A crooked, open, modest city

Open city

NOTE: this article is an excerpt from the introduction to Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling, Ethics for the City, published by Cullen Stanley. Permission to use the text was granted by the publisher.

Judgements that the cité has ‘failed’ to open up are thus Janus-faced: one side of the coin shows angry populist prejudice, but on the other face can appear the self-satisfied smile, the virtue-signalling, of an elite. The closed cité is therefore a problem of values as well as political economy.

I. Crooked

In early Christianity ‘city’ stood for two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. St Augustine used the city as a metaphor for God’s design of faith, but the ancient reader of St Augustine who wandered the alleys, markets and forums of Rome would get no hint of how God worked as a city planner. Even as this Christian metaphor waned, the idea persisted that ‘city’ meant two different things – one a physical place, the other a mentality compiled from perceptions, behaviours and beliefs. The French language first came to sort out this distinction by using two different words: ville and cité.

Initially these named big and small: ville referred to the overall city, whereas cité designated a particular place. Some time in the sixteenth century the cité came to mean the character of life in a neighbourhood, the feelings people harboured about neighbours and strangers and attachments to place. This old distinction has faded today, at least in France; a cité now most often refers to those grim locales which warehouse the poor on the outskirts of towns. The older usage is worth reviving, though, because it describes a basic distinction: the built environment is one thing, how people dwell in it another. Today, in New York, traffic jams at the poorly designed tunnels belong to the ville, whereas the rat race driving many New Yorkers to the tunnels at dawn belongs to the cité.

As well as describing the cité’s anthropology, ‘cité’ can refer a kind of consciousness. Proust assembles from his characters’ perceptions of the various shops, flats, streets and palaces in which they dwell a picture of Paris as a whole, creating a sort of collective place-consciousness. This contrasts to Balzac, who tells you what’s really up in town no matter what his characters think. Cité-consciousness can also represent how people want to live collectively, as during Paris’s nineteenth-century unheavals when those in revolt couched their aspirations more generally than specific demands about lower taxes or bread prices; they argued for a new cité, that is, a new political mentality. Indeed, the cité stands next to citoyenneté, the French word for citizenship.

The English phrase ‘built environment’ doesn’t do justice to the idea of the ville, if that word ‘environment’ is taken to be the snail’s shell covering the living urban body within. Buildings are seldom isolated facts. Urban forms have their own inner dynamics (…) The built environment is more than a reflection of economics or politics; beyond these conditions, the forms of the built environment are the product of the maker’s will. It might seem that cité and ville should fit together seamlessly: how people want to live should be expressed in how cities are built. But just here lies a great problem. Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges.

In an essay on cosmopolitan life, Immanuel Kant observed in 1784 that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made’. A city is crooked because it is diverse, full of migrants speaking dozens of languages; because its inequalities are so glaring, svelte ladies lunching a few blocks away from exhausted transport cleaners; because of its stresses, as in concentrating too many young graduates chasing too few jobs... Can the physical ville straighten out such difficulties? Will plans to pedestrianize a street do anything about the housing crisis? Will the use of sodium borosilicate glass in buildings make people more tolerant of immigrants? The city seems crooked in that asymmetry afflicts its cité and its ville.

It is sometimes right that there be a mis-fit between the builder’s own values and those of the public. This mis-fit ought to occur if people reject living with neighbours unlike themselves. Many Europeans find Muslim migrants indigestible; big chunks of Anglo-America feel Mexican migrants should be deported; and from Jerusalem to Mumbai those who pray to different gods find it difficult to live in the same place. One result of this social recoil appears in the gated communities which are today, throughout the world, the most popular form of new residential development. The urbanist should go against the will of the people, refusing to build gated communities; prejudice should be denied in the name of justice. But there’s no straightforward way to translate justice into physical form – as I discovered early on in a planning job.

At the beginning of the 1960s, a new school was proposed for a working-class area in Boston. Would it be racially integrated, or segregated as were most working-class parts of the city in those days? If integrated, we planners would have to provide large parking and holding spaces for buses to bring black children to and from school. The white parents resisted integration covertly by claiming the community needed more green space, not bus parking lots. Planners ought to serve the community rather than impose an alien set of values. What right did people like me – Harvard-educated, armed with sheaths of statistics on segregation and impeccably executed blueprints – have to tell the bus drivers, cleaners and industrial workers of South Boston how to live? I am glad to say my bosses stood their ground; they did not succumb to class guilt. Still, the jaggedness between lived and built cannot be resolved simply by the planner displaying ethical uprightness. In our case, this only made things worse, our virtue- signaling breeding more anger among the white public.

This is the ethical problem in cities today. Should urbanism represent society as it is, or seek to change it? If Kant is right, ville and cité can never fit together seamlessly. What, then, is to be done?

II. Open

I thought I had found one answer to this when I taught planning at MIT twenty years ago. (…) Founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, Media Lab projects included a super-cheap computer for poor kids, medical prostheses like the robotic knee, and ‘digital town centres’ to plug people living in remote areas into the doings of cities. (…) Its rumpled researchers – who never seemed to sleep – explained the difference between a ‘Microsoft-level’ project and an ‘MIT-level’ project as follows: the Microsoft project packages existing knowledge, while MIT unpackages it; (…) according to their lights, Microsoft thinks ‘closed’, the Media Lab thinks ‘open’ – ‘open’ enables innovation.

In a general way, researchers work within a well-worn orbit when performing an experiment to prove or disprove a hypothesis; the original proposition governs procedures and observations; the denouement of the experiment lies in judging whether the hypothesis is correct or incorrect. In another way of experimenting, researchers will take seriously unforeseen turns of data, which may cause them to jump tracks and think ‘outside the box’. (…) ‘Open’ implies a system for fitting together the odd, the curious, the possible. The mathematician Melanie Mitchell has pithily summarized an open system as one ‘in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution’. (…)

So, too, the open-systems idea of how these parts interact. ‘Linear equations’, the mathematician Steven Strogatz remarks, ‘can be broken into pieces. Each piece can be analyzed separately and solved, and finally all the separate answers can be recombined […] In a linear system, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of the parts.’ Whereas the parts in a non-linear, open system can’t be broken up this way; ‘the whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity.’ His idea is easy to grasp if you think of chemicals interacting to form a compound: it becomes a new substance of its (…).

How would the open-laboratory ethos relate to a city? The architect Robert Venturi once declared ‘I like complexity and contradiction in architecture […] I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.’ Though attacking much modern architecture for its stripped-down, functionalist buildings, his words cut deeper. His is the Media Lab transposed to a city: the city is a complex place, which means it is full of contradictions and ambiguities. Complexity enriches experience; clarity thins it.

My friend William Mitchell, an architect who eventually took over the Media Lab, made the bridge between system and city. (…) His City of Bits was the first book about smart cities; published in 1996, and so before the era of hand-helds, Web 2.0 interactive programs, and nano-technology, Mitchell’s book wanted to welcome whatever the future might hold. He imagined that the smart city would be a complex place: information-sharing which would give citizens ever more choices and so ever greater freedom; the physical buildings, streets, schools and offices of the ville would be made of components which could continually be changed and so could evolve, just as does the flow of information. The smart city would become ever more complex in form, its cité ever richer in meanings.

In one way this technological fantasy was nothing new. Aristotle wrote in the Politics that ‘a city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence’. People are stronger together than apart; thus in wartime, Athens sheltered a diverse range of tribes who fled the countryside; it also took in exiles who then remained in the city. Though their status was ever unresolved and ambiguous, these refugees brought new ways of thinking and new crafts to the city. Aristotle drew attention to the fact that trade is more vigorous in a dense city than in a thinly populated village, and in this he was hardly alone; almost all ancient writers on the city noted that diverse, complex economies were more profitable than economic monocultures. Aristotle was also thinking about the virtues of complexity in politics; in a diverse milieu, men (in Aristotle’s time, only men) are obliged to understand different points of view in order to govern the city. In all, Aristotle calls the drawing of different people together a synoikismos, a putting together like ‘synthesis’ and ‘synergy’ – the city is, like Strogatz’s equations, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Open’ figures as a key word in modern politics. In 1945, the Austrian refugee philosopher Karl Popper published The Open Society and its Enemies. He asked a philosopher’s question about how Europe had fallen into totalitarianism: was there something in Western thought which had invited people to scupper rational and fact-based debate among different groups in favour of seductive myths of ‘we are one’ and ‘us against them’ spun by dictators? The book’s theme doesn’t date, though The Open Society and its Enemies is in a way misnamed, because Popper analysed a long line of illiberal political thought rather than happenings in everyday society. Still, the book had an enormous impact on people engaged in those activities – particularly on his colleagues at the London School of Economics who were at the time devising the British welfare state, hoping to devise a plan which would keep its bureaucracy loose and open, rather than rigid and closed. (…)

It might seem that the liberal values of an open society suit any city that contains many different sorts of peoples; mutual toleration will allow them to live together. Again, an open society should be more equal and more democratic than most today, with wealth and power spread through the entire social body rather than hoarded at the top. But there’s nothing especially urban about this aspiration; farmers and people in small towns deserve the same justice. In thinking about urban ethics, we want to know what makes ethics urban.

For instance, freedom has a particular value in the city. The German adage Stadtluft macht frei (‘city air makes you free’) derives from the late Middle Ages; this saying promised that citizens could be freed from a fixed, inherited position in the economic and social pecking order, freed from serving just one master. It didn’t mean citizens were isolated individuals; there might be obligations to a guild, to neighbourhood groups, to the Church, but these could shift during the course of a lifetime. (…) At MIT, I had occasion to see Stadtluft macht frei take form among a group of young architects from Shanghai. Their home city epitomizes the urban explosion occurring throughout the developing world today, a place expanding economically at a headlong rate, drawing young people from all over China into its orbit. Although my band of Shanghainese went home to their villages or small towns each New Year, in the city they left their local outlooks and habits far behind. (…) When I introduced my charges to Stadtluft macht frei, they translated the phrase into Mandarin as ‘wearing different hats’. The superficial words convey a deep truth, that when life is open, it becomes multi-layered.

MIT made me think that all these strands of ‘open’ might address the conundrum of relating cité and ville. Rather than try to straighten out this relation, an open city would work with its complexities, making, as it were, a complex molecule of experience. The role of the planner and architect would be both to encourage complexity and to create an interactive, synergetic ville greater than the sum of its parts, within which pockets of order would orient people. Ethically, an open city would of course tolerate differences and promote equality (…)

Idealistic? Of course. Idealism of an American sort, framed by the pragmatist school of philosophy whose key concept was that all experience should be experimental. The worthies of pragmatism – Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey – would, I suspect, have felt quite at home in the Media Lab. Those same worthies resisted equating ‘pragmatic’ and ‘practical’, because the hard-faced, practical men who dominated the country’s values in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scorned the ambiguous or the contradictory, and celebrated efficiency.

Within my small corner of the pragmatist frame, though, it was not so easy to dismiss these hard-Faced values. Most urban projects cost a fortune. Stadtluft macht frei doesn’t tell the urban planner how wide the streets should be. A planner has to be accountable to people who may not appreciate being obliged to live in a caprice, or in an experiment which has proved an interesting failure. Both Dewey and James were not naive in this regard; they recognized that pragmatism had to figure out how to move from experiment to practice. If you are unpackaging an established practice, the deconstruction doesn’t tell you what to do next. (…)

The pragmatist problem of how to crystallize an open practice came home to Mitchell in a particular way. A few years after The City of Bits appeared, Mitchell, along with the architect Frank Gehry, sponsored a project seeking to design a high-tech, self-drive automobile which would be a pleasure to ride in, rather than serve just as a mechanical container; they wanted to achieve an elusive goal Mitchell called the ‘aesthetics of motion’. Pressed by me to define this phrase, he answered, ‘I don’t know yet’ – which was a Media Lab sort of answer. Dropping in on the project from time to time, I noticed that its personnel seemed to change quite often; asked why lab assistants left so frequently, one manager explained to me that many people didn’t understand their roles. ‘I don’t know yet’ furnishes no directions to others. (…) Thus the open, cutting-edge experiment teetered on the edge of dysfunctional.

Mitchell died of cancer in 2010 and so did not live to see his vision play out, but even in the last years of his life, the tech-world was in transition. It was moving from an open to a closed condition. Yochai Benkler writes, ‘what typified the first quarter century of the Internet was an integrated system of open systems […] resisting the application of power from any centralized authority’ whereas today ‘we are shifting to an Internet that facilitates the accumulation of power by a relatively small set of influential state and non-state actors’. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Intel, Apple: these names embody the problem Benkler sees now: the closed era of the internet consists of a small number of monopolies, producing the machines and the programs engaged in mass mining of information. Once acquired, monopoly programming becomes ever more personalized and more controlling.

Though Karl Popper died long before the digital age began, his ghost might well have declared, ‘I knew it.’ Popper abhorred economic monopolies just as he feared totalitarian states. Both make the same seductive promise: life can be made simpler, clearer, more user-friendly, as we would now say about technology, for example, if only people would submit to a regime which does the organizing. You will know what you are about, because the rules of your experience will be laid out for you. What you gain in clarity, however, you will lose in freedom. Your experience will become clear and closed. Long before Popper, the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt framed the same threat by warning that modern life would be ruled by ‘brutal simplifiers’, which to him meant the seductive simplicities of nationalism. For both Popper and Burckhardt, those catchphrases of open experience – ‘complex’, ‘ambiguous’, ‘uncertain’ – imply resistance to an oppressive regime of power.

The cities we live in today are closed in ways that mirror what has happened in the tech realm. In the immense urban explosion today in the Global South – in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the countries of central Africa – large finance and construction firms are standardizing the ville ; as a plane lands you may not be able to tell Beijing apart from New York. North as well as South, the growth of cities has not produced much experiment in form. The office park, the school campus, the residential tower set in a bit of green are not forms friendly to experiment, because all are self-contained rather than open to outside influences and interactions.

My experience in Boston, however, cautions against seeing closure as simply Big Power squashing the People. Fear of others or an inability to cope with complexity are aspects of the cité which also close in lives. Judgements that the cité has ‘failed’ to open up are thus Janus-faced, as I also discovered in Boston: one side of the coin shows angry populist prejudice, but on the other face can appear the self-satisfied smile, the virtue-signalling, of an elite. The closed cité is therefore a problem of values as well as political economy.

III. Modest

The word ‘make’ is so common that people usually don’t think much about it. Our ancestors were not so blasé; the Greeks were full of wonder at the power to create even the most ordinary things. Pandora’s box included not just exotic elixirs but also knives, carpets and pots; the human contribution to existence was to create something where before there was nothing. The Greeks possessed a depth of wonder which has diminished in our more jaded age. (…)

This celebration of making entered a new domain in the Renaissance. Stadtluft macht frei applied the word ‘make’ to the self. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola declared ‘man is an animal of diverse, multiform and destructible nature’; in this pliant condition ‘it is given to him to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills’. This is not immodest boasting, but rather as Montaigne argued at the end of the Renaissance that people construct their lives by distinctive tastes, beliefs or encounters. (…) Still, that man could be his/her own maker was for Pico more than a matter of personality; it contracted God’s power over man’s fate; Pico, an intensely religious believer, spent his own life trying to reconcile the two.

Eighteenth-century philosophers sought to relieve this tension by focusing on one aspect of making: the impulse to do good-quality work. This maker’s virtue had from the medieval era on been taken as acceptable in the sight of God, good work a sign of service and commitment to something objective which lay beyond personal selfishness. Now the philosophers asserted in worldly terms that people fulfil themselves when as workers they seek to do good-quality work. Homo faber appeared in this guise to readers of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, written from 1751 to 1771, volume after volume of which illustrated how to work well whether one is a cook, a farmer or a king. The Encyclopédie’s emphasis on practical work done well challenged Kant’s image of crooked human timber, since the able worker is a cooperative being, straightening out his relations to others in the shared effort to create things that are well made.

In modern times, belief in Homo faber has dimmed. Industrialism darkened the picture of the skill-Proud labourer, as machines took over his or her crafts, and factory conditions demeaned the social setting of work. During the last century, both Nazism and state communism turned Man as Maker into an obscene ideological weapon; Arbeit macht Frei (‘Work is freedom’) was written over the entrance to concentration camps. Today, while these totalitarian horrors have gone, new forms of short-term, episodic labour, plus the advance of robotic labour, have denied to large numbers of people pride in themselves as workers.

To understand Homo faber’s role in the city, we have to conceive of the dignity of labour differently. Rather than espousing a worldview, Homo faber in the city acquires honour by practising in a way whose terms are modest: the small house renovation done as cheaply as possible, or planting a street with young trees, or simply providing cheap benches where elderly people can sit safely outside. This ethic of making modestly implies in turn a certain relationship to the cité.

As a young urbanist, I was persuaded to the ethics of modest making by reading a book by Bernard Rudofsky written in the 1960s, Architecture Without Architects. Removed from the hot issues in those far-off days of postmodernism and theory, Rudofsky documented how the materials, shapes and siting of the built environment have arisen from the practices of everyday life. Away from its main square, Siena exemplifies Rudofsky’s view. Its windows, doors and decor covering basically similar building volumes have accumulated in unpredictable ways over the course of centuries, and the accumulation still continues.  (…) Rudofsky argued that the making of places had no need of self-conscious artiness, citing as examples elegantly shaped elliptical granaries in the Central African bush, or finely detailed towers in Iran built to attract pigeons whose droppings accumulated and so transformed the towers into fertilizer plants. Which is what he meant by architecture without architects: the primacy of the cité; making derived from dwelling. (…) When we say about a neighbourhood that we feel at home there, I think we are asserting this kind of agency – the physical environment seems to emanate from how we dwell and who we are. (…)

In the same way, people need time to learn the built environment. Common sense speaks of people knowing ‘intuitively’ how to move around or make sense of a building or place, but arbitrarily innovative buildings can disrupt just these taken-for-granted habits. This issue arises in school designs which incorporate advances in online learning. A traditional schoolroom consists of rows of seats staring up at a master in front, whereas the new is a more informal clustering of work-stations. Like the tempered-steel knife, teachers don’t know immediately how to relate their own bodily presence to these work-stations – for instance, where to stand to command everyone’s attention – it takes time to learn the new building. (…)

Jane Jacobs combined all these views. The great writer-warrior did not dispute the worth of urban design itself, but asserted that urban forms emerged slowly and incrementally, following the lessons of use and experience. Her bête noire Homo faber, Robert Moses, the New York City planner and power-broker, built in exactly the opposite way: big, fast and arbitrarily. As will emerge in these pages, I dwelt in Jane Jacob’s shadow as a young man. Gradually, I have emerged from it. In part this was because the scene of my own practical activity shifted. As a planner, I have always had a modest practice; indeed, looking back, I regret not grasping the pragmatist nettle by practicing more and teaching less. My practice in America was locally based and oriented to strengthening community. In middle age, I began consulting at the UN, first for UNESCO, then for the UN Development Programme, lately for UN‑​Habitat. In the Global South, cities were growing so fast and so big that large-scale design was required; slow, cautious and local provided an inadequate guide for how to provide mass housing, schools or transport. How, on a larger scale, could urbanism be practised in a modest spirit? I didn’t abandon the ethical outlook that shaped me, but it needed to be reinterpreted.

Another change in outlook has been personal. Several years ago I suffered a serious stroke. In recovering from it, I began to understand buildings and spatial relations differently from the way I had before. I now had to make an effort to be in complex spaces, faced with the problem of staying upright and walking straight, and also with the neurological short-circuit that in crowds disorients those affected by strokes. Curiously, the physical effort required to make my own way expanded my sense of the environment rather than localized it to where I put my foot next or who is immediately in front of me; I became attuned on a broader scale to the ambiguous or complex spaces through which I navigated; I became Venturi’s sort of urbanite.

Both changes have prompted me to explore how Homo faber can play a more vigorous role in the city. A more vigorous urbanism has also to be a visceral urbanism, since place and space come alive in the body. As I’ll try to show in these pages, proactive urbanism can combine with ethical modesty. Modest does not mean cringing subservience; the urbanist should be a partner to the urbanite, not a servant – both critical of how people live and self-critical about what he or she builds. If this relation between cité and ville can be forged, then the city can open.

There is an argument to be made against this view. Part of the maker’s self-respect resides in his or her sheer will. All the great city-makers have taken a deep pride in what they do independent of, indeed against the grain of, the desires of others; the phrases ‘not possible’, ‘unheard of’, ‘an ego trip’, ‘so out of context’ etc. are all red flags, inspiring even more assertion. A maker who approaches his or her labours in a spirit of modesty, as Gordon Cullen or Jane Jacobs want, will certainly reduce the tension between making and dwelling. Yet he or she may avoid taking risks. If the immodest, assertive, creative will is full of fire, can a more sensitive, cooperative, self-critical urbanism become as energetic?


  • Building and Dwelling Ethics for the CityLondres, Allen Lane, 2018
  • Together. The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation.New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012
  • The ForeignerNotting Hill Editions, 2011

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