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…

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