The open city
On 18 December 2018, Winy Maas met Richard Sennett for a semi-formal discussion at WORM, a vegetarian bar and event space in Rotterdam, ahead of the launch of the Dutch version of the American sociologist’s latest book Building and Dwelling
WM: This food is delicious and it proves that we don’t need meat. It has become so popular these days! That, in my view, shows the political awareness of the younger generation..
RS: They don’t eat meat, eh?
WM: No meat and buses instead of planes. I appreciate those kinds of radicality. Maybe that explains the new momentum for architecture — that is if architecture still exists in the future — and for urbanism in general. Thinking about the city is encouraged now.
RS: I would say it’s much more tactile. Do you think some of this is a reaction to working with CAD? That CAD is so puritanical there’s a desire to recover the physicality of the city. I hate designing with CAD, I’ve done it.
WM: But is that a personal thing? Because I can also explain it or defend it even more strongly as, for my generation or the one just afterwards, it’s almost their language.
RS: It is. But I’m saying it’s a language in which what you gain in efficiency you lose in reality.
WM: So are we on opposite sides in that sense? I want to see your point but on the other hand I love wireframes… The wireframes of buildings where you can see every piece or detail on one threedimensional drawing. It’s almost like being at the centre of the data that drives that building. The idea is to work with that; we need a tool like a pencil to master the wireframe, manipulating the wireframe is, I think, a potential debate.
RS: That’s really interesting because your architecture is very tactile. I wouldn’t have thought a wireframe could give you that kind of tactility. You are interesting me — how do you get from a wireframe to the…?
WM: …to the thought?
RS: It might be interesting to do this as a project at MIT; how you get from a wireframe to the urban.
WM: I think they would love it. It fits the MIT agenda. For them to model the hand-drawing, or let’s say the explorative decision-making, of the designer. How that can be modelled, how it can be shown when there is the complexity of the wireframe… RS: That is a good thought. Now to Domus and what you want from us — tell me.
Rory Stott: So, Winy’s plan for the ten issues of
Domus is on the theme “Everything Is Urbanism”. Is that statement true?
RS: Of course it is! It’s urbanism in the sense that everything is relational. What you mean is everything is urban; everything relates to something else, even when it’s a violation of what is around it.
WM: I like the relational component because the relational is in space and in time, too. But the question might be how to deal with what is relational.
RS: That’s my book! Yes, how you get open forms which are not — I hate the word ‘context’ because the word context is a dictation. Something relational can be aggressive. It can be an open relation in the sense that it queries what’s around it and calls it into question.
What I’m thinking of, to be concrete about this, is that O’Donnell and Tuomey built the Student Centre for the LSE which looks like no other building around it but it puts its arm around the other buildings. It pats the other buildings and makes some buildings look extremely awkward. That’s a way of building an open relationship which is sort of unsolved but provocative.
WM: Well, you’re talking about criticism or selfcriticism and the city allowing buildings that comment either positively or negatively on what that city deserves or needs.
RS: So “Everything is Urban” doesn’t mean everything is contextual.
Rory Stott: In cities, which are developed by market forces, can neoliberalism be used as a force to develop this openness?
RS: It cannot. You can’t have an open system which is capitalist. An open system always veers towards destroying value and an open system is always inclusive.
Nearly all the projects that are funded by neoliberal capital are closed projects. They’re sealed, they’re fixed in form and they’re not inclusive. I think it’s a terrible, terrible mistake to think that somehow we’re so clever, we designers, that we can use this finance system and subvert it from within. It’s a kind of hubris which is demonstrably false.
WM: What you’re saying is quite existential for architects… I have to admit that I try, with developers, to somehow improve what they are doing.
RS: I don’t believe it can happen. No, I’m an old socialist, you know. You can’t create urban value by turning buildings into objects that can be instantly traded. That’s what global capitalism does; it’s a timeless system of exchange.
WM: In fairness, exchange is a formula for openness.
RS: Oh, no. Open exchange is path-dependent. It’s the difference between a linear and a nonlinear system. In a linear system, you want to
achieve this objective and you start here. You create all the stages that take you step by step, logically, from here to there. You exclude anything that’s noise and anything that deflects you from the path. In a path-dependent system, you still want to get from here to there but, say something happens here, then you’re related differently to the goal than you were.
You try to go forward but the fact that you’ve been there influences how you can move forward. So, your path becomes increasingly complicated. The more non-linear it is, the more history there is. That’s how real history works. So it’s not timeless, the journey you take is the meaning. You must have experienced this with every building you’ve created?
WM: Yes, I recognise that and it’s almost… it’s almost an art to deal with that and show that and its consequences.
RS: Well, you’ll see it in my book. I’m not so interested in this non-linear process for buildings but I’m interested in it for planning because nearly all planning law is linear: “You have to do this, then you have to do this, then you need certification and the certification requires you to have taken all these steps in order, with no variation or deviation.” Rory Stott: You see the importance of creating brandnew cities in developing countries. Considering that path-dependent process, what would you say to an urban planner who just has an empty space to work in? How do they achieve an open city and a path-dependent development process? RS: Well, I think, if I may say so, you’ve outlined it wrongly. I worked in Shanghai on a courtyard housing type called shikumen. There were literally millions of people in Shanghai living in these courtyards and in the 1990s, when Shanghai began first developing, they graded these as flats and they put towers on top. Now, they’re having what the English call buyer’s remorse; it’s not working and they want to go back to something like a courtyard form – but not courtyards as they were in the early 19th century, some modern version. In an open planning system, you would look at the morphological possibilities of the courtyard. I think, in China at least and also in parts of Latin America, what we think of as Modernism is actually now a form of conservative reaction. It’s not modern. It’s nostalgia for a 19th-century building form which was very bad.
WM: The courtyards are, at the moment, a twodimensional translation of having a space where you can look to eternity or the cosmos.
RS: Yes, exactly
WM: It’s escapism. To respond to that in a threedimensional, denser environment, the word ‘porosity’ is obviously key. The sponge, in that sense, is a translation of the two-dimensional courtyard. So that’s step number two, where the sponge makes sense, which Peter Sloterdijk somehow never made visual.
RS: Here’s where the political comes in. These courtyard forms in Shanghai are actually a phenomenon of the mid-19th century. After the Taiping Rebellion, there was a huge boom of middle-class people in the cities, where they built these courtyards. By the end of the 19th century, the middle-classes had gone and the poor inhabited these spaces but kept one feature, which is a perimeter wall that’s high and impenetrable. These perimeter walls should be rethought so that the wall becomes porous. You want to convert it from a boundary to a border, build things into it, build on top of it… One thing we’re doing to achieve this is put up pilotis, with housing above the wall so that the wall becomes kind of…
RS: Yeah and you can start taking it down because the pilotis.
WM: Pilotis make sense, at last.
RS: [laughs] Look, I am going to go for a walk because I need to be myself for my lecture. WM: Yeah, I’ll walk with you.
Richard Sennett (Chicago, 1943) is a sociologist, literary critic, writer and professor. His latest book, Living and Dwelling (2018) completes a trilogy also comprising The Craftsman (2008) and Together (2012).