Heavenly Cities

Daniel Aaron

  • The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 266 pp, £17.50, June 1991, ISBN 0 571 16192 8

For the last thirty years Richard Sennett – urban sociologist, historian, novelist – has been meditating on the culture and ecology of industrial cities: on how they evolved, on how their physical organisation and social structure related to the psychological and moral experiences of their inhabitants. More pointedly than his previous books, The Conscience of the Eye, he says, aims to show the interactions between the ‘architectural, urban planning, public sculpture, and the visual scenes of the city’ and its ‘cultural life’.

One of its principal themes was anticipated and prefigured at least twenty years ago in his anarchistic utopian treatise, The Uses of Disorder. Here Sennett condemned a culture that froze its middle-class youth in perpetual adolescence, inculcated a fear of social involvement and of being different, and put a premium on order, stability and safety. These desiderata he associated with the endemic puritanism encoded in the policies of city planners who either beheld the city as an unholy place that had to be zoned to protect its regenerate parts from contamination, or who envisaged an organic city of happily discrete communities – rich and poor, black and white, old-stock and ethnic – each content to stay within its own bailiwick.

Rejecting both schools, Sennett posited a model of his own Great Good Place, a heterogeneous urban area operating on the principle of survival, shifting and unstable, offering numerous ‘points of contact’ for its dense and wholesomely antagonistic population. It left space for a subculture of deviants, promised no surcease from frictions and hostilities but diffused them in an ‘enlarged forum for experience and exploration’ where the young could be enticed from their self-preoccupations by exposure to varieties of otherness, and in so doing effect their passage from adolescence to adulthood. The unzoned and permeable ‘survival community’ Sennett sketched in 1970 was intended to show how an ‘integration of living, working and recreational spaces’ might be achieved and technology put to ‘true and humane social use’.

Prospects for living what Sennett calls in The Conscience of the Eye a ‘centred’ life have dimmed in the Nineties, with the big cities broke, the infrastructure shaky, the ghettos poisoned by drugs, urban violence escalating. Yet if his new book is more detached and retrospective than The Uses of Disorder and more historical and literary as well, he still holds to his ‘necessary visions’ and believes in the capacity of the modern American city ‘to revive the reality of the outside’.

It was Augustine, Sennett proposes, who laid the ‘theological foundation’ for the ‘corrosive dualism between inside and outside’ detectable today in American cities, in which public and private realms are separated by ‘neutral space’. Augustine’s metaphorical vision of two cities – one holy, the other profane – initially materialised in the great Churches, refuges of spirituality set apart from the precincts of Cain. In these sacred enclosures of order and quiet, the pursuit of inwardness was powerfully assisted and Western culture launched on ‘a disastrous course in which spiritual has become discontinuous with the physical’. The chapters that develop this central insight range geographically far afield and backward and forward in time. Together they deal with the effect of ideologies and styles of thought in the management of urban space and the persisting fear of exposure as expressed in architectural forms from the sixth century to the present.

Readers unfamiliar with the churches, public buildings, streets, squares, paintings and sculpture cited or singled out for extended comment must rely on Sennett’s roving camera-eye (he provides no illustrations); doubtless some readers will find much to disagree with and quibble over. Any writer who cuts such a wide swathe and passes so quickly through so many periods and subjects is bound to become the target of specialists. Sennett has been faulted for making unsupported generalisations, for being allusive, diffuse and inexact, for getting his facts wrong. And it has to be said that he does slight economic, political and climatic influences in his account of the forces that determine the growth and deformation of cities. Even so, no matter how valid these charges, The Conscienee of the Eye has its own integrity if read as an essay on the morality and psychology of social design, or as a kind of didactic prose poem and oblique autobiography, or as a lay sermon on the text from Goethe that serves as its epigraph: ‘Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world – the world which he only comes to know in himself and himself only in it.’

Above all, it is a commentary on seeing and the lessons to be drawn from changing perspectives, and it is a celebration of variety and complexity. Like Whitman, Sennett is enamoured with the ‘flux of the secular’ and finds the restless, agitated sections of New York more stimulating than the homogenised zones of comparative order and solitude. The Rockefeller Centre’s ‘superbly solemn buildings’ may evoke a sense of safety and authority, as Medieval churches did, but to Sennett the famous landmark is ‘an abscess in the city’, spiritually as well as spacially ‘divorced from the community’. The coldness and impersonality of the American urban scene he attributes to a Protestant ethic that loved power and feared pleasure, that plotted the endless natural landscape in grids readily treatable, in Lewis Mumford’s words, ‘as abstract units for buying and selling, without respect for historic uses, or topographic conditions, or for social needs’.

The ultimate dehumanising of public architecture, made possible by new technologies – notably the production of sheet glass – occurred with the erection of glass-sheathed isolated towers ‘insulated from sound and touch and other human beings’. In Sennet’s overview of the modern city, the master-architect has assumed a god-like authority to create structures ‘in and for themselves’ and to impose them on neutral space irrespective of their social use. Mies van der Rohe, ‘the archon of Modernism’ and ‘the father of visual solitude’, typifies the architectural priest whose pure and ‘inviolable’ forms reassert ‘the religious break between the spiritual and the worldly’.

Against this conception of the sealed and compartmentalised city, Sennett projects his ‘humane city’, diverse and disconnected. Here people can ‘step out of themselves’ into an environment of stimulating disorder and complexity. As in his earlier books, he draws on Robert Park and other members of the Chicago school of sociologists for whom urban culture amounted to an experiencing of ‘differences of class, age, race and taste outside the familiar territory of oneself’. Indeed, they held, the stimulation in a city setting increased as ‘the concentration of difference’ intensified. Sennett cautions, however, that the mere piling-up of visual experience in a city like New York – its zones and highways and impervious buildings acting as buffers against the promiscuous human flow – can turn the observer inward, exacerbate fear of exposure, and deaden the ‘capacity for ever more complex experience’. How then to keep open the channel of sensuous impression without being demoralised by a glut of sight and sound? One way he suggests is to turn the eye into a ‘critical’ and ‘moral’ faculty and to put to use the novelist’s clarifying personifications of city places.

Hannah Arendt’s political writings also seem to him ‘relevant to the critical powers of the eye’. An exile and ‘emblematic urbanite’, she made impersonality a positive virtue and located in city streets the favourable conditions for shedding subjectivity and transcending one’s race and class. Her only serious deficiency from his point of view was a want of sympathy for the considerable numbers unequipped to achieve her principled self-containment. She was oblivious, he thinks, to the weight of ‘social customs and circumstances’ and conflated sympathy and softness. In contrast, James Baldwin attained ‘natality’ (Arendt’s term for ‘the birth of the will to make oneself over again as an adult’) through the power of empathy. The Fire Next Time, according to Sennett, enacts a process in the course of which a black militant, without muting his rage, distances himself from it and merges almost imperceptibly with kindred ‘exiles’ and ‘foreigners’, the peripheral ‘we’ – his subjectivity not ‘shunted aside’ but transformed.

His book resists summary, but its prevailing thesis might be boiled down to the following set of injunctions, caveats and generalisations. The gulf between inner and outer can’t be bridged by technology. It is a moral divide. Nor can organic wholeness be gained at the expense of diversity and the contingent.

Fear of making contact with others signifies ‘a lack of will to live in the world’.

To ‘live’, as distinct from ‘existing’, in an urban environment is to accept chance, limitation, unfulfilment, risk – all of which contribute to ‘provocation and arousal’, the ‘pleasure of the unexpected’. In a world of chance, planning must be provisional.

Good fiction is marked by uncertainty and ambiguity, and so is good city planning. Avoid inflexibility and finality. ‘Weak borders’ are better than ‘strong walls’. Time and history must be allowed to do their work, differences overlayered rather than segmented.

The humane city is a place of confrontation and recognition, free of raw violence but not of irritation, and made interesting by its (overcomable) obstacles

In his concluding chapter, Sennett speculates on the persistence of the attitudes he has been disparaging and on why city people continue to seek asylum from the human swarm. ‘The reason the interior has endured as a space of inner life,’ he observes, ‘is that this visual dimension seems to promise spiritual, or as we would now say, subjective freedom – more freedom of reflection and feeling and self-searching than is possible among the contingencies of the street. In our culture, the free play of subjective life seems to require an enclosed environment rather than an exposed one.’ This passage shouldn’t be taken as a concessionary aside, although I suspect most people today would subscribe to it. On the contrary, Sennett thinks that a centred subjectivity is only possible in an open and complex environment, and that the fullest consciousness is attained, not by renouncing the world, but by realising the self within it.

Although couched in a winning conversational style, Sennett’s line of argument isn’t easy to follow, and the reader must pay close attention to its studied discontinuities and abrupt transitions. He seems to be bringing into his own work the displacements and disjunctions and selective disorder he finds so energising in social planning and the arts. The expository flow is slowed down by authorial excurses: a disquisition on clocks and cannon, a report on what he sees and hears during one of his flâneurial rambles from Greenwich Village to the United Nations, reflections on a John Ashbery poem. Plainly he has read a lot of books. This one abounds with arresting quotations and alludes learnedly and appositely to philosophers, theologians, historians, political theorists, artists, architects, novelists and poets. Yet it is no mere bravura performance or tour de force. It has a ring of earnestness and urgency as if Sennett felt conscience-bound to have his say about cities, society and Sennett.