Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Richard Sennett, "The Architecture of Cooperation"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Feb 28, '12 6:28 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    I'm a bit under the weather today, but this is one not to miss. Richard Sennett, the GSD's Senior Loeb Fellow for 2012 (and faculty member at New York University and the London School of Economics) is talking about the "Architecture of Cooperation":

    “The theme of the lecture addresses a question: how can we design spaces in the city which encourage strangers to cooperate?  To explore this question, I'll draw on research in the social sciences about cooperation, based on my book, and relate this research to current issues in urban design.”—Richard Sennett

    6:32: Lots of PhD students in the house. No sign that we're starting anytime soon. GSD time is 10 minutes late.

    6:40: GSD's Jim Stockard is making introductions. (Right on time!) "We have an interest in public housing, so I'm especially pleased to introduce a graduate of [the public housing project] Cabrini–Green." Sennett left Chicago to come to "another difficult environment, Harvard." [ho ho ho] "He talks not just about the development of cities, but about how...cities impact individuals." We knew him from his early book, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life. As the world of work changed [away from factories], how did this change how people lived and felt about their lives and their cities?

    6:45: Richard Sennett takes the podium and says that he hasn't spent much time at Harvard since the 80s, but is glad to be back for this week and next. Says he "hopes we don't mind" if he shows up "in the tray" to see what we're up to.

    This book on Cooperation, called Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation is the second in a trilogy of books called homo faber." The first was The Craftsman.

    Cooperation is doing with others what we can't do on our own. RS is interested in the difficult kind of cooperation, with people we don't know or don't like. "Americans are having trouble cooperating with people who are different; that's a polite way of saying it. Cooperation has broken down in the political sphere. But it's equally true that cooperation has broken down in civil society."

    Two examples: children and neighbors. A study on cooperation and isolation in children in 22 countries found that in America, children become "fairly uncooperative creatures" when they are old enough to go to school. There are about 17 minutes of interaction between children and adults at a mealtime in the USA, whereas it is 1h20 in Germany.

    Americans also scored low in terms of neighborliness. The number of people who believed that their neighbors would come to help them (in a fire or domestic crisis) has dropped by 30% [in recent years].

    "My argument is that this problem magnifies and multiplies when the people you turn to for help are of a different race, class, sexual orientation (etc.) from yourself."

    1. Dialectic vs. Dialogic: Dialectic is: "you are lazy"/"No, I'm not." Dialogic is: "you are lazy/Well, I thought the work we did last week was very interesting." It involves the skill of seeking our interlocutor's intent rather than just reading the face value of their words. It is about problem-finding rather than problem-solving, and is open rather than closed. Sennett draws an analogy with craftsmanship here, in that craft looks at situations in a problem-finding manner.

    2. Declarative vs. Subjunctive: The Brits are good at the subjunctive. Start by saying (something like): "I was interested in your fascinating discussion; one thing that I thought was curious was..." By doing this, we have to get more involved with each other, opening up more of a space for interaction. This avoids a "fetish of domination," in which you just express your will. The subjunctive uses "the minimum force" instead of trying to hammer something to bend to your will. There is an analogy with craft here again.

    3. Sympathy vs. Empathy: Sympathy is when you identify with the other, and want to help. Empathy is when you use wonder. He draws on Elaine Scarry's ideas here. It's the difference between a "hot" and "cold" response. And there's a power relation. When we express sympathy--"I know what you're feeling"--it's a way of saying that "nothing is foreign to me." It's an "almost magisterial self" which is a mode of taking control. For Hannah Arendt, sympathy is close to condescension and pity: the emphasis is on ME and MY understanding. The colder domain of curiosity is related to a scientific approach, but also to, again, craftsmanship.

    Difficult cooperation situations are better served by dialogic, subjunctive, and empathetic exchanges, rather than dialectic, declarative, and sympathetic ones.

    What does this mean for architecture? "Here I want to talk about how the edge condition is related to this experience of the dialogic, subjunctive, and empathetic kind of exchange."

    A story about "a terrible mistake from my own planning practice." RS was working with a Spanish market, which they could locate at the center of Spanish Harlem or at its edge, on East 96 St, "on the boundary between a poor community and one of the richest places in the world, the Upper East Side." We made a terrible mistake and located it in the center.

    It was a lost opportunity in the city. If we located it on East 96th St, if a woman in a chinchilla coat in the middle of the night needed a quart of milk, she'd have gone to the market and would be in the physical presence of people who were very poor. It would have more social value.

    There would also be more money going into the market, but the main issue for RS is that this mixture has to happen corporeally, through one's bodily presence.

    Edges come in two forms: boundaries and borders. We know this at the most biological level, as the difference between cell walls and cell membranes. A cell wall is a container. A cell membrane is more flexible and open. Biologically, many edges in cells can switch from the wall condition, entirely focused on retention, to the membrane condition. Membranes are both porous and resistant: they're not simply open doors, but work out the balance between porosity and resistance. That combination of porosity and resistance is a spatial precondition for cooperation between people who differ.

    In many planning classes, they say that when there is a rigid separation between two communities, classes, or functions, the best thing you can do is erase these divisions. This is an error. We need to mark space, and space has to have some quality of protection as well as opening to the outside: a membrane condition.

    Let's now make a jump from the cell to ecologies. Here, a boundary is mean to mark a territory where interaction ends. Tigers mark boundaries: "if you cross this, you're in trouble." A boundary is a place where interaction diminishes. A border is a place where interaction between different species increases, where biological activity is greater. For example, the boundaries between different layers in the ocean depths area areas of intense feeding activity, or where the ocean meets the shore.

    Let's take another jump, to the urban. We know boundaries in the form of traffic walls that separate rich from poor communities. The flow of traffic is like a border; there is to be no interaction between rich and poor. Latin American cities, such as in Bogotá, or perhaps Mexico City, do this. Office campuses also do this: they remove people from interaction with the outside.

    When I spoke with people who worked at the Googleplex, they talked about how the whole world is taken care of for you: you're fed, your laundry is taken care of, etc. Seems great at first, but after several years, this boundary tends to be felt as deadening, and this one of the main reasons why people leave Google.

    7:30: We're not good at creating border spaces. As a result, it's more difficult for people to cooperate. In much of modern planning there is a deskilling of people. It's not an innocent process. It's not that we just happened to build this highway between the rich and poor neighborhoods.

    Our cliché about modern society is that it's a skill society. That's what our adored president tells us. The critics of that view say that this is not the case: the development of skills in some realms of society involves the deskilling of people in other realms. We have deskilled huge numbers of craftspeople for the advantage of cheaper labor. Skilling and deskilling are mutual; every time you add a skill, you subtract a skill.

    Smart cities deploy skills of a certain kind--e.g. Masdar, "where the cars drive themselves"--but they deskill in other ways. Certain ways of ordering the city come at the expense of taking away people's opportunity to develop the skills to navigate social relations.

    This also applies to the building envelope and to the insides of buildings. RS says he hasn't thought about this enough yet and wants to talk about this with folks here this week.

    Social relations require these three characteristics: dialogic, subjunctive, and empathetic. Physically, the architecture of this involves the experiences of edges. The boundary dominates over the border today, impeding the ways in which cooperation can be learned.


    Questions. I manage to get the microphone and ask about the edge condition between humans and the rest of our environment, and ask for his comments on sustainability.

    RS's answer is that yes, he thinks that the same logic applies: we should not think about making things that are completely self-sufficient, that don't need anything from the outside or any human maintenance. For example, Masdar is what we could describe in Norbert Weiner's terms as a closed system. Situations where thee is disequilibrium, disruption, and engagement are where he thinks he need to go.

    Another audience question (which I missed). RS: My first reviewer (about Uses of Disorder) was Jane Jacobs, and "I adored her." But her review was largely negative, because she saw that markets provide stability and are good for cities. Early on, I took from my teacher Erik Erikson the idea that we need disruption in order to pay attention. The boundary condition is imposed from above; the border is built from below. This building is incomplete and full of conflict. This is what makes psychological experience come to us; it's difficult, and real.

    Audience question: What do you think about gated communities? RS: For example, in Detroit, they abandoned a number of streets to create super-blocks which are essentially gated communities for the white and wealthy away from poorer minorities. [I always wonder why people say minorities if what they mean is 'black' or 'African American.' Blacks are not a "minority" in Detroit.]

    RS: The ghost in the machine in America is class. ...In the Netherlands [there are mixed-class neighborhoods], and it works because people are less tuned to class differences. In America we're not so good at being honest with ourselves; we're hyper-sensitive about differences, about ranking differences.

    "Can we get one question from the back? Then I want a scotch."

    Audience question: When you were talking about Masdar and the Google campus, you were talking about amenities and efficiencies at the expense of difference and empathy. With so many disciplines in the room that are reliant on technology, do you see ways of deploying technology that can encourage engagement, or do you see technology as inherently discouraging engagement?

    RS: You can give technology with a big "T" a bum rap. But the machines don't ask to be used in this way; we program them this way. Lewis Mumford, when I was here before, talked about how machines would lead to the [downfall of cities]. "This is bullshit." Machines didn't ask to be used the way they are in Masdar. There's a lot of good technology there. But there's also a war room in Masdar, with four or five guys--guys--who every day regulate the whole city. That's technology as a tool of domination.

    There's been a lot of discussion among sociologists about the malign effects of Facebook. Maybe you've read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together. And yet this same technology is used (in Africa) for social mobilization. The technology gets a bum rap. I'm interested in the fine details about this; how do we get more flexible technologies in cities? I'm very interested in hydraulic bollards. They are very complex technologically, and we should use it. There is high technology materials for buildings, like carbon fibers; why would we eschew this? The key is thinking of how to use it in a participatory way.

    Technology is too often used to deliver "efficiency" in a way that controls. We need to rethink technologies in a way that is humane; right now they're under control of corporations that are interested in standardization and control.

    Question from the audience about why he didn't talk about the protective qualities of borders, noting that he didn't use the word "protection." [Not true; he did use the word in relation to membranes.]

    RS: Mentions membranes. "I think we're so obsessed with issues of protection that we give away many things in the name of keeping 'safe.'" Sociologically there are all sorts of paradoxes about this. Communities with higher levels of crime are actually more sanguine about it. Cabrini-Green was mentioned so maybe I can talk about that. It was violent. It was a place where black kids learned to vent their rage at whites; we learned to cope with it, and I'd say most of the white and black kids did learn. That's a very different kind of community from one where you can't get away with anything: where you have lock-downs and lots of police. I feel that human beings are capable of dealing with complex, adverse situations--we do it all the time--but many of the social structures we live in assume that we're not capable.

    It's a tool for learning social competence which means that we don't have to be protected by someone else.

    End. Applause.

    Thanks for reading!


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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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