The Limits of Urbanism
Some books are published at the wrong time. Richard Sennett’s and Pablo Sendra’s Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruption in the City is one such book. Published by Verso during the early peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, the work is a type of manifesto for urban design that reignites many of the ideas laid out in Sennett’s 1970 classic The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. Sennett’s argument in his earlier work, which was widely influential in urban theory and beyond, is that modern urban planning (from Baron Haussmann through to Robert Moses) tends to stifle the organic qualities of cities that have, according to him, historically made them spaces of cosmopolitanism, openness, and cultural and economic innovation.
Much like his mentor and idol Jane Jacobs, Sennett posits the city as an open system, which doesn’t benefit from too much top-down interference and structural intervention. What reactionaries have long feared about the city — its crowds, its unpredictability and danger — are merits for Sennett. The designer’s job is to foster crowds, to permit and even encourage unexpected encounters, and to promote democratic control over urban development. Sennett has recently tended to sum up his approach through the concept of the “open city,” a city whose “order” comes precisely through the permission of a certain degree of disorder.
The recent book applies these lessons to the intervening half century, arguing that the problems of half a century ago still plague city planning today. While the heyday of modernist architecture may long have passed, its aversion to chance, contingency, and “openness” persists in the forms of real estate and financial control of the city’s resources, resulting in homogenization of neighborhoods and dispossession of poor and working class residents — all phenomena that Sennett and Sendra eagerly condemn. The latter half of the book is written by Sendra, a young architect and designer, who offers concrete design proposals to help foster the kind of space imagined by Sennett’s more speculative theories and principles, and many of these are commendable enough: an open-air market, pop-up cultural events and “happenings,” as well as more significant proposals, such as infrastructural projects where residents can interact with the design process. But despite all Sendra’s efforts, the book is unmistakably Sennett’s.
But it is not only, or even primarily, COVID-19 that has exposed the breezy optimism of Designing Disorder’s celebration of city life as the antidote to twenty-first century crisis; indeed, a reminder of public space’s importance might be valuable in a world shrunk down to the scale of the domestic for so many.
Considering Sennett’s earlier celebration of crowds and contact as the building blocks of cosmopolitan urbanism, reading Designing Disorder in April was strange, especially alongside news which featured endless photographs of empty streets and squares. Indeed, the authors’ citation of William Empson’s famous claim that “the arts result from overcrowding” now feels like an unintentional rebuttal to the idea that pandemics and plagues prefigure periods of cultural blossoming. It’s hard to know what such a theory as Sennett’s would have to say for a post-COVID urban life, where enforced isolation, widespread paranoia, and increased surveillance and ordinances are more likely than embracing the contingency Sennett recommends.
But it is not only, or even primarily, COVID-19 that has exposed the breezy optimism of Designing Disorder’s celebration of city life as the antidote to twenty-first century crisis; indeed, a reminder of public space’s importance might be valuable in a world shrunk down to the scale of the domestic for so many. There is a much more fundamental problem with the book’s outlook, revealing a disturbing blind spot in Sennett’s longstanding promotion of his “open city” idea: dramatically missing, especially given our current moment, is any rigorous discussion of social revolt, police violence, and the possibility of resistance to urban capitalism that would go beyond mere tinkering by professional architects, designers, and planners.
The only sustained discussion of race and racism in Designing Disorder comes in its introduction, written by Sennett. While brief, these few passages reveal wider problems with the author’s ideas writ large. Sennett reflects on the original influence of Uses of Disorder, his experience working for New York mayor John Lindsay at the time that the latter served on the Kerner Commission in 1967. Established in the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, the commission sought to make policy recommendations and broader societal diagnoses that would inform the federal government’s response to what Sennett describes as the “racial upheaval” of the late sixties. For Sennett, writing in the aftermath of the commission’s investigation, the crises of the American city were plainly a result of urban renewal programs and modernist planning initiatives that, in the post-war period in particular, had imposed a racialized order on the metropolis from above, stultifying the inhabitants of cities by segregating them by race and class. Cities, assumed to be a key site of enlightened modernity where all subjects could flourish equally, were failing in their cosmopolitan mission.
The riots of the 1960s were, for Sennett, a symptom, not a cause, of urban failure. Thus their “disorder” was seen to have a “use” in exposing the failed order that had produced them. But baked into his analysis is the assumption that these riots were merely spectacles illuminating the failure of city life to fulfil its cosmopolitan mission rather than precisely the kind of eruption of popular activity that could potentially make the city a socially transformative space. For Sennett, the uprisings of the 1960s in Watts, Detroit, Rochester, and so on, stand only as examples of “negative” disruption of the status quo, characterized in pathologizing terms as “violent urban disorders.” In language so clearly racist it’s astonishing it ever passed even the gentlest editorial scrutiny, Sennett goes on to claim that the insurrections were “infiltrated” and “corrupted” by “violent parasites” who set storefronts aflame. Far from justified outrage and an organized defiance of urban capitalism, Sennett only saw in the uprisings an inchoate and violent mob. It would be fair to wonder, without much optimism, what he has made of events of the past few months.
For Sennett, the only positive outcome of these historical uprisings was the establishment of the very commission for which he himself worked — a commission that, fifty years later, clearly and catastrophically failed to stem the tide of racist urban planning, police brutality, and economic dispossession. This is not to say that Sennett is entirely unaware of the persistence of such problems: indeed, the whole point of Designing Disorder, the authors claim, is to ask how and why cities remain spaces suffused with an inequality of power and resources, and what solutions can be found. The problem, though, particularly in the context of a new series of insurrections taking place in cities around the US and the world, is the operating principle from which Sennett sets about offering his solutions.
There is a much more fundamental problem with the book’s outlook, revealing a disturbing blind spot in Sennett’s longstanding promotion of his 'open city' idea: dramatically missing, especially given our current moment, is any rigorous discussion of social revolt, police violence, and the possibility of resistance to urban capitalism that would go beyond mere tinkering by professional architects, designers, and planners.
To properly explain how Sennett’s theoretical worldview can lead him so readily to dismiss the uprisings of people of color in such explicitly racist terms, it is necessary to examine much broader issues with his brand of so-called progressive urbanism. Central to Sennett’s view of city life is what he calls “self-knowledge,” which is informed by a heady mix of intellectual influences — Enlightenment philosophy and popularized strains of psychoanalysis. Drawing on Immanuel Kant’s description of the enlightenment as akin to growing into adulthood, Sennett speaks of the influence of Erik Erikson, German-born American psychoanalyst and Sennett’s professor at Harvard, whose theories were based on the “identity crisis” of adolescence, which he claimed was caused by a strong desire for new experiences on the one hand and fear of them on the other. If mismanaged, argues Erikson, the adolescent can become overwhelmed in either direction: repressed or overexposed.
Translated into Sennett’s urban theory, this becomes the idea that city life, by introducing city dwellers to new experiences, helps cultivate the kind of enlightened “adulthood” envisioned by Kantian philosophy — what Sennett calls “self-knowledge.” Ultimately, this comes from the exposure of the self to the other, so that if cities become places in which people are segregated from one another, repression sets in, and a lack of self-knowledge is the result. On the other hand, a well-designed city, in which, for example, “rich and poor” mingle in public space, lifts the aggregate self-knowledge of its citizens. Unexpected encounters, chance events: all are positive things for Sennett if they are brought about by an intelligent urban planner.
Sennett’s analysis of the riots and his description of these intellectual influences, alongside the idea of “self-knowledge,” occur within mere pages of one another. Why is this important? While not made explicit, it is clear that for Sennett the Black population of urban neighborhoods who rose up in the sixties are implicitly coded as un-enlightened subjects or subjects only on the road to self-knowledge. For Sennett, the rioters and “looters” failed to listen to the “leaders of street protests” and ruined what promised to be an otherwise peaceful occupation of public space. We can recognize here many of the tropes that have emerged in the wake of the insurrections against police violence and the carceral state in recent months. There is the veneration of a mythical Black “leadership” contrasted to an uncontrollable underclass whose lack of tutelage threatens to undermine an otherwise “good cause.” There is also the assumption that insurrectionary “violence,” rather than being a justified reaction to a system that deliberately dispossesses and enacts violence against its subjects, is simply a symptom of the “disorientation” and “confusion” wrought by an overly bureaucratic and poorly designed city — an immature lashing out, as opposed to a coherent strategy of resistance.
One could argue in defence that Sennett is simply not a fan of riots. Tellingly, though, he goes out of his way to unfavorably compare the events of the sixties with the July Revolution in Paris of 1830, in which thousands of working-class Parisians barricaded the streets and went into pitched battle with Charles X’s soldiers. Guided by the writings of Benjamin Constant, a contemporary liberal reformer who simultaneously disdained both the authoritarianism of the monarchy and the “violent ideologies of the Revolution,” Sennett sees the riots of 1830 as an exception to both unbridled anarchy and repressive state power: “vigilantly guarded by the citizens in revolt […] the streets were, for a few weeks, disciplined spaces.” Perhaps they were, but the framing here explicitly pits the “disciplined” revolutionaries of an idealized past against a “corrupted” Black proletariat.
It’s an all-too-familiar move, and this coding of the enlightened, self-knowing subject as inherently white and European, with the rest of the world constantly catching up, is as old as the Enlightenment itself. That we find it so clearly restated here by a revered progressive urbanist and published in the pages of one of the most significant radical presses, shows how little the needle has moved in many ways. If cities are spaces of self-discovery, such discovery for Sennett is coded as white and male. Despite the professed concern at the outset of Designing Disorder for poor people of color in urban neighborhoods, there is almost no mention of race, colonialism or police violence throughout the remainder of the text. Neither Rodney King nor Michael Brown are mentioned as casualties of the “closed” city they disdain. The opening “example” of race only serves to establish a set of parameters regarding who the failed subjects of the city are. Thus, the book’s subsequent “solutions” to what the authors call the “iron cage” of the city (with little discussion or awareness of those living in actual cages) amount only to the idea that increased contact between individuals of different races and socioeconomic positions will by some magical process produce an aggregate ethical transformation in cities. Racism becomes a matter of each individual’s progress along the road of “self-knowledge,” something like the urbanist equivalent of Robin DeAngelo’s White Fragility, but without even that book’s direct confrontation with issues of race and racism.
Sennett’s urbanism, like so many theories, only works in its own little theoretical vacuum. It is unable to tolerate any problems that can’t be solved by individuals “working on themselves” while designers tinker around the edges of their own worlds, helping with the process but never showing solidarity or throwing themselves into the struggle. At the very least, Designing Disorder has the merit of being a welcome reminder of the limits of much contemporary urbanism when it comes to reckoning with urbanization’s integral role in racial capitalism and neo-imperialism.
Jacob Soule grew up in the UK, before moving to the States to pursue a PhD in Literature at Duke University, which they received in December of last year. This upcoming academic year, he will be teaching at Auburn University. He also has experience working in an editorial capacity for academic journals, and last summer, he completed an editorial internship with the Amsterdam-based Failed Architecture, an online forum for architectural criticism and urban studies. Find him at LinkedIn here.
Chung Park is a Korean-born American artist based in Los Angeles, California. He received his BFA from Boston University and has shown his work internationally and in the US. He recently completed a residency in Korea before relocating to LA in 2018. He participated in a group show of tiny works in the spring of 2019 at Serious Topics, LA that was featured in Artillery Magazine, The Art Newspaper and others. He also donated and sold work at the “Korean American for Black Lives” fundraiser and online auction organized by the Korean American Artist Collective earlier in July 2020.
Chung Park is a member of GYOPO, a coalition of diasporic Korean artists, curators, writers, cultural producers, and art professionals based in Los Angeles, and the Korean American Artist Collective.
Chung loves all kinds of food, basketball (which he dearly misses), and continues his quest of finding beauty in everything. He lives by the following quote by Agnes Martin – “…what you’re supposed to do is stay in the midst of life. …What we make, is what we feel.”
About the Artwork
la 29 | sepia pen ink on paper | 6×9 | 2020
I began the “la #” series of sepia pen ink drawings from a stack of paper I had brought from Korea when I moved to LA in the summer of 2018. la 29 is one I had completed right before the first official lock-downs in LA due to the pandemic. The drawings are an exploration of touch, atmosphere and familiarity. I approach each drawing without any preconceived structures and let observation and experience take hold until I arrive at a final image. I ultimately summon nature and nondescript interiors in my work – to let viewers arrive at their own definitions.
In la 29 specifically, a gate or an image resembling a doorway exists and beyond it an exotic, abstracted landscape. The figures live around this frame but are turned away as if the natural world on the other side is of no consequence.
These drawings remind the viewer to notice the beauty among us and look.
la 30 | sepia pen ink on paper | 6×9 | 2020
la 30 is the most recently completed drawing from the series. The drawings are an exploration of touch, atmosphere and familiarity. Themes of home, landscape and interiors are found through various lines and dots, marked with intention and care.
My hope is that these drawings remind the viewer that beauty can be seen and felt in the most trivial of spaces.