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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 03, 1991|Alex Raksin

THE CONSCIENCE OF THE EYE: The Design and Social Life of Cities by Richard Sennett (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 252 pp.) . Should you find yourself discouraged that modern American cities have become little more than networks of streets leading to the office or shopping mall, consider joining sociology professor Richard Sennett for this tour through a time when cities were landscapes for self-discovery. The ancient Greeks, for instance, not only encountered divinity in nature--hearing omens rustling through trees--they tried to mirror the values, myths and ideals of their culture in temples, markets, playing fields and other structures. Today, Sennett points out, if you asked modern architects to design spaces that, say, promote democracy, "they would lay down their pens."

Perspectives changed, Sennett theorizes, when Christianity spread the belief that "the outside" is an unreal dimension of human experience--merely "the halftone and shadow of a true world to come after death." By encouraging us to turn inward, Christianity soothed the fears of exposure that are at the heart of our religious imagination, but at a price: We learned to dread the unfamiliar, to believe that new places or people are more likely to be threatening than stimulating. "The Conscience of the Eye" is an abstruse, visionary, often brilliant work, though sometimes Sennett lapses into the kind of wild conjecture practiced by French sociologists such as Jean Baudrillard.

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