Building and Dwelling: by Richard Sennett

Building and Dwelling: by Richard Sennett

Building and Dwelling is a big-hearted book that celebrates cities as it theorizes them.

Building and Dwelling is a big-hearted book that celebrates cities as it theorizes them. Richard Sennett entertainingly translates his lifetime of experience as an academic, traveler and city planner into a winding narrative about how cities are and how they should be. While the book meanders and occasionally loses rhetorical focus, it remains an enjoyable and enriching read.

The central question at its heart is how to create a city that is both ethical and functional: how does one design a city that people want to live in? Sennett frames this dilemma through two concepts: ville and cité . Ville is the physical infrastructure of a city: streets, buildings, water pipes, power lines, parks and so on. Cité, on the other hand, is the abstract nature of a city: the attitude of the people, the attachments people have to specific parts of the city and the character of a city. To think of these terms using the words of the book’s title, ville is “Building” and cité is “Dwelling.”

Both aspects are crucial issues to be resolved. The global population is urbanizing at a rapid rate. In the Indian Subcontinent, already-enormous cities such as Mumbai (approximately 26 million people), Delhi (approximately 24 million people) and Karachi (approximately 21 million people) are forecast to nearly double in size in the next three decades. In west Africa and the U.S. East Coast, a new urban form is taking shape in the megapolis, a perpetual city that spans across hundreds of miles and dozens of nominal political boundaries.

From a practical, biopolitical perspective, such dizzying urban agglomerations requires an intense engagement with the ville. City designers have to create the mechanisms through which so many people can be fed, clothed, sanitized, employed and transported across geographical space. So, building must be done correctly. But in a truly ethical city, dwelling—the cité—matters too. Every city has a spirit and an attitude. Cité, in many ways, is the people themselves, with their various motivations for being urban dwellers and their array of expectations about what it means to live in the city. Ideally, people are willing to cooperate in constructing a meaningful, positive everyday life as a community; minimally, people need to tolerate the presence of some many other human beings occupying the same space as them. Dwelling, like building, is fostered in the creation of a city—it, too, is intentionally designed.

Where Building and Dwelling begins to come apart is that Sennett never directly addresses either of these concepts. He traces the intellectual history of ville and cité within the field of urban planning, though the conclusion of his detailed tracing remains muddled. He presents several detailed case studies in city planning/city designing. Some of these he terms “successful” and others as “failures,” but precisely how he comes to these judgements is never fully explicated. He interviews city denizens from places as diverse as Delhi, New York and Medellín but his purposes for doing so remain unclear throughout the book. In other words, the book does not quite coalesce.

Sennett makes vague affirmations championing elicitive methodology—getting experts to work together with local people to solve problems that magnify local voices but are still marshaled into viable channels via expert knowledge. But such a solution to city-making is neither new nor specific enough to serve as a genuine platform for coordinating urban space. Elicitive means are probably better than prescriptive ones, but whether they are practical or even possible on the rapid, massive scale required by 21st century urbanization is something that Sennett does not delve into. Who should count as local is another challenge he leaves unaddressed.

Building and Dwelling can be a frustrating read. Its dozens of tangential jaunts are interesting, but ultimately do not build up to anything more substantial. In spite of this, the book is worthwhile, given Sennett’s lifetime of knowledge about cities, his expert eye for design and his knack for storytelling.

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