The Architectural Association's 'head-to-head' between Joseph Rykwert and Richard Sennett marked the recent publication of Rykwert's new book, The Seduction of Place, which, he commented, would probably have been called 'Flesh and Stone' had not Sennett already pinched the title for his own acclaimed volume on cities and urban life.
According to Rykwert, the London Eye would be 'a beautiful thing in the right place', but, dominating the view between the two centres of national and local government symbolised by the buildings of Parliament and County Hall on either side of the river, it simply proclaims London's demise into a theme park. Rykwert argues that, no matter how rational and objective we like to think we are in building our cities, metaphorical and symbolic images and meaning constantly resurface in place.
Looking further afield, he cites Brasilia, the epitome of rational, functional city planning, where, as soon as you step inside Oscar Niemeyer's cathedral you are confronted by 'an extraordinary display of kitsch'.More seriously, it is an extremely violent city, threatened by its own satellite city of low-paid service workers who are essential to its daily operations. 'When you set up a rational enclave, ' argues Rykwert, 'it has to have the irrational opposite to serve it, ' a phenomenon also demonstrated by the Disney-built 'ideal' city of Celebration.
Rykwert suggests that 'what we have to offer as architects to society - our ultimate client - is to make form out of (people's) concerns', and that we should distrust notions of the 'aesthetic', which are causing problems in 'the way we make cities more than just housing'.He spares no criticism for monumental interventions such as Richard Serra's public sculptures in Barcelona and New York, in which 'the artist does not contribute [to the city]', but makes an 'utterance', and suggests we should pay more attention to graffiti and to an understanding of city form fundamentally determined by infrastructure laid by sanitary and traffic engineers: 'The unconscious governing the city in yet another fashion.'
In response, Sennett identifies the key issue as being how the city represents justice through its physical form. While nineteenth century urbanists believed the answer lay in rational architectural order, modern writers such as Jane Jacobs have suggested precisely the opposite: that 'it is the intrusion of rational design that is complicit with capitalism' - in short, the unjust city. For Sennett, housing lies at the root of the problem. The Georgian terrace 'is a piece of urbanistic genius', because it 'responds to inhabitation' and 'loses the notion of a defined image', making it the ideal representation of an architecture of justice. But for Rykwert, it represents exactly the opposite, a notion of making a palace out of middle-class dwellings, a public statement out of private concerns', showing that 'the monument is not avoidable'. As he says, 'building every time is a political act'.
Joseph Rykwert and Richard Sennett were in conversation about The Seduction of Place at the Architectural Association, London
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