Richard Sennett: The Public Realm (Borders and Boundaries)

Image exploring the idea of boundaries

Image exploring the idea of boundaries

Richard Sennett’s work has been critical to my thinking about architectural and urban space. The Fall of Public Man (1977) remains a key reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the contemporary public realm. Taken together with Flesh and Stone (1994) and The Conscience of the Eye (1990) they form a trilogy that is fundamental for anyone wanting to understand the relation between space and society. However, in the last few years, Sennett has revised his take on public space. His essay ‘The Public Realm’ revisits the origins of key concepts that informed his views on public space and finds that 21st century urban and socio-political development require a different approach. Sennett is critical of his earlier views (though I would note that the basis of his earlier thesis is wonderfully summarised in this essay) which focused or led to an emphasis on centralised open space as a meeting place of strangers. I would note that I always found Sennett’s criteria for public space as a space where strangers can be aware of each other potent in its simplicity and modesty. There is no idealistic imaginary vision of hand-holding or spontaneous irruptions of dialogue necessary. The simple condition of having spaces where people unlike you (the ‘other’) can co-inhabit (and not necessarily without friction) was all the more significant for the fact that such basic spaces were disappearing and being designed out of cities. Never mind the agora or forum, streets and spaces where anyone can feel they have a right to be there are disappearing and being replaced by versions (they look like streets, squares and plazas) that are either privately controlled or which exclude particular groups in subtle but powerful ways (see Iain Borden’s essay ‘Thick Edge’ in InterSections: Architectural History and Critical Theory, 2001, pp.221-46).

Rather than lament the loss of the open meeting ground or continue to defend its importance Sennett proposes that it is at the edges of territories that public space can exist or emerge. A distinction is made between borders and boundaries – boundaries being limits or edges which separate one territory from another and borders being a zone of interactive edge between territories. Boundaries are hard and borders are permeable. The shift in emphasis from an open space to a linear zone or edge represents a shift in the role of the public space conceived in each context. Whereas the former is about an area of congregation and a destination the edge is a place of movement from one area to another. Because so much of our urban landscapes have become encampments, territories utilised primarily by particular groups (tourist zone, shopping district, upper class residential, ethnic neighbourhood, etc.) it is where one territory touches another and the possibility of movement between them that any possibility of experiencing the other is possible. This does not necessarily mean that centralised or open spaces can never work as public realms but they have become limited in their capacity.

There other interesting concepts explored by Sennett in the essay, such as the difference between open and closed form, but the boundary/border distinction is, I think, a significant contribution to design thinking.

The importance of Sennett’s essay is in bringing to designer’s attention the role of the perimeter and to make them conscious of their participation in the creation of territories, boundaries and borders. They essay is also interesting in that it echoes, at a different scale, the ideas of Alejandro Zaera Polo in his essay ‘The Politics of the Envelope’. These essays, taken together, set up an interesting arena for considering the role of design in urban and social space and remind us of the political and social significance of spatial design.

Sennett’s essay is reproduced on his web site: here


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