Category Archives: Commentary

Leon Krier’s lesson in architecture

Review of The Architecture of Community – Léon Krier (2009), Island Press

The Amazon Santa visited me this year and left Léon Krier’s latest, and likely ultimate, publication, The Architecture of Community. (Thanks to those who made generous purchases on the Emergent Urbanism Amazon Store, remember that you can also purchase anything at all.)

Back in the 1970’s when architectural modernism began to fall apart or be outright demolished, the architectural intelligentsia decided that it was okay to start using ornament again, to make buildings flashy, to take the dry structures of modern buildings and decorate them with absurd icons whose purpose was to entertain long enough that no one would notice that the architecture was still terrible. Léon Krier, a renegade amongst renegades who had no formal architectural education, had an other idea in mind: that there was such a thing as objective laws in architecture, that these laws remained unchanged over time, and that classicism was the best expression of these laws. Any other architect’s career would be destroyed by such a claim in such an era – Léon Krier just kept going, publishing article after article, book after book, until the estate of the Prince of Wales gave him his big break and commissioned the design of an entire neighborhood based upon his ideas. If there is a neo-traditionalist movement in architecture and urban design today, it is because Léon Krier imagined it first. This book is the compilation of the product of his career as an architect, but mostly as a writer.

Having read through the book, my conclusion is that Krier gives a thorough lesson in architecture, taking obvious pleasure is shredding the myths of modernism to pieces and exposing its false prophecies. However, the text never goes beyond the most superficially descriptive, often involving comparisons and an appeal to common sense. While Krier can point out, using his trademark caricatures, how absurd the patterns of modern sprawl are, he has no explanation as to why such patterns would exist, except that it may be just one big conspiracy. He has even less to say about community, which is strange considering the word is in the title. It is as if in the vocabulary of neo-traditional architects community and space have become synonymous. (Many of the great villages and towns of Europe are dying because their community is dying, regardless of their physical form.) For this reason Krier produces a very sharp lesson in architecture, but provides no insight into morphology, and cannot really develop a model of urbanism that isn’t simply architecture at enormous scale. It should be no surprise that his disciples have practiced town planning the same way.

Despite his claims of providing a plan for the post-fossil fuel age, his projects require enormous concentrations of capital to develop, the kind of capital only princes have at their disposal, and provide no guarantee of ever being home to a true community. Although he demonstrates a sensibility, if not necessarily an understanding, for chaos theory and complexity, I am left wondering if he refers to it because he finds it convenient, or because it is true. He points out that fractal geometry has denied modernism the use of abstract forms as more rational geometric objects, and many of his drawings could be used as perfect examples of complex geometry. It is however not explained why anything is depicted the way it is, or how it could be the way it is. Architectural complexity is embraced, but the leap to emergence, crucial for any practical model of urbanism, is not there.

Most of the book consists of sketches, pictures and small essays whose intent is to persuade instead of to argue, and there lies the most peculiar thing about it. It is in precisely the same format that Le Corbusier once published his works of pioneering architectural propaganda. It is as if Krier sought to turn the very arms of modernism against it, to fight evil with evil with a classical counter-propaganda. Krier knows the power that architecture can wield – his monograph on the architecture of Albert Speer (Albert Speer: Architecture, 1932-1942) remains one of the most frightening architectural books I’ve yet seen, if there can be such a thing as a frightening architecture. He exposed fascism in all of its most seductive displays, at once explaining how the movement could wield power over so many followers, and why there would be a ban against classical architecture itself in the aftermath of the war. One could read hundreds of post-war philosophers without ever arriving at such a realization. Krier believes that classical architecture is a powerful cultural force that can also be used for good, that it is absurd to deny ourself this force because it was used to evil ends, and concludes as such his review of Speer. There is nothing so epic in this new book, although Krier dedicates an entire chapter to a plan for Washington D.C. that would “complete” the city (a plan he also displays on the cover), which shows us where his loyalties lie. What he doesn’t seem to know is how dangerous the power of propaganda is, and how using it may be feeding the very process he wants to denounce.

Hence, the most problematic issue with this compendium of Krier’s career is the medium itself. Krier presents drawings of an architecture that is rationalized and purified, playing it safe in order to rebuild architecture on its foundations. The great eclectic architecture of the 19th century, and the early 20th, is left out. That does not demonstrate confidence in one’s belief in laws of architecture, and will not provide anything greater to a new generation of architects than an alternative propaganda that may tap some deeper feeling, but won’t give them any arguments against other fashions that violate the laws. It also won’t give them the confidence to radically apply the laws in order to invent architectural patterns that meet the needs of today’s society, whatever you want to call it. (Post-post-modern? Ultra-modern? Webbed?) Krier may not have realized that modern architecture is a product of such propaganda, the result of architecture no longer being practiced by artisans for the benefit of their local community, but by writers and graphic designers trying to come up with the flashiest image they can place in a magazine. The quality of the building is irrelevant if the magazines drive your business.

Much like the medium created modern architecture, the medium also created medieval and neo-classical architecture. The information technologies of Gothic churches were primitive, but extremely complex. Neo-classicism could use printing, and that made mass propagation of patterns possible to the extent that these patterns were translated into drawings. The revival of the laws of architecture that Léon Krier dreams of will likely need a new medium, one that is characteristic of our society, to be accepted as evident. Until that is invented, Krier has done us all a great service by destroying the temple of modernism, leaving at least a clean slate and the right principles to start over.

New introduction to Emergent Urbanism

I’ve written a complete substitute to the old “Year One Review” page, as it was already more than a year old. Seizing the opportunity to experiment with the merits of hypertext, I wrote it entirely in hyperlinks to the relevant articles. If you are still fuzzy about how the ideas fit together, I’ve sorted them all out and placed them in their appropriate context.

Beginning Emergent Urbanism. Read it, share it, blog it, tweet it, facebook it, spread the word.

If you are looking for a more “academic” introduction, then my article in the International Journal of Architectural Research is still the most appropriate. You can also go through the presentation to the University of Montreal Complex Research Lab. (Translation still upcoming.)

Emergent Urbanism at the University of Montreal

I was invited to the complex systems laboratory of the Université de Montréal this week to present emergent urbanism to their twenty-member large research group. Click through to SlideShare in order to see the full text of the presentation under the “notes on” tab. The entire text is in French, however I know a significant share of this website’s visitors enjoy French once in a while.

If someone wants to sponsor me for a translation in English, email me and I’ll upload one very soon. Otherwise my hands are quite full at the moment, it might be a while before I get around to it.

Thanks to Rodolphe Gonzales from the Complex Systems Lab for the invitation. You can read about their work here.

Review of Radiant City

There is a scene early in the 2006 mockumentary Radiant City that provides the key explanation to the morphology of suburban sprawl. Our favorite writer James Howard Kunstler sits on a bench in a community bike trail that is enclosed in two rows of chain link fence in order to, I presume, secure it from the high-capacity arterial road that runs alongside it. The experience is vaguely what it must have been like to patrol the Berlin Wall, had it been encircled by an expressway. “Some clown in an office somewhere thought this would be a good idea, that’s why it’s here,” says Kunstler. “Not because anybody really tested whether or not it would feel good to be here.”

That’s all the film has to say about why sprawl is, and in fact there is nothing more to be said. The characteristic of a sprawl city is the absence of any intelligence in design. The rest of the movie is about how and why families cope with life in this intelligence-less environment. It does that with a narrative that is refreshingly honest and modern, despite not depicting a real family. It is shot on location in the outskirts of Calgary, a city that, thanks to a highly competent planning authority and an economic boom that has attracted large numbers of new citizens, has over the last decade built new developments at supernaturally huge scale.

The new neighborhoods are for the most part built of nice buildings, nothing to write UNESCO about but approaching genuine Victorian. Contrary to the suburban cliché, houses are built to a density that is comparable to city centers, which means there is adequate public transportation available. And in compliance with new planning regulations, developers have provided big clusters of condominium buildings to serve as “affordable housing”. With this setting, the directors have avoided the social exclusion issues that sometimes get bundled up with criticisms of the suburbs. In fact here the families explain that they left the center because it had become unaffordable for either their growing family or without shame-bearing subsidization (never mind affordable housing regulation being indirect subsidization), meaning the exclusion narrative is turned backwards. These people have been pushed out of the city.

What is there left to complain about then? Not very much, still there is a general awareness that there must be something missing, yet none of the characters can pinpoint it. They deal with boredom as best they can, the local teenagers finding, as all boys have ever done, that a muddy pit is all that’s needed for endless fun. Today’s boys turn this free space into a paintball game they call “escape to Mexico”, but it’s really just cowboys and indians for the postmodern age. Their fun is interrupted by a private security patrolmen hired by the builders to patrol the private streets, but these guards turn out to be benign bordering on benevolent. Incessant chauffeuring becomes the cause of a mini-crisis as poor husband Evan is forbidden from working on his car by his emasculating witch of a wife Anne, worried that such activities will send the car to the mechanic and leave her with the entire burden of chauffeuring the family on their maddening activities schedule.

If there is one recurring theme, it is that at every point the creative control of the environment has been taken away from individuals. The kids cannot play on empty lots, the father cannot risk working on his car, the space for any meaningful personal culture has been slashed to nearly nothing. The exception to this is Anne who gets to enjoy total control of the house itself, which she obviously takes great pleasure in when deciding how each room will be laid out.  At every point in the film where someone defends the choice of life in the suburbs it is either Anne or a female real estate agent involved.

As a form of passive-aggressive revenge, Evan signs up to be in a musical about suburban life where he and his male friends sing showtunes while dancing around with lawnmowers. (Lawnmowers having no utility in the postage-stamp sized lawns of the new suburbs, they are remembered in dance.) It is telling that Evan found out about the show by looking around the Internet. It is on the Internet that community and culture has exploded in the last years as the physical world has become more and more inaccessible. The Web 2.0 phenomenon has given the power to everyone to create something and express themselves, for better or worse. The Web has become a new city, and its different processes new forms of urbanism.

Sorely missing from the film, which features the opinions of architects, professors of philosophy and other intellectuals, are the opinions of the planners, politicians and developers who make this product. The planning system is as remote to the narrative as it is to people’s lives. While the complaint of the loss of citizenship implied by mass motorization is rehashed by an intellectual, what about the loss of citizenship implied by the planning process itself? All decisions about the shape of their environment has been taken long in the past, in the colorful words of Mr. Kunstler, by some clown in an office somewhere. The only thing left for citizens to do is to enjoy or hate their environment. They have been dispossessed of any power to shape it. Somewhere democracy of place was substituted for bureaucracy, and the best the citizens have been offered since is the chance to collectively shackle the bureaucrats through public design charrettes. The citizens have no more rights to create their city than citizens of Stalin’s Moscow did. That is the only aspect sprawl still has in common with Le Corbusier’s original vision for the Radiant City.

Yet the film does not reach this conclusion. If there is any conclusion, it is that everyone is helpless in the face of this seemingly unstoppable monster. As Joseph Heath says at the beginning, the critique of suburbia is the same it was two generations ago, everyone who lives in suburbia knows backwards and forwards the critique of suburbia, yet they still live there. Andrès Duany appears proposing that what sprawl needs is a grid and denser housing, yet the setting already has a grid and obviously the last thing it needs is even more houses.

A young woman states at the end, out of character, that she sees kids playing alone in suburbia and remembers her youth building giant forts with everybody in the neighborhood. I remember my happiest time growing up at the edge of the suburbs was building a treehouse on some leftover tree with the neighborhood kids. The treehouse was demolished because it was unsafe and then the tree cut down to build another house. I never saw any of those kids again.

That’s all community is, people making things together. That’s what creates the spiritual aspect of a place. Once we lose the freedom to do that, we can’t be citizens. We are just consumers of cities. Radiant City, by looking at life in suburban sprawl in its purest, best realized form, defines the right problem but fails to ask the right question. Perhaps citizenship is so far in the past that we can’t even remember to ask the question.






Radiant City

A film by Gary Burns and Jim Brown

Order it from


The rules for changing rules

Paul Romer presents his solution to the problem of underdevelopment in this TED video.

Stanford economist Paul Romer believes in the power of ideas. He first studied how to speed up the discovery and implementation of new technologies. But to address the big problems we’ll face this century — insecurity, harm to the environment, global poverty —  new technologies will not be enough. We must also speed up the discovery and implementation of new rules, of new ideas about how people interact.

Throughout human history, big improvements in systems of rules took place when new governments entered the scene. In today’s world, this process has been largely shut down. To bring it back to life, Romer proposes that we create new cities where people can go to escape from bad rules and opt in to new and better ones. With better rules, people can be safe, self-interest can protect the environment, and investment can bring families all the resources that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Romer profile

Another, much longer presentation was made at the Long Now foundation.

As he sees it the problem of urban and economic development is not the bad rules. Most people and leaders understand that they are bad rules. The problem is that the system of government, the application of the rules, traps us in them. And so for example, if the prime minister of some derelict African state attempts to fix rules on the electrical industry, he will have to fight opposition from the many different people whose interests are affected by this change. Unless he is an all-powerful man, he is set to fail. This is a well-known problem, and the British have even turned the practice of bureaucrats manipulating politicians into doing the opposite of what they wanted to do into high comedy.

Romer says that the solution to the problem of bad rules is not to go into government but to create new governments, implying that processes of government have their own life and result in good or bad rules. While some leaders and communities may not be able to beat the system of government, they can create new ones at the margins. Romer proposes to develop, in effect, city-states all over the world where there currently is nothing, and populate them with settlers looking to build a new life.

People criticize me for proposing changes that they believe to be impossible and unrealistic. This may be true if we consider preserving the planning system to be the most important objective. And perhaps some of these people simply consider anything but the established system to be inconceivable. Even in this otherwise positive article about slums, you find a quote such as this one:

There are reasonable objections to titling. Is it fair for those who seized government land—or, worse, someone else’s private property—to be rewarded with a property title? Nor is ownership easy to disentangle. “How do you allocate titles within the dense fabric of Rocinha or Kibera?” Neuwirth writes. “Who should get title to each parcel? The family that built the house? The woman who bought it from them? The tenants who rent there? The man who owns his two-story home but sold his roof rights to a friend, who built two stories and sold his roof rights to someone to build an additional two stories?”

After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. I observed the same narrow-sightedness when researching my thesis on La Défense. The one defining characteristic of the project was that it was exempt from the national planning system and its rules, creating a completely open-ended area. No one working on the project could tell me that this was the reason for its success, neither did the records they kept acknowledge it. The only man who had understood this and written about it was Rem Koolhaas.

Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) Romer’s charter cities offer a way out of this system, but Romer’s proposal to try out new forms of government at the scale of the city does not recognize the fractality of urban scale. It is possible to build not simply a new city out in the open wild, but a city within an existing city, at the edge or some such, thus creating a fractal of nested cities all working on a different planning system, and in this way not just serving as a comparative experiment but also benefiting from each others’ existence into one global system. I wrote before about such a patchwork of planning systems solving problems at conflicting scales.

The most characteristic feature of an emergent urbanism is that it tries to solve problems at the smallest possible scale first (in opposition to sprawl which solves problems at the regional scale). This means that an emergent city can be created at the margin of an existing sprawling metropolis, or in any pocket available within it.

The challenge then is truly to figure out the rules for changing the rules. If a spontaneous community of people can be sufficiently organized to claim an available place and declare that it is run on a different system, then by democratic principle will it be accepted, or opposed? If the political leaders of a dying city are going to abandon a part of their territory, can they concede it to a new organization, with a form of ownership that defies conventional practice? In any case, the initiative for such a measure will have to come from outside the system.

Related posts

Fake complexity: traffic control

The University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute has produced a handy little flash game where you can experience the life of a traffic planner in a series of increasingly complicated traffic challenges.

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

It’s hard to tell where the joke begins and where it ends with this app. According to the ITS news feed the game’s purpose is to let “high school students try their hand at working in the engineering and transportation field.” And, as if astonished by their own profession’s ridicule, the game’s description of the traffic control room reads “the traffic control center in the game is realistic: many large metropolitan areas (such as New York, Boston, and the Twin Cities) have traffic control centers that actually do look like that.”

You must play it and experience it for yourself.

Why was this made? Are traffic engineers passively crying out for someone to put them out of their misery? Traffic, after all, is the most complex pattern of all those that compose a city. While buildings move around over the span of years, traffic consists of thousands to millions of randomly moving parts in the span of a day. Despite all the efforts that have been invested in designing traffic control devices, the “frustration level” for drivers has only risen.

Some traffic engineers have learned that the problem was not traffic but central planning, the foremost of which was Hans Monderman. By running a driving school and studying how people related to their environment, Monderman discovered that the traffic control devices the profession employed were not only useless but counter-productive. He set out to remove traffic control and empower drivers to control themselves and make decisions based on their context. His model for traffic control is to design the context so that drivers will control themselves and each other, a scheme called shared space.

The basis of an emergent intelligent system is that individuals act and make choices based on a shared system of contextual rules. This decentralizes decision making and makes possible the optimal adaptation to chaotic environments. We can see this in the superior performance of the roundabout as compared to the traffic light for traffic flow. A roundabout is a rule that tells drivers to yield to other drivers coming from other directions. It is decentralized. A traffic light simply tells drivers when to stop and go, whatever the situation may be at the current time. When the traffic light status becomes completely alienated from reality, gridlock occurs and frustration boils. What frustrates drivers is their powerlessness to contribute to the intelligence of the system, and the utter waste of time being imposed on them because of traffic planners unfamiliar with the precise circumstances taking place.

It should be no wonder then that when the traffic control system fails, traffic flows better.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems Institutes of this world are trying to create intelligent traffic control tools, but those are another form of fake complexity. When all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are optimizing their behavior based on simple traffic rules, that is when traffic becomes intelligent.

(The scoop on this was obtained from Streetsblog and TransitMiami.)

Related topics

Make little plans

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs quotes a Japanese economist about his country’s capitalist revolution following the Meiji Restoration. He said that the greatest periods of creativity and productivity had been experienced when the country was adrift, not focused on any particular goal but open to all opportunities.

Urban planners, particularly Americans, identify with the maxim “make no little plans” attributed to Chicago plan architect Daniel Burnham. According to this idea maximum effort should be focused on a single, enormous goal, and a concensus should be built around this goal in order to achieve it. This is how the Chicago plan was realized, and this has been the frame upon which nearly every urban plan continues to be modeled. New innovations, like the charette process, are only refinements of the paradigm established by Burnham. To someone focused on a single large-scale goal small-scale problems like a complicated permitting process or bad street design are irrelevant. Someone focused on a single large-scale goal does not see any drawbacks to using repression to realize the plan, like zoning and urban growth boundaries. The city they envision does not have a small scale, and this is now the reality of our landscape: urbanization at enormous scale, with no concern for details and no sustainability.

A creative city is not goal oriented. Not only does it make little plans, it makes millions of little plans. It is adrift looking for its next opportunity. It is not made by an architect, but cultivated by its people.

Make millions of little plans.