Born in Chicago in 1943, Richard Sennett has been called “one of the boldest social thinkers of his generation”. His work focuses on ethnography, urban design and social theory and he teaches at the LSE and New York University. His many books include The Fall of Public Man (1977), Flesh and Stone (1994) and The Corrosion of Character (1998) and he has written three novels. Sennett’s latest book, Building and Dwelling, has just been published by Allen Lane.
I read a lot of books when I was too young to understand how great they were. I’m rereading this, which is about the disintegration of an upper-middle class German family from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. It’s a fantastic metaphor, in a way, for what happened to the bourgeoisie. It’s this huge theme that comes through in all these wonderful details. He was 25 when he wrote it, and it’s a novel of complete assurance, wonderfully evocative. I’m in the process of recovering things I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.
I have bought a house in the country but I have a black thumb. This is the season when garden catalogues begin to come out: it’s a new species, I think, of “middle-aged porn”: everything sounds luscious. But I’m trying to understand how to plant a garden, making my way through this verbiage which is absolutely seductive. I’ve been reading the David Austin English rose catalogue, which is beautifully photographed. But I’m sure I’m going to fail because I’m not much of a gardener. Usually when I touch a plant it promptly turns black and dies.
I’ve just joined several groups that are fighting Brexit. I no longer think it’s a political issue: it’s an issue about whether Britain survives as a robust nation or not. I’ve joined lots of them, including Open Britain, a movement [backed] by Chuka Umunna. I don’t know what you’d do door-to-door for it, but I’ve been working on it online. I’m trying to lobby the MPs I know, to stiffen their spines, not to negotiate but to resist. That’s my big political preoccupation at the moment.
I’m an amateur cellist – I play in a group that includes [former Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger. At the moment I’m working on the two Janáček quartets – they’re a real challenge to me musically. Not so much technically, though there are tough bits, but it’s very hard to surrender into that peculiar pain and nostalgia and regret that’s in his music. I’ve been playing since I was five – I’ve played it 68 years. And I’m getting worse and worse: it’s something that happens in old age, as your shoulders wear out and the back goes. But I want to play as much as I can.
David Chipperfield is making this building that is going to connect all the existing museums in what’s called the “museum island” in Berlin. It’s very grand and yet it’s very human, in a way. It’s an ungainly space and there are lots of touches to take things that look like they wouldn’t work and suddenly make them interesting, even though they’re awkward or difficult spaces. It’s unfinished, but it’s one of the most thrilling buildings I’ve been in for a long time.
I saw this last weekend and really liked it. It was photographs and images about climate change, which sounds like it would be hokey and horrible – agitprop sort of art. But it was anything but that. It’s a really interesting exhibit, connecting printmaking, painting and photography. The title is based on a poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens called The Poems of Our Climate. The materials were strange, too: things like printmaking on linen, and there were animations and a large-scale installation. It was indirect and suggestive, very abstract, but it also had a point, it made you think.