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BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : Celebrating a Life-Awakening, Sensual Kind of Architecture : FLESH AND STONE: The Body and the City in Western Civilization by Richard Sennett ; Norton $27.50, 431 pages


New York University professor Richard Sennett is a Utopian dreamer, although it is putting it mildly to say that the urban environment he idealizes in these pages differs from the one you and I might imagine.

It is not an elegantly designed shopping plaza where people eat, drink and buy merrily, but rather "Beer Street" (1751), William Hogarth's engraved evocation of a ramshackle square taken over by a small crowd of people downing malt, caressing lovers and fomenting debate. It is not a smooth and swift joy ride down the superhighway in a shiny Lexus, but rather an arduous trek in a horse-drawn coach over a bumpy dirt road. It is not a society in which urban sophisticates dress to kill, but rather Thucydides' Athens, where the "barbarians" wear furs and the "civilized" saunter naked. Finally, it is not a life lived lightheartedly, but rather a "stressed . . . experience of our bodies"--for that, after all, will make us "more aware of the world in which we live."

If you think Sennett is going out of his way to be contrary, you are not alone. In a magazine profile published earlier this month, humanities scholar Harold Bloom was pictured in various states of distress--hands clenching head as if to prevent it from exploding, eyebrows raised in horror akin to Edvard Munch's "The Scream"--because he thinks that "watery disciples" of scholars such as Michel Foucault (Sennett was a close friend of the late French philosopher) are abandoning the study of classical history and literature to pursue idiosyncratic and often politically motivated inquiries into social life.

Bloom is correct, of course, to think that many '60s-trained scholars have become so skeptical of inherited tradition that rather than standing on the shoulders of giants they have been sinking in the mud of self-absorption. And to be sure, Sennett's study here of the way modern architecture and urban planning have failed to accommodate people's physical and sensory needs regurgitates some of the same ideas explored in his 1990 book, "The Conscience of the Eye."

Still, "Flesh and Stone" offers unmistakable proof that Bloom is wrong to assume that scholarship necessarily suffers when it tries to address social problems. Sennett admits at the outset that he is writing this book largely out of his own disillusionment with "the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility" that afflict today's urban environment. But in his search for alternative environments, he is not too proud to stand on others' shoulders (in particular, Freud's and Foucault's) and he is careful to examine history without idealizing it.

While Sennett celebrates the lively human communion inspired by the architecture of ancient Athens, for instance, he does not present ancient Greece per se as a model, for he points out that the minority's self-realization came at the expense of the majority's oppression.

Sennett's interesting conclusion is that it may well be impossible to create urban spaces that satisfy the panoply of our desires, because our desires are contradictory: As Freud showed, we crave both the safe and unknowing pleasure of the womb and the stimulating pleasures of society.

Sennett explains that a similar tension has existed in urban architecture. Engineers in ancient Greece created the great city square (or agora ) to "make people more aware of each other, more physically responsive." Modern urban designers such as New York's Robert Moses, in contrast, have been more eager to design soothing, isolating, narcotizing spaces like superhighways.

With the proliferation of "edge cities," suburbs where the closest thing to a town square is the public access station on cable TV, Sennett sees little hope for a revival of dynamic public space. But this reader can't help but consider the argument of today's computer enthusiasts that a new, closely knit human community is now forming--not in classical, physical reality but in virtual reality.

After all, who knows? Perhaps the next profound, dynamic, lively social revolution will begin not in the Bastille, but on the Internet.

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