’s look at the darker side of the city, for instance—the city in which so many people live without, rather than with; the city where people are pushed to the margin; the city of the migrant who can’t get work; the brutal side of urban living. We may also want to begin to think of the commons as those things that are actually supplied to everybody, or people have access to: the means to be able to participate properly in an agonistic arena. There I think your earlier notion of an arterial urbanism, in which access to water, electricity, schooling, healthcare, those things that are part of the shared commons, that’s got to be complete?

RS: Yes. You used the word marginal and I think that’s a very relevant word, because the way in which social and economic justice translates itself in urban form is through isolation, through literally making the poor invisible, marginal to the rest of the city. Every time I travel in very poor areas, what strikes me about it is that these are places in which otherness has become a form of isolation. When you look at a huge city of poverty, like Mexico City, the thing that is to me the most striking, urbanistically, is not that people are poor, but in their poverty they’re isolated from people who are richer. As an urbanist, not as an all round social theorist, what I’d say about this is that combat against that kind of inequality requires dealing with marginalisation and isolation. I don’t know if we urbanists are ever going to solve the problem of capitalist inequality, but what we can solve or deal with is the consequences of that inequality, which are isolation.

AA: One final question, Richard. We’ve agreed that a way forward is to construct a performative public sphere in the city. We’ve both agreed that in this process, design plays a very important role in making visible hidden connections and building across things. Do you think there is a pedagogic element to this as well? Do you think the occupancy of the turf also requires a certain pedagogy of civility, and who does this training?

RS: I’ve often thought that the next phase of urbanism is going to involve putting geographers together with the visual artists. There’s so much of urban sociology, which is mindless and barely theorised that I’ve given up on that. In the domains that I was pedagogically raised in, which is Chicago School of Sociology, that’s just come to an end. What I think is going to happen, that’s vibrant now, is something that’s like a third-generation Lefebvrian revolution, where you have geography, which is two-dimensional, and design, which is three-dimensional, come together. In most design schools that I’ve taught in, the attempt is to somehow marry visual practice with sociological and economic propositions—and the result is rather trivial. I don’t think that’s the way forward. I think a different kind of disciplinary discussion has to occur, which is what you do and what I do.

AA: Do you think there’s something here that professionals, teachers like us, could learn from communities themselves, that are forced to make border crossings all the time?

RS: Yes, absolutely.

AA: A pedagogy from the poor and not of the poor?

RS: That was the old Chicago School idea: the poor are competent interpreters of their own condition. It was the noblest thing about the Chicago School: you didn’t need to have a PhD in order to give a logical account or interpretation of your own experience in the city. It was stressed in community studies and so on. The notion that people are competent and can interpret their own conditions is something that’s really disappeared. Survey research rules it out, by design, because you’re looking for consistencies, not inconsistencies. You assume that you have a naive subject that’s furnishing you data, which you then interpret. Very few survey researchers will go back to their subjects and say, “I found this pattern, what do you make of it?” In fact, I don’t know any that do that. But, it’s also true that a lot of urban ethnographies accentuate the suffering of people: look at what victims they are. I think academic urbanism is not in a good place.

Another project that interests me very much is what urbanists like us could learn from philosophers who specialise in ethics. What is a good city? What I’d like to learn from a philosopher is how do you construct the word “good” in there? What do we mean by that? Be very specific about it. I don’t think a “good city” is one in which people behave to a high moral standard, but a city in which they can hold each other to account. There is a domain which spatially could be on the net, if you think of the net as a city, in which behaviour—moral or immoral—can be held to account, in which people are subject to recognition. That’s a very particular kind of school of philosophical thinking; it’s people like German philosopher Axel Honneth; it’s not moralism in the usual sense. This is something that could happen in universities, but it doesn’t. When I taught at Harvard University, I would say that people outside the Graduate School of Design who most seldom entered its doors were philosophers. There are economists and sociologists coming in all the time, but I don’t think that’s very productive anymore.

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.

Ash Amin (b. 1955, Kampala) is 1931 Chair of Geography and Fellow of Christ’s College at Cambridge University. Until 2011 he was professor of geography at Durham University and executive director of the Institute of Advanced Study. He is known for his work on various aspects of the geography of modern living: urban and regional society as relationally and materially constituted; globalisation as an everyday process; the economy as cultural entity; and the prosaics of race, racism and belonging. He is currently working on a book on the world seen through the eyes of the city. His most recent books are Land of Strangers (2012) and Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left (2013), with Nigel Thrift.