The Pnyx and the Agora

Richard Sennett at ReadingDesign: “I am not going to speak about the present, but about the past: about the foundations on which our democracy is based. These foundations were rooted in cities, in their civic spaces. We need to remember this history to think about how democratic cities should be made today.

A democracy supposes people can consider views other than their own. This was Aristotle’s notion in the Politics. He thought the awareness of difference occurs only in cities, since the every city is formed by synoikismos, a drawing together of different families and tribes, of competing economic interests, of natives with foreigners.

“Difference” today seems about identity — we think of race, gender, or class. Aristotle’s meant something more by difference; he included also the experience of doing different things, of acting in divergent ways which do not neatly fit together. The mixture in a city of action as well as identity is the foundation of its distinctive politics. Aristotle’s hope was that when a person becomes accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu he or she will cease reacting violently when challenged by something strange or contrary. Instead, this environment should create an outlook favourable to discussion of differing views or conflicting interests. Almost all modern urban planners subscribe to this Aristotelian principle. But if in the same space different persons or activities are merely concentrated, but each remains isolated and segregated, diversity loses its force. Differences have to interact.

Classical urbanism imagines two kinds of spaces in which this interaction could occur. One was the pnyx, an ampitheatre in which citizens listed to debates and took collective decisions; the other was the agora, the town square in which people were exposed to difference in a more raw, unmediated form….(More)”