Stimulating dissonances

In light of the increase in anti-Islam demonstrations and mosque protests in Europe, it is worth thinking back to the concepts of tolerance espoused by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. We should also reflect on the importance of town planning for the peaceful coexistence of different cultures. Any truly open urban environment is full of people who vary widely in terms of financial status, ethnicity, politics, sexual orientation and lifestyle and yet share the same space.

By Richard SennettIn the spirit of Ephraim Lessing, most of us would like to believe that it is possible for all the different people who live in Europe to enjoy a life of peaceful coexistence. In light of this, I would like to share some thoughts on the issue of tolerance, as I believe a great deal of nonsense has been spoken on this particular subject. Nonsense in the sense that many people seem to believe tolerance is a peaceful state in which people live together in harmony. In my view, this is an illusion. It is an illusion that coexistence means living your life in a peaceful state. It is more a case of living your life in a state of ‘upheaval’, not in the sense of unrest or violence, but in the sense that coexisting with people who are different to you may be something of a roller coaster ride. We need to find a way of coming to terms with this fact and trying to enjoy the ride. Personally, I think we need to start viewing the frictions we might experience with others as a positive rather than always as something negative. This means that we need to think of these potential frictions as something positive that encourages us to think about our own way of life, whatever the disruptions these frictions may cause.

In this article, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of this issue, namely where we might find a space in which people can experience this kind of diversity and all the unpleasant, stimulating, destabilising and uncertain self-perception that goes with it. I believe this kind of space can be created in a particular type of town or city.

At this point, I would like to quote from Immanuel Kant's excellent essay on the subject of peace that he wrote in 1784. In the essay he uses a very insightful expression: "The crooked timber that man is made out of." Any genuinely open urban environment will be full of people who vary widely in terms of their financial status, ethnicity, politics, sexual orientation and lifestyle and yet share the same space. Does this crookedness need to be straightened out? Albert Speer obviously thought so. He tried to mould the streets, parks, office buildings and houses of German cities, and especially Berlin, into a uniform shape. Today there are other forces at work that contribute to this straightening, including the growing financial inequality that is helping to divide formerly very diverse residential areas from each other. Our towns and cities are becoming more heterogeneous, but not more mixed.

The most popular form of residential area these days is the ‘gated community’. This is what people want if they are given the choice. Kant would not be happy if he could see what is happening in today's towns and cities. If we look at the quote in its entirety, what he wrote was: "Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built." If we accept this, then good citizens should accept neighbours who are different to them without attempting to straighten them out. Kant believed that even the most diverse of people could live peacefully together. He was of the view that people could not only live together in a relatively chaotic space with all its corners, side streets and unexpected experiences but also actually enjoy life there. He was committed to the ideal of a society that is capable of living with complexity. Personally, I believe that words such as ‘multicultural’ and ‘inclusive’ are now worn-out clichés. I'm starting to wonder whether the right conditions for encounters cannot actually be physically created, whether towns and cities can be designed in such a way that the appropriate spaces are created to encourage encounters.

At this point I would like to give you a short insight into my book The Open City, in which I describe what I believe it would take to design such a city. I work on the assumption that a city will always require dividing lines between distinct areas and I generally tend to differentiate between two types of dividing line: borders and boundaries. These are the two fundamental types of dividing line that traditionally develop between different parts of a city.

The open city

The problem that we have today is that we tend to create more boundaries and so create closed spaces. We seem to have forgotten how to create borders. I started to develop these ideas around 15 years ago when I began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spent more time in the company of natural scientists. I met some biologists there who suggested that this difference between open borders and closed boundaries exists in nature too – at least under certain circumstances.

Let’s take a look at the difference between a cell membrane and a cell wall. A cell membrane selectively allows the exchange of substances between the outside and inside of the cell. The cell wall, on the other hand, retains as much as possible inside the cell; it effectively forms a rigid boundary. The cell membrane is open in a very special way, in as much as it is both permeable and resistant at the same time. When we think of something being open, we tend to think of an open door, which we can simply walk through. However, the concept of the open door cannot be realistically applied to human coexistence. Openness can still mean that tensions exist – the kind of tensions that are apparent in the interplay between permeability and resistance. The cell membrane tries to take in as many nutrients as possible, while at the same time acting to keep what is necessary inside the cell. It is this tension between permeability and resistance that creates openness, not the absence of tension – this is a natural phenomenon.

The tiger's no-go area

In contrast, I'd like to use the territory of the tiger in Asia as an example of a natural boundary. Tigers create boundaries by marking what they see as their territory. This territory then becomes a no-go area, a space that the tiger effectively bans others from entering. The difference here is that the territory is an area of limited activity. So in the natural world, the difference between a border and a boundary is that a border defines an area of high activity between different species, while a boundary defines a dead space. My argument is that this principle can be applied to humans and their activities too. When you bring people together in different situations, you create life, but when you separate them, you are effectively sentencing the city to a slow death.

I once took a hair-raising helicopter flight over São Paulo and saw a typical example of the kind of boundary often created within cities. On the left hand side of a wall was a favela, on the other side was a very expensive apartment block. Every floor had a swimming pool on the balcony. The swimming pools overlooked the favela and the favela looked up at the swimming pools. When people ask me "How come there's so much violence in São Paulo?" "Why can't the people there get along with each other?" I show them one of the photos I took from the helicopter and this gives them a clear impression of what I mean by the difference between a border and a boundary.

So, how do we create a permeable border like a cell membrane in an urban context? Let me give you an example from the city of Copenhagen. In the old part of the city there is a home for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Many of the residents with Alzheimer's are brought out to visit the local cafés instead of being kept out of sight – this is an example of permeability. This means that there is a permeable relationship between the inside and outside world. It may not always be particularly comfortable for a tourist if you have to sit in a café with three people suffering from advanced stages of Alzheimer's – and I can say this from firsthand experience – but it is reality. The truth lies within.

To round off these examples, I would like to say something about liminality. These dividing lines that I have described to you are liminal spaces and I would like to briefly refer to the work of William James, one of the world's first major psychologists. At the end of the 19th century, he talked about what he referred to as the spotlight of the consciousness. When we are conscious of something, we shine a spotlight on it and zone those things on the periphery out of the focus of our awareness. According to James, this is the mechanism by which we concentrate on something.

Liminality, on the other hand, is an altogether different state, both psychologically and psychophysically. It is the very definition of peripheral vision. The conical field of vision in the human eye is a 60-degree circle, so a half circle would be 30 degrees. According to James, we naturally focus our view on a central point, but the question urban planners have to ask themselves is what can be seen on the periphery of that particular view. This is about liminality. It is about seeing the bigger picture and not just the centre. This is the basic principle espoused by the English psychologist and paediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott and deals with the way we view things on the periphery.

I believe that it is possible to create spaces in which people can experience a permeable membrane type of life; spaces in which many different types of people are brought together. Wouldn't this result in people integrating? Not necessarily. But it would at least create the kind of physical environment in which people could integrate.

I believe this is really important. Most of the experiences we have in cities are silent ones. I'm not talking about reading out the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights every time we go to buy a piece of cake or a bottle or milk. But people generally remain silent around people who are different to them, even though they are sharing the same physical space. Their experiences of coexistence tend to be of a physical nature, rather than a verbal one. I also believe urban planners have got it wrong, because they should be creating a physical experience in which seeing the way somebody moves, for example, or noticing whether they wear a burka or how they stand next to somebody else can actually lead to learning how to live together, no matter how disturbing that might seem. Ironically, the supporters of the Pegida movement live in an area of Germany with one of the lowest percentages of foreigners. It doesn't really surprise me that these people, who have very little actual contact with Muslims, think that all Muslims are terrorists. The reason for this is that they don't actually live in close contact with any Muslims.

Urban planning needs to be completely rethought. We need to be focusing on precisely these peripheral zones between different urban areas. For example, we should be building schools on the edges of communities rather than in the middle of them. And, as in Copenhagen, we should take people who suffer from that terrible disease into the city, instead of keeping them in isolation. We need to start thinking of these peripheral zones between urban areas as our natural environment. They may not be the most attractive areas, but they are important. I believe this is where urban planning should start.

I would like to quote Kant once again, as he is often held up to support arguments in favour of cosmopolitan behaviour. It is worth remembering that the French word cosmopolite was originally used to describe diplomats. They were meant to be able to move easily from place to place, culture to culture, without becoming integrated or a part of them. In the 19th century this idea of mental mobility stood in stark contrast to the idea of physical mobility. In those days, a cosmopolitan person was somebody who could move around a city like one of Baudelaire’s flaneurs and observe the various comings and goings from a distance. Cosmopolitans still felt at home no matter how far from home they might be. In the words of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, they felt they had a right to the whole city.

The advantage of this kind of attitude is that it stops people living lives full of fantasies about other people, as is the case with the supporters of the Pegida movement. They harbour strange ideas about Muslims for the simple reason that they never actually come into contact with them. My idea of a mixed city basically involves expanding the peripheral zones between areas, rather than creating concentrations of specific communities, so that people can coexist in all areas of the city.

Europe: Closed Doors or Open Arms? Culture and Migration / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Europe: Closed Doors or Open Arms? Culture and Migration / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)
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Richard Sennett, American sociologist, was born in 1943 in Chicago, the son of Russian immigrants. He now lectures in sociology and history at New York University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His main areas of research include the development of cities, the nature of work and cultural sociology. He is married to the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen.

Recent publications:

  • Sennett, Richard: Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. – New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. – 336 pp.
  • Sennett, Richard: The Culture of the New Capitalism. – New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. – 224 pp.
  • Sennett, Richard: The Corrosion of Character. The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism. – New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. – 176 S.