Tag Archives: Albert Speer

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.

Complex geometry and structured chaos part II

Complexity, to employ the definition proposed by Jane Jacobs in the final chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a juxtaposition of problems. This implies that a complex solution is a juxtaposition of solutions: fractal geometry.

How does the way we build arrive at complex solutions to complex problems without driving the builders to madness? How can we solve problems which exist at every scale in space, but also exist at every scale in time? Let’s take a look at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.

Let us focus on two different parts of it, the dome and the belltower. At first sight, there is nothing that a dome and belltower have in common. They are two different forms that solve two very different scales of problems. And if they had been built very far apart in two different neighborhoods of the city, one would never even associate them together. Yet in this case they are not only “dome” and “bell tower”, but they are also part of a greater form we call “St. Paul’s Cathedral”. That is to say, their form not only solves the problem of providing a dome and a bell tower, but it also contributes to solving the problem of providing a cathedral. Several scales of solutions are juxtaposed in the same space in order to form a complex solution. How was this result achieved?

Perhaps the architect Sir Robert Wren was a genius, but intuitively we doubt that, since the geometry in St. Paul’s cathedral is very similar to the baroque geometry employed throughout Europe at the time. And when we think back to how the Gothic cathedrals were built, very slowly, sometimes over more than a century, they were necessarily built by more than one architect. If they were all geniuses, then they must have been lucky to find so many geniuses idling about in medieval Europe. That sounds impossible given that medieval cathedrals appear to be even more complex than St. Paul’s cathedral, even though more people worked on their construction over a greater timespan. The sublime Antwerp cathedral, for example, was built from 1351 to 1521, and never completely finished.

There has to be a key to this riddle. How did we lose the skill to make this kind of complexity?

Since Leone Battista Alberti heralded modernity (not to be confused with modernism) in architecture, and until the mid-20th century, architects spent their first days in training learning to draw the classical orders. These classical orders supposedly held the finest refinement of western civilization’s building culture, having been in use since Greek antiquity and maybe earlier. It was an architect’s duty to reproduce this culture by learning the orders. Any deviation would certainly cause the doom of civilization. What the orders actually consisted of were fractal nesting rules, settled on more or less accidentally through the ages. Since the abstract concept of fractal nesting would not be discovered until Benoit Mandelbrot’s work in the 1970’s, the orders were simply understood to be unquestionable tradition. Since they were very simple local-form rules, any architect could use them to make his building, and they could be taught to any laborer working on any specific sub-section of a building without his having to know his role in the form of the whole. They could even be used to make simulations of the building, drawings and scale models that would later be used to convince patrons to fund construction. The rules were always the same. Only the problems to be solved changed.

Let’s take a look back at Wren’s cathedral. What does the dome consist of? Nested structures, including columns. What does the bell tower consist of? Nested structures, including the same kind of columns. The two different problems to be solved, dome and bell tower, also happen to share the same nested problems, and when they share a solution to this problem, they become connected into a whole.

Once we are aware of this rule we no longer need a necromancer to reanimate Wren in order to build an addition to the cathedral. We can simply decompile the geometric rules and apply them to solve the new problems we face. Whatever we produce that way will belong to the cathedral as much as the original parts. But we can also extend this to the scale of an entire city. If we apply these geometric rules to build a house or an office tower, it will appear to belong as much to St. Paul’s as the bell tower and the dome do. This enables us to achieve the complexity limit of urbanism. And when we look at all the great cities of the past, Paris, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Mediterranean hill towns, what we find is that they look whole because the builders who made them were all using the same rules in order to solve their individual problems. They didn’t realize they were doing it, they were just doing it because that’s how things were done.

If the classical orders were so great, why are they no longer being taught? Up to the 19th century, building technology changed very little, and so simply repeating the tradition was enough to create complexity. When metals and glass became massively affordable in the industrial revolution, architects faced a puzzle. Although the traditions succeeded at creating complex solutions, they were no longer solutions to problems that were relevant to anyone. Some architects experimented with new rules for nested structures using the new materials, more or less compatible with the old rules, and that gave us Art Nouveau and the Eiffel tower, for example. And some more radical architects, such as Louis Sullivan, said that modernity required the invention of a whole new architecture, and this became known as modernism. The modernists were right to declare the classical orders irrelevant, but in their rejection of the very foundations of architecture, the application of simple nesting rules, they also made it impossible for themselves to create complex buildings, and the result is the architectural wreck that unfolded starting in the 1930’s. The worse culprits, no doubt, were those modernists like Le Corbusier and even Albert Speer (bet you wouldn’t think he was a modernist) who favored abstraction and repetition in architecture. Abstraction is only the denial of complexity, the physical nature of our universe. It is the architectural equivalent of playing ostrich.

Post-modernism tried to bring back traditional forms without really giving up modernism, and that was a disaster perhaps worse than modernism was. Since post-modernists did not create nesting rules for their architecture, and on top of that were bringing up forms that were solutions even less relevant now than when they were abandoned, the result was a worldwide goofy architecture that everyone mocks as pastiche.

Some architects have been stumbling upon the right path these last few decades. The most remarkable effort has been the remodeling of the Reichstag in Berlin by Norman Foster.

The old building represented the federalist traditions of Germany, but also had to be adapted to the new philosophy of popular democracy. Foster built a glass dome from which the people can look at their politicians at work while enjoying a wonderful panoramic view of Berlin. Foster nested a new solution to a new a problem within the traditional geometry of the Reichstag, and thus created complexity that is relevant to the problems of today.

Architecture is, ultimately, just the repetitive computation of simple geometric rules to solve complex problems. Necessarily that creates complex solutions, and truly fractal buildings. With the right ruleset, anyone can do architecture, and by extension, great cities. The rules guide your hand.