- Words by Richard Sennett
- Henrietta L Moore
- Photographs by Freddie Ardley
RS: It’s a deep and perplexing question: to ask what architecture has to do with citizenship. When I teach, I ask students to draw a democratic window. I ask them, ‘How can you join a window with a political concept?’ Students usually debate how big it is and wonder if it opens. Is it about letting people in or out? Or both? Is a revolving door democratic? Is transparency democratic? Or is the question more about protection from surveillance? These are very different notions of democracy: one is about rights and not being spied on, the other is about transparency and how citizens see each other.
HM: The state protects citizens from harm, or at least that’s what states used to do. Modern states don’t do that. China, with its ‘Social Points Programme’ and facial recognition technology, traces your every move – the state watches everything you do in shops and on blog sites, what you see, what you read, what you write and everything else. These ‘social points’ allow you to do certain things, like get on trains or go to the theatre. By experimenting with this, China is trying to build its idea of a social citizen, making sure citizens don’t do things that it perceives as detrimental to the country. Here, surveillance is tied up with the betterment of citizens. In the UK, surveillance is about protection, particularly
RS: People go to cities because historically they are less regulated than small towns. Here, urban citizenship equates to anonymity. Yet the Chinese social points system destroys this.
HM: The system also creates new kinds of divisions in Chinese society that shape how we approach and understand it. For instance, in the case of the theatre, you might not start by thinking about who you would be interacting with, but whether you’re able to go at all. The boundaries of social contracts are being redrawn and we’re not sure of the basis on which they will be moving forward.
RS: A lot of what has passed for reform in Britain and particularly London has a negative impact, like the congestion charge for example. People and businesses with resources have such charges paid for and it doesn’t affect them. However, if you’re working class it does impact you a great deal. When thinking about climate change and cities, there are a lot of supposed solutions which we think are ecological. But they are so class-inflected that they wind up being the opposite. On the other hand, there’s a lack of reform regarding things like gentrification. If you don’t want to gentrify a neighbourhood, you put in price controls on property to make sure it’s not a local café one day and a Pret the next. It takes political will to do this and that has been missing. Those controls do exist in Amsterdam, however, and there you get really mixed neighbourhoods. The principle in general is that the free market is bad for the city.
HM: Free markets, in this sense though, aren’t actually free – they are governed by market forces and lobbyists They are, in effect, controlled by monopoly capitalism. All markets require regulation, London included. When you look at its history you find the guilds, which acted as regulators. They trained people, managed markets and were a form of quality control.
RS: This whole conversation illustrates the limitations of design. You can design spaces to be protective and transparent, but what is needed is a different power relationship. I’ve been working with the UN on Nehru, a marketplace in Delhi. It’s one of the most peaceful places in the city, but on paper you would never expect that. It’s a huge market where Muslims and Hindus trade and interact. People in the market have control over how it’s run, and this has made them into citizens of that marketplace and the space it inhabits.
HM: The notion of what it means to be a citizen is changing. In London, we are living in a city that is super diverse in sociological terms. Yet there is a push from the state to find divisions between people. Look at the Windrush scandal for example. Why did the government feel they had to make a distinction between residents and citizens?
RS: Clarifying citizenship can be wounding to a country. It’s not enabling at all. People who are legal or illegal residents are sources of enormous energy, be it political or economic. Thanks to Brexit, that energy will likely die. We are short of 70,000 nurses. They have to come from somewhere. But if you look at what the Home Office is doing, they’re not going to come to the UK. That is something Brexit is going to teach people in two or three years on a much bigger scale. I really think Britain is going to have a convulsion after 31 October. The blue-rinse Conservative – let’s say – men, haven’t got an idea of what it is going to be like. It’s fine to say ‘take back our borders, keep those nurses out!’ But who is going to do the picking of fruit in British farming? Not them.
HM: People are asking, ‘What should the state/citizen relationship be?’ That’s very important and underpinning it is a rejection of certain kinds of market capitalism that otherwise reduces the place and power of the state to a mere shadow and promulgates the view that state support is not working. Out of this has come a new kind of discussion about how to get local-level politics working. This has been furtherd by the Tory policy of devolution and following this, localisation with local mayors. As a result local councils now have more responsibilities, like caring for the elderly and schools, and control over them. But these responsibilities are expensive, and these councils have had their budgets cut. So quality of life is ultimately going down.
RS: One of the things that has happened in places like India is that, as a result of development, medical care inequality has risen dramatically. In Mexico City, they have decentralised clinics which are just little holes in the wall where you get a shot or get your knee bound up. They don’t look like typical clinics. That’s a role architecture can play: building trust, marketing it as a place for care. This kind of clinic is a way of tackling the inequality of care.
I want to put these clinics at the edges of poor neighbourhoods so there is a social mix. It’s the same with schools. If you put something in the centre of a ghetto you reinforce the ghetto.
HM: Many of the solutions to problems like this will come from the Global South. The problems arise there
– and solutions are formed that can be applied to places across the developed world because there is room to experiment.
RS: The focus of citizenship is moving from national to urban. Not that national power will go away, but it’s more malign in some ways and that’s what is happening in a lot of Latin American countries like Brazil. National government is not an oppressor, it’s just that the things that really matter are at a different scale.
Look at theWindrush scandal. Why did the government feel they had to make a distinction between residents and citizens?
HM: Dysfunctional political and social systems exist across the world. We have to look for social innovation to help tackle the problems that they bring. I’ve been collaborating with a young entrepreneur, Arthur Kay, to address this. His company, Skyroom, is a response to the fact that London’s key workers all live many miles away from where they work. Its plan is to use London’s flat, disused rooftops to build these workers housing in key areas. This is one example of how issues can be addressed differently.
RS: How could we, instead of caring for elderly people, give them better quality of life? If I ever retire, I want to have a café, or a pub. I don’t want to be in a care home, I want to be in a street. Elderly homes are warehouses of people waiting to die; at least, that is the stigma. My mother, who lived beyond 100, just wanted to stay in her favourite New York bar in her later years. She had her favourite table and two martinis, and she sat there for hours and hours. That kept her alive. That’s a part of social citizenship.
HM: We need to address social problems differently. Take the example of improving care for those with Alzheimer’s in the UK. If you ask: ‘How do we pay for all this?’ you never get anywhere. So, you start the other way around. You improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and those who care for them. Once you begin that process of financial modelling it’s easier to see how you are going to number crunch it. It’s totally different to saying, ‘How do we pay for something we can’t afford?’
RS: I think that this is the great error of New Labour. The markets they developed were determined by market mechanisms rather than a social agenda. It was a left-wing regime of accountancy.
HM: That underpins ‘little nation’ Toryism as well. It’s not quantification exactly, it’s about control. When people say they don’t want the nanny state, what they mean is that they don’t want to be controlled.
RS: There’s a book by Alan Macfarlane called The Origins of English Individualism, which is about the rise of English individualism during the five centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution. It touches on what Protestantism did in the UK: it put a premium on individuals and not on communities. The argument is that it liberated people to begin a different kind of capitalism, and that in England that was more focused on the entrepreneur. What we are talking about is the citizen. Our language is very individualised, whereas citizenship is collective. The notion of ‘citizen’ is about transforming a socialised subject into an individualised one.
HM: In the past, and today, citizenship requires education. We must think about what a university does, and can do in today’s world, and how it is a part of this conversation. It’s attached to new research. The new role for the university is getting that evidence into action. Arthur Kay and I launched Fast Forward 2030 in 2015. Started in London, but spreading globally, it is about supporting new entrepreneurs who are educated on the new social contract and committed to supporting it. There is also a way of expanding and oxygenating the work we do through the arts.
At the Institute for Global Prosperity we are looking at the way the arts can help respond to the major challenges of the day. One of the places we have started working on this is Lebanon through the RELIEF centre, a transdisciplinary research collaboration looking at prosperity in the context of mass displacement. Here, we are working with sound artists to develop an opera connected to the work we do on the ground. We’re exploring how arts, culture and self-development can all work together.
RS: There has to be a space in a person’s life – late teens, early twenties – where you are not ruled by pragmatics. Where you can encounter some freedom in your life which is unconnected to anything else. It should be about expansion and making your way in the world; understanding your own citizenship.