Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Scheitinger: The Architecture of Friendship

Through an understanding of Alexander Nehamas’s writings on the nature of friendship, we may come to discover new fields in which friendship has the most potential to develop and thrive. Nehamas makes it very clear which field provides the least amount of insight regarding the character of friendship, namely the novel, which has time and again rejected the belief that ideal friendships ought to be mutually beneficial or established in service of a greater good. Friendship on the individual level may be seen to have the dual effect of making the benevolent better and the wicked worse. In a setting of ordinary and unimportant events, friendship is desired less because it may amount to something greater than any one person may account for, and more because friendships create a social environment in which people struggle against forces outside of their control. Nehamas writes, “In literature, it is only against a backdrop of mundane shared events that, when the extraordinary occurs, the characters’ extreme reactions can be seen to spring from friendship and not from duty, ambition, or recklessness,” (Nehamas 89). Perhaps the best case can be made for drama, which renders the social environment of literary friendship in the physical realm. The banalities of friendship are no less repetitive, yet theater avoids the obvious impediments to friendship present in the novel by endowing each friend with a more unique and audible voice. One character may be more essential to the plot than others, but supportive friend characters are nonetheless brought to the forefront. Additionally, the individuality and humanity of the performers is such that no one performance or production is the same, likewise the essence of theatrical friendship is constantly changing.
As the act of bringing friendship alive — from the script onto the stage — reveals greater complexities concerning friendship’s true nature, there are other areas which may benefit from a similar real-world application. What immediately comes to mind is urban planning; as blueprints and maps are created by city officials in offices, it is only when these plans are brought into the material world that their effect on civic friendship may be more tangibly felt. It could be reasonably argued that in past centuries, architects and urban planners gave more consideration to the social function of the city and were less preoccupied with the commercial or economic implications. With the rise of liberalism in the nineteenth century, European planners deemed it necessary that the inhabitants of a city be able to move and socialize freely in large outdoor public spaces. Georges-Eugéne Haussmann, known for his massive renovation of Paris from 1853 to 1870, was responsible for supplying the city with its renowned boulevards, parks, and pavilions which are just as important today as they were when first unveiled. Whether or not Haussmann intended to do so (he very well may have simply wanted to modernize and revitalize the city), the creation of these sorts of public spaces had enormous consequences for city-wide friendship. The egalitarian philosophy that all people regardless of social status or background should be able to come together in a shared setting to relax, converse, and freely associate with one another, for no other purpose but to enjoy the company of others, was a radical idea at the time, but unfortunately one which did not last long.
To contrast Haussmann’s vision with the present day, the layouts of many of today’s modern cities have been marked by the pen of Robert Moses. Moses, who transformed the infrastructure of New York City in the twentieth century, saw Manhattan less of a distinct borough in its own right and rather as the epicenter of global business and commerce — the epicenter to which residents of the surrounding areas must inevitably be drawn. Moses cared less about conserving Manhattan’s individual neighborhoods, each with their own specific identities and personalities, and was willing to destroy them if it meant his vision of Manhattan as a commercial hub could be achieved. In one example, he planned to construct the Lower Manhattan Expressway which would cut directly through the neighborhoods of Soho, Little Italy, and Greenwich Village. While the plan was eventually cancelled in 1971 due to the activism of Jane Jacobs and the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the story serves as a crucial reminder that preserving the vibrancy of a city’s communities is always worth it (even if it means traffic is slow). Today, Greenwich Village remains very much a friendship community, maintaining its valuable artistic heritage and bohemian spirit which have defined it since the 1950s.
At the heart of Moses’s philosophy is the belief that a metropolitan area should have some separation between work and play — an idea which broke from nineteenth century urban planning conventions and completely antithetical to civic, utopian friendship; specifically, Moses believed the center or downtown area of a city should be reserved for offices and places of white collar employment and the surrounding areas should be primarily residential. While Nehamas never writes on the topic, one selection from On Friendship is directly applicable. He writes, “In commercial societies, by contrast, issues of practical interest belong to the public domain of the market while our ties to those closest to us in the private realm are rooted in love and friendship. These relationships, although they have practical aspects as well, always contain a core that is detached from instrumental considerations. It is only as our relations stretch further into the public domain and extend to progressively larger circles of people that they become progressively attenuated into relations of contract and exchange,” (Nehamas 49). Thus, the friendliest city is one which seamlessly blends the public and private spheres. To sit in a park or stroll along a boulevard with one’s closest friends is to enjoy a shared and preferential intimacy with them, at the same time embracing the company of friendly strangers which surround. And in physically separating places of business from places of amusement is to tacitly accept that friendship has no place in one’s professional life; it is only in the unification of work and play (or utility and pleasure-based friendships) that we may bridge this divide.


“There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
and being the noise.”

-Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī


Works Cited

Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. Basic Books, 2016.

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