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Metropolitan Opera

The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 266 pp., $24.95

The Conscience of the Eye is the third volume of what has developed into a trilogy—or at least a triad—on urban culture. The first two volumes were The Fall of Public Man (1977) and Palais Royal (1986). The first was a sociological study, the second a novel; the present book combines in about equal proportions reflections on architecture and on the cultures in which building is grounded, meditations on the visions and aversions people come to have in cities, and vignettes of New York City. In trying to suggest what has gone wrong with the modern city Sennett provides additional informal divagations on such matters as the work of Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin, on the history of the drama, and the story of glass.

These are very different sorts of writing, and Sennett’s prose is variously effective in dealing with them. The city vignettes, of Gramercy Park and environs, of the old Turkish Bath on the East Side, or a stroll from Greenwich Village north to a midtown restaurant, are relaxed and affectionate. Mr. Sennett distinguishes the qualities of the different neighborhoods without overloading his images either with nostalgia or with sociological terminology. The vignettes are relatively few, therefore uncrowded; they are about parts of the city close to where he apparently lives and works (he is a professor at NYU); and the thought occasionally crosses a reader’s mind, What are we doing here? Why not Staten Island or Chinatown or the Savoy Ballroom as it used to be of a Sunday afternoon? There is of course no limit to these Why Nots? and Mr. Sennett has absolute authority over his own boundaries. But by contrast with the other sections of the book, his sketches and promenades, though charming, can’t help seeming desultory.

For Mr. Sennett’s meditations on architecture, culture, and vision are nothing if not abstract, allusive, and far-reaching. They are also, at times, evanescent; having been generated for a particular occasion, they are pushed aside under pressure from different occasions, and wind up in something like limbo. This diffuseness is perhaps inevitable when one has so many particulars to reconcile with such large generalizations. How people relate to living in cities and how cities can be adapted to the ways people want to live in them are topics not only limitless but surpassingly slithery. From classical to medieval times, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, around America, over to Rome, and down Fourteenth Street, Sennett moves the reader at a snappy clip, reflecting along the way no clocks and cannons, elevators and plate glass, fortifications, Greek temples, and Gothic spires. He has a talent for drawing analogies and sometimes for extrapolating from a text or an idea; but while his range of references is very wide, it isn’t always precise or illuminating. What is a common reader to make of the assertion that Mark Rothko’s Number 15, created in 1948, is closer to his last, untitled paintings in 1969 than it is to Personage Two or Aquatic Drama of 1946? (The allusions are on page 244.) Maybe some reader will know what the 1857 Haughwout Building in New York was like (page 58), but will he be just as quick to conjure up an image of Borromini’s church of Sant’ Ivo in Rome and Guarino Guarini’s church of San Lorenzo in Turin (p. 105)? At least we are told that Sant’ Ivo has undulating walls, which one can imagine, but in the account of San Lorenzo one finds just a reference to flexible ground plans that create mysterious spaces of great drama and no obvious purpose. Sennett’s book has no illustrations, and his accounts of buildings such as San Lorenzo are unfortunately more allusive than descriptive.

Sennett’s gift for sonorous historical generalization sometimes serves him a little too well. “The built mass of medieval churches betrays a mathematical precision far more refined than that of much modern engineering” (p. 13). Does this mean all medieval churches, or just some? Surely the rough chapels patched together in Rome out of materials scavenged from classical ruins are not being offered as models of precision engineering. (And of course it was not too many years ago when the rough and savage individuality of the Gothic craftsmen was being praised as the highest evidence of free and vital artistic achievement.) Or again, when Sennett wants to contrast the austere radicalism of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin with what it proposed to replace, he has no hesitation about running down nineteenth-century architecture as a whole: “the nineteenth-century insistence on sweetness and light…the worthy, healthy, organic, and boring quasi-suburbs, dedicated to the proposition that coziness is life” (p. 171). This is using metonymy like a butcher’s knife. In addition to the cozy suburbs with which it often replaced abominable shanties, the nineteenth century was the age of the multiform Gothic revival, of Baron Haussmann and his rationalizing counterparts in other European cities, of the vivid inventions of Antonio Gaudi, and of much, much more. The development of modular cast-iron construction, though it didn’t solve the problem of mass housing (and what has?), provides yet another example of the nineteenth century’s searching and prolific energy.

Because he has a great variety of topics to cover in surveying the shapes, patterns, and spiritual energies that give life to the cities of the world and their special configurations, Sennett often uses shorthand to pass over the stages of a development that he wants to consider from his own generally unhistorical angle. Why did early passion plays, after being staged for years inside the church, migrate onto the porches and then into the church-yards, before pouring out into the open streets? Not just because the Devil, as Sennett suggests, was becoming comic and human-sized but also because, when the actors ceased to be clerics speaking Latin and became laymen speaking the vernacular, audiences multiplied and demanded more space. Again, Sennett deplores the decision that led the designers of Central Park to cut buried roadways across it instead of allowing traffic, as in the Bois de Boulogne, to meander along agreeable leafy allées. But of course the situations are utterly different. Central Park stretches for two-and-a-half miles down the center of a narrow island; without transverse passages it would be an impossible barrier to crosstown traffic. Most of the walks and roadways in the park are at grade. The traverses are a practical necessity, utilitarian, and minimal; and since they were planned in 1857, long before the automobile was so much as thought of, they can be counted as a rare example of successful foresight in city planning.

Sennett is by no means an uninformed man; he has a wide range of allusions, analogies, and illustrations which, precisely because they aren’t hackneyed, often strike off speculative sparks in many directions. A single set of technical improvements, as he shows, may flower into a whole array of new forms and functions—witness for example the way the increasing use of glass in twentieth-century architecture alters a variety of relations between exteriors and interiors. In conjunction with collateral innovations such as elevators, steel-girder framing, and air conditioning, the building sheathed almost entirely in glass has created some of the most striking visual effects of modern cities. Especially the use of mirror glass in buildings closely situated but not formally related creates, as in downtown Houston, a glittering forest of reflections and mutual distortions that belies the stiffness and coldness of the individual structures. I happen to think the Beaubourg Museum (or Centre Pompidou) in Paris is one of the world’s uglier structures, but it plays interesting games with insides and outsides, many of which depend on artful applications of glass.

Sennett’s reflections invite us to think of other special uses of glass in the many shapes and qualities of fiberglass, in the many ceramics that enter into automobiles, airplanes, spacecraft. It’s an amusement to enumerate other applications, such as glass elevators hung on the outside of buildings, revolving doors, fiber telephone cables, lasers, one-way windows, and other creations of the new glittering technology.

A natural consequence of geometrical patterning both of buildings and of cities was the creation of grid communities, both horizontal and vertical, characterized by neutral spaces into which almost any kind of social content could be poured. Here it’s possible to think that Sennett’s commitment to New York City has impinged a little on his larger vision. Of all the world’s metropolitan centers, Manhattan Island is surely the most strictly geometrical and grimly quadrilateral. But in Tokyo, which is just as oppressive overall, the cultivation or preservation of a certain amount of local chaos has had the effect of giving parts of the city an unexpected human scale. There are neighborhoods in the shadow of skyscrapers, built under railway overpasses, or tunneled under other tunnels, where people live in almost pastoral isolation without ever venturing out into the big city around them.

As a New Yorker, Sennett has little sympathy for the canyons lined by stone and glass boxes that make up so much of midtown. But what is to be put in their place? With one side of his mind, Sennett seems to cherish a residual fondness for the stately home of the late eighteenth century, set securely in its own park and with a liveried gateman by the carriageway to keep the rabble out. But that’s hardly a practical program for a megalopolis; and Sennett is sincerely, if not very effectually, concerned to envisage an urban pattern that would accomodate inevitable differences of class, race, values, and ideals.

As an up-to-date man ought, he sees the discontents and frustrations of civilization, but is not ready to do without the policeman (to put things at their bluntest) who keeps his fellow citizens in line. Social unity and community are among his ideals, but since they are largely in short supply nowadays, Sennett must content himself with imagining how things might or ought to be. If I understand correctly his concluding parable, he would like some Apollonian, enlightened symmetries at the heart of things; but it is not easy to convert the experience he refers to with a recognizable world. He wants to escape the limitations of “enclosed environment,” yet that is, he says, the only one in which “the free play of subjective life” takes place (p. 244). He believes the life of a street “becomes a humane scene simply when people begin to look around and adjust their behavior in terms of what they see” (pp. 247–248)—which may seem to make a slum as good as, or better than, an esplanade. He expects any workable approach to city living will be restless and not exempt from change. This last conclusion is a not very startling one to emerge from New York City, which has done very little but change since I was first introduced to it some time ago.

A recent television series, Sky-scraper, described in some detail the process of erecting a very large, though not supercolossal, office building on the site of the old Madison Square Garden, approximately at Eighth Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street. The calculation of the building’s impact on its environment, the interrelated questions of how long it would take to erect and how much it would cost, the questions of access and egress for employees, the difficulties of fire protection, water and sewer facilities, the intricate networks of contractors and subcontractors with all the associated problems of their labor relations and their cruelly powerful (if often mysterious) “connections”—all this, and much more, had to be taken into account, very little of it, it must be said, recognizable from Mr. Sennett’s book.

Everything involved in building this single structure (and on the television screen it was plain that only the barest fraction could be represented) left the viewer with a terrifying impression of how things are actually done in building the big cities of America. (Naturally, the graft couldn’t be represented, but how to imagine it wasn’t an enormous factor?) So where in this boiling caldron of greed and violence could Enlightened Apollonian values come in? Where does sweet reasonableness get to utter a peep? No doubt things are at their worst where the sums of money are biggest and the channels for distributing it are well worn. But where money is the overriding interest, as across the board in the building or rebuilding of cities it is, talk of ideal values like community and development of self can’t help seeming beside the point.

In the thick strands of life there are swatches where the only relevant question is how much can you charge per square foot. There are technical premises underlying many of Sennett’s dissatisfactions with the planning of modern cities which are based on his analysis of some medieval and Renaissance towns. On these matters my son, Nicholas Adams, professor of Art at Vassar College, can speak with more authority than I can. I have therefore asked him to say a few words, which follow.

To comment on this book, I should first try to restate its thesis. Modern culture, Professor Sennett writes early in The Conscience of the Eye, “suffers from a divide between the inside and the outside…between subjective experience and worldly experience, self and city.” This division “sets us off not just from our own origins but also from non-European cultures….” Using a series of historical and contemporary examples, drawn from architecture, literature, and art, Sennett sets out to explain this phenomenon.

The single ideal “city” unaffected by this “division” is that of the ancient Greeks, “The temples, markets, playing fields, meeting places, walls, public statuary, and paintings of the ancient city represented the culture’s values in religion, politics, and family life.” The evil figure who created the “division” in society is Saint Augustine. The Judeo-Christian tradition, Sennett argues, is “at its very roots, about experiences of spiritual dislocation and homelessness.” The Christian builder, unlike his Greek counterpart, “knew only that secular space had to look unlike sacred space…. [T]he secular buildings of these cities grew jumbled together, the streets twisted and inefficient, while the churches were carefully sited, their construction precise, their design elaborately calculated.” Only a page later Sennett notes that the churches of the medieval city were “set seemingly at random in relation to other more indifferently built secular structures,” which is a little confusing. Whatever the case, thus “was Augustine’s religious faith [given] concrete form.” The mark of Western urbanism, Sennett concludes, is the contrast between the careful definition of sacred space and the irregularity of secular space. That division rests at the heart of what Sennett perceives to be the fractured values of our own cities.

Quite apart from what Sennett seems able to infer about the medieval city from Augustine’s religious faith, no one could possibly think that the construction of, say, Florentine or Sienese urban secular space was any less completely wrought or its lines any less carefully determined than its religious counterpart. If one did not know the particular nature of religious or civic architectural typology a viewer from the air would have no way to pick out the civic or religious center of either Florence or Siena on the basis of the order or regularity of its open spaces. Indeed Sennett’s entire argument is back to front. What in fact seems more remarkable is that medieval churches were often the site of elaborate business activities associated with fairs, markets, and the like. Far from creating a cordon sanitaire around the cathedral, there is a startling interpenetration of religious and civic business, one that continued well into the modern era. Cathedrals in the Middle Aes, one might say, were more like what we would think of as civic centers than the civic centers themselves.

Once one has dismantled the big idea that is supposed to underlie this book it is hard to know where to go after that. If it is not true that the Judeo-Christian tradition is responsible for this terrible (and, as Sennett admits, unacknowledged) division in Western society, one may wonder where does it come from. Or whether it exists at all. Or whether, as some of the later chapters might convince us, it is true mainly of those neighborhoods of New York City frequented by Sennett.

By and large Sennett employs a simplified kind of visual analysis that seems mostly to concern what he saw when he visited the cities he writes about. But reading the character of a city is a matter of greater complexity. Recent studies by Joseph Connors and Marvin Trachtenberg, for example, have shown how much can be known about the city by those equipped to interpret it in the light of the history that shaped it.* Connors’s description of the jockeying of the religious orders in Baroque Rome to establish visual precedence is a masterful explanation of street formation. Connors also reveals how Church authorities play urban politics in the so-called secular city. Trachtenberg’s study of the formation of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence discloses the underlying mathematical principles of visual arrangement practiced by the Florentines in laying out their civic center and its town hall. By contrast with the work of Connors and Trachtenberg, or that of earlier historians of the city such as John Summerson, Richard Krautheimer, John Coolidge, or James Ackerman, Sennett’s theory of spiritual dislocation has the advantage of being a big idea; but it has the disadvantage of being unconvincing. Economic, political, and technological factors that influence the form of the city are barely mentioned.

Elsewhere there is much to bother the reader: Paul Scheerbart (p. 106) was not an engineer; the French architect is Ange-Jacques Gabriel, not Jacques-Ange (p. 91); Elisha Graves Otis, inventor of the safety elevator, did not design the Haughwout Building in New York (p. 58). [Nicholas Adams’s comment ends here.]

This provoking and troubling book, then, raises many more questions than it offers answers. Among its other challenges is that of distinguishing real problems from those created by the author’s inadvertence. When the spires on “many medieval churches” are dismissed as nineteenth-century additions without a single name being named or a single explanation offered, there’s a perceptible feeling of free flight. When Rastignac in Balzac’s Illusions perdues, instead of the book’s hero, Lucien, issues his famous challenge to Paris from atop Montparnasse, when artillery shells explode in 1494, a couple of centuries before the necessary fuses were invented, a level-headed reader will start to feel spooked. Generalizations crumble between the fingers, and even specific facts disintegrate. The footing is treacherous everywhere; chasms gape on either side. But the reader who advances with a proper mixture of prudent caution and independent speculation may well get something from the experience besides migraines and vertigo.

Letters

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life? May 30, 1991

  1. *

    Joseph Connors, “Alliance and Enmity in Roman Baroque Urbanism,” Römisches Jahrbuch für Kunst-geschichte 25 (1989), pp. 209–294. Marvin Trachtenberg, “What Brunelleschi Saw: Monument and Site at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 47 (1988), pp. 14–44.

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