Balancing Act: Richard Sennett’s “Building and Dwelling”

By Josh StephensJune 15, 2018

Balancing Act: Richard Sennett’s “Building and Dwelling”

Building and Dwelling by Richard Sennett

IN HIS NEW BOOK, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Richard Sennett does not restrain himself from a little name-dropping. Several luminaries, dead and alive, make appearances. There’s Saskia Sassen, who happens be his wife, and, of course, there’s Jane Jacobs, with whom Sennett jawed at the White Horse Tavern in New York City and visited on occasion during her exile in Toronto.

Allow me to do the same.

Two years ago, I was doing research for an article on Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the seminal treatise in the current back-to-the-city movement. I arranged an interview with Sassen, oft-credited with coining the term “global city.” After generously sharing her thoughts on Jacobs, Sassen asked me quite offhandedly if I would also like to interview her husband for the piece whom, she helpfully explained, was Richard Sennett. And so, I did. I did not know that Sennett was, at the very moment, working on one of the more sprawling, erudite books to be written about the history and future of urbanism in a great while.

Building and Dwelling, Sennett’s 15th book on urbanism, is an intellectual romp that — in just the first four pages — includes encounters with St. Augustine, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Immanuel Kant, and Nicholas Negroponte. At once trying to build a modern philosophy of cities while acknowledging, as he did most famously in The Uses of Disorder, the inherent messiness of cities, Sennett uses a compelling framework and aspires to an admirable, if elusive, goal. The framework is that of ville and cite. The former refers to the physical entity of the city, and the latter refers to its human element: how people live in, think about, and relate to their cities — hardware and software, for lack of a better metaphor. Sennett’s goal is nothing less than an articulation of how to achieve, or at least think about, the ethical city in the 21st century. It’s no small task.

Sennett takes full advantage of the breadth and vagueness of the concept of “ethics” to discuss seemingly anything and everything that comes into his mind. His title derives from a Heidegger essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Sennett notes, “The absence of commas indicates that these three concepts form one experience.” Thus, parts of Building and Dwelling read like streams of consciousness, in which Sennett leaps from one concept to another and one thinker to another, philosophers and urbanists (some prominent, some obscure) coming and going breathlessly. A mention of Aesop’s fables on one page is followed by a description of Songdo, South Korea, on the next. Street life in Medellín gives way to another reference to Balzac, then to William James, and then to Leibniz (“Leibniz zooms out; James zooms in”). Building and Dwelling is exhilarating and readable, but it is also demanding. Sennett seems to assume the reader knows what or whom he is citing and forces the reader to fill in transitions to keep track of the ways that his ideas weave together.

Readers, therefore, might benefit from having at least a casual knowledge of philosophy and/or urban planning. Background knowledge of Heidegger, specifically, helps locate a central thread; Heidegger influences Sennett with an abstract rumination on physical buildings, the act of dwelling, the act of building, and the act of thinking about all three. Heidegger does not so much get at the essence of these things as he does raise questions about their complex relationship to each other and to humanity — much as Sennett does, just with examples from the material world.

City life always wavers along continua that are bounded by unattainable poles, and so dualities run throughout Building and Dwelling. Sennett concerns himself with public and private; past and future; formal and informal; technological and analog; freedom and order; surveillance and anonymity; diversity and homogeneity; democracy and despotism; logic and emotion; local and metropolitan; past and future; speed and incrementalism; and Moses and Jacobs, among many others. His theme of ville and cite recurs frequently, and his title — to which he rarely refers directly — expresses a similar duality of object and experience. Indeed, it implicitly refers to the contrast between the individual in the city, who might inhabit a building and make it a dwelling, and that of the collective city itself, which is a “home” to thousands or millions.

Naturally, the good life lies on different points along the continuum for different people, which is, if anything, the ultimate message of Building and Dwelling. Planners, builders, and urban residents themselves must always seek the right balance. They must respect that the balance can shift, and that it shifts differently for everyone.

Sennett arrives at the idea of an “open city” to express a host of virtues that he believes should permeate the ethical city. Openness entails diversity, neighborliness, evolution, appropriate technology, and novelty. He writes, “Ethically, an open city would of course tolerate differences and promote equality, but would more specifically free people from the straitjacket of the fixed and the familiar, creating a terrain in which they could experiment and expand their experience.” He proposes an appealing way for city-dwellers to conceive of their half-intimate, half-anonymous relationship to each other: “‘Sociality’ names feeling a kind of limited fraternity with others based on sharing an impersonal task. That limited fraternity arises when people are doing something together rather than being together.”

For all of his focus on philosophy, Sennett spends plenty of time in the real world. He travels to the MIT Media Lab, where he ponders the relationship between technology and urbanism. He strolls through Haussmann’s Paris, wondering about the morality of his boulevards. He explores the new South Korean “smart city” of Songdo. He returns to the White Horse Tavern, and he explains how a recent stroke, and its debilitating effects, caused him to rethink his relationship with the city. On that count, Building and Dwelling reads as a kind of coda: Sennett may be collecting all of his loose thoughts in contemplation of his own mortality.

In some cases, Sennett is judicious in how he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy and history. In other cases, he seems to stumble onto urban experiences by happenstance and decides to make a big deal out of them. This serendipity includes his visits to Google’s Greenwich Village offices, which he critiques for being an immersive, “open plan” office that tries to keep workers contained and productive and discourages them from exploring the urban bounty that lies just outside. It “derives from the classic company towns of industrial era.” However distinctive this East Coast Googleplex may be, it is surely nothing compared to its real headquarters and probably does not deserve quite the attention Sennett pays it. Goodness knows, there are probably Goldman Sachs drones up the street who work in far longer houses than any Googler does.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, an odd character named Mr. Sudhir appears in a chapter about Delhi. He sells used, possibly stolen, electronic equipment in a makeshift public market. The market’s informality fascinates Sennett, as does Mr. Sudhir’s murky status. To Sennett, he represents a midpoint between public and private, official and informal, ethical and unethical. Mr. Sudhir becomes Sennett’s foil, appearing repeatedly, sometimes gratingly, as Sennett wonders what Mr. Sudhir would make of this or that.

Sennett’s strongest, and possibly most concrete, chapter concerns diversity: the Holy Grail to cosmopolitans and a fatal virus to nationalists. Invoking everything from the current refugee crisis in Europe to the original Jewish Ghetto in medieval Venice, Sennett asks questions that few peoples ask until it’s too late: “How do you dwell in a place where you do not belong? Conversely, in such a place, how should others treat you?” Sennett makes a compelling connection between these questions and the built form of a place. He argues that physical homogeneity begets and reinforces ethnic homogeneity, sometimes with disastrous humanitarian and aesthetic results. He writes:

Exclusion isn’t just a matter of keeping out Jews or other Others, it also involves simplifying the look and construction of the place so that the place fits one kind of person, but not others. Mixed forms and uses invite mixed users. Whereas in a stripped-down environment, the more form becomes simple, clear and distinct, the more it defines who belongs there and who doesn’t.

This chilling critique relates to a subsequent conclusion Sennett draws about prescriptive planning: “The master plan divides a city up into a closed system where each place and function relates logically to other places.” Not surprisingly, Sennett has choice words for the great modernist and self-promoter Le Corbusier, whose Plan Voisin called for the demolition of Paris and its replacement with highways and apartment towers. Corbusier also co-wrote the 1933 Athens Charter, the decidedly authoritarian manifesto that codified the aesthetic principles that became the International Style — the signature architecture style of the 20th century. In short, Corbusier opposed urban complexity and, therefore, pretty much all that Sennett holds dear.

With a few exceptions, Sennett’s book is not a prescription for urban planners, however. It includes no practical advice and makes virtually no reference to current planning trends, at least not by name. The dangers of logic arguably reach their apex in so-called smart cities, which Sennett — as much a futurist as a historian — views with equal parts intrigue and skepticism. Referring to smart cities that use technology to dictate city life and surveil citizens, he warns, “By using machines, people would stop learning. They would become stupefied. The prescriptive smart city is a site for this stupefication.” Sennett, though, holds out hope for technology that can “coordinate” urban life, by exposing citizens to new ideas and enabling them to understand their worlds and voice their opinions more clearly than they currently can. To planners who would reflexively adopt new technologies, Sennett warns, “There is nothing better about the past just because it has already happened. So, too, there is nothing better about the new just because it is unlike the past.”

Ultimately, Sennett resorts to an ancient metaphor to explain how planners ought to view cities. He writes: “Cities aren’t farmed today. Instead they are master-planned. The fully grown plant is treated as the plan.” Sennett naturally favors an “organic” approach. To mix metaphors, he observes that well-crafted objects are enduring and repairable. Likewise, “a good-quality environment is one which can be repaired.”

What Sennett does do — probably better than any other scholar could — is pull urban planners out of the daily grind of pragmatism. He offers the sort of intellectual provocation that can make inquisitive planners question just about everything they do and everything they think about cities. That’s not to say that Building and Dwelling will cause anyone to abandon their principles. Rather, it presents a time-out for the reassessment of principles and a reminder that city-building is, to invoke another duality, as much an intellectual endeavor as it is a pragmatic one.


Based in Los Angeles, Josh Stephens writes about urban planning and related topics. He is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report.

LARB Contributor

Based in Los Angeles, Josh Stephens writes about urban planning and related topics. He is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report. His website is


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