The University Record, March 25, 1998

Cities need democratic places of assembly, Sennett says

Wallenberg lecturer Richard Sennett (left), with Robert A. Levit, assistant professor of architecture (center) and James Snyder, interim dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

He was the first honorary citizen of Israel. He was also an honorary citizen of the United States. But Swedish-born Raoul Wallenberg is known throughout the world as the individual who bribed, threatened and outsmarted the Nazis to save the lives of more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II.

At the College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP), Wallenberg is known as a graduate of the class of 1935 and is remembered for his humanitarian acts as the First Secretary of the Swedish delegation in Budapest. Captured by the Russians near the close of the war, Wallenberg's fate is still unknown, though rumors persist that he is held in Russia even today.

The annual CAUP Wallenberg Lecture, initiated by his classmate Sol King, is a tribute to the man who proved that "one man can make a difference." Offered in Wallenberg's honor, the lecture series focuses on architecture as a humane social art.

This year's presenter was the internationally renowned social and cultural critic Richard Sennett, University Professor of the Humanities at New York University and Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. In "The Spaces of Democracy," Sennett explored the history of space and democracy from the theaters of the ancient Greeks to performance and meeting spaces created by contemporary architects in the United States and Japan.

In the ancient political theater, the audience that gathered to make decisions was arranged around the speaker so that its attention and concentration was directed to the presenter. At the same time, the members of the audience were aware of the reactions of those around them. The hardships of exposure to hot sun and hard seats, Sennett explained, served to increase the importance of the words from the speaker. Yet the audience and the speaker had their own space, each separated from the other by physical space and design.

A more democratic arrangement was the agora, in ancient Greece a place of assembly that had no visual barriers, no compartmentalization, but zones of transition between public and private, allowing encounters with those of differing opinions and ideas, challenging the growth of the individual and the assemblage.

This is what cities need, Sennett said. They need places of assembly that will encourage interaction, spaces that can be used for political confrontation, a meeting place that will draw the outside inside.

Our cities have become fragmented and that fragmentation is increasing, Sennett said. They need common commercial and meeting places that offer sustained interaction where people can concentrate.