Tag Archives: Leon Krier

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.

Creating the emergent dimension, or learning from Wikipedia

In Architecture: Choice or Fate, his manifesto for New Urbanism, classicist Leon Krier produced many inspirational images of urban complexity, going as far as a fractal comparison of modern and traditional buildings. The cover of the book, a fictional resort town for Tenerife, presents a fascinating case study of complex symmetry; no building is the same as another, but all share the same geometric properties. That would not be unusual had it not been an architectural manifesto. Competent artists have always been able to imagine dream cities, and they continue to do so with every blockbuster fantasy movie that hits the screens.

The dream city of Coruscant in Star Wars

The dream city of Not London in The Golden Compass

Like the dream cities of Le Corbusier and his modernist colleagues, the dream cities of artists have in common the fact that none of them have ever been realized. Leon Krier’s dream city, Poundbury, has been realized by the capital backing of a supernaturally rich patron, and even then it has been built very slowly and carefully. In the time it has taken to develop Poundbury, millions of urbanisations have occurred elsewhere. Like the New Urbanist TNDs of America, no matter how much we enjoy their architectural quality, we cannot consider them to be real cities. The real city has been built in the emergent dimension, not by the mind of a single artist but by the material necessities of all people. While it is fairly straightforward for an artist like Leon Krier to invent and apply his own form language to imagine a complex cityscape, in order for this design to be adapted to the material necessities of millions it must also involve millions. We obviously cannot burden a single artist with this task.

And so urbanism has a wholly different starting point from architecture. The artist does not have control. No one can possibly ever have control. Everything is happening all at once everywhere at once. To attempt to stabilize this process has caused chaos everywhere.

The starting point of urbanism is the same starting point that the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, set for himself when he established the Internet’s now most indispensable website. Instead of asking how to publish the expert opinion of specialists as an encyclopedia that would compete with the print powerhouses (a venture he had already attempted and failed at), Wales based his system on the theories of economist and complexity scientist Friedrich von Hayek. The idea that Hayek proposes is that there exists specific knowledge that only individuals possess, and that can only be utilized with their cooperation. Wales saw his task as the aggregation of this knowledge into one coherent system.

The world-wide-web had, since the early 90’s, become a massively hyperlinked knowledge network that everyone could publish in. The reality at the time of Wikipedia’s creation was that this power had not produced any kind of coherent system for basic knowledge. Aggregating knowledge had up to then been too complicated. Wales wanted, in his own words, to “make the Internet not suck.” Overcoming this deficiency meant simplifying the production of web pages and hyperlinks, removing some unnecessary choices in the process. This is what the interface of Wikipedia did. Within a year, Wikipedia had grown explosively and exponentially. Making information easier to create and access had made it possible for the sum total of encyclopedic knowledge to be rapidly constituted.

This has come at a cost, however. While there is in theory unlimited freedom to add content that one considers relevant to Wikipedia, the form that this content will take on screen is very rigidly defined. This is necessary in order to achieve the complexity of the system. The design of Wikipedia is constant across every page in order to make it possible to rapidly navigate through all the information without having to relearn the rules for every article. Nevertheless, when we click on a link to a Wikipedia page, we never know what we are going to get. The design acts not as a constraint on the content, but as an enabler of the content. Without the rules enforced by Wikipedia, none of the content would have been added.

Wales and his foundation have been extremely controversial. On the one hand, in order for Wikipedia to work as it does, the foundation must provide all the support structures necessary to enable the users to create knowledge, and on the other hand it must also blindly trust the users to create information that will be accurate. It simply is not possible to control the content of so many millions of articles. To attempt this would necessarily shrink the size and reduce the complexity of the system, destroying what makes Wikipedia useful in the first place. The emergent dimension must either be embraced or rejected.

The lessons learned from Wikipedia can also be learned from the very rich past of urban planning. Historically the most successful cities have not been those who have had the least planning but the most enabling plans. The Manhattan plan of 1811, for example, provided for the flexible extension of a street grid without interfering in what could be built within the blocks, and so enabled a surge in urbanisation that was unmatched in history. Eventually this model reached its complexity limits and a new design for Manhattan was applied (with varying success), such as the building codes that gave us wedding-cake skyscrapers, and the metropolitan transit system of subways and later on expressways.

The darker side of this phenomenon has been the creation of city designs that inadvertently enabled the creation of a type of city that no one wanted. Every city, no matter how loudly the local authorities claim to be planning-free, have a design. Take the classical example of a “no planning” city, Houston. Although it has no zoning codes, Houston has a system for laying down a grid of roads that implies necessarily a large-scale, long-ride, automobile-dependent city. By their very form, these roads make some types of urbanisation easier and others more difficult. Who is going to build for a walkable neighborhood when there are no sidewalks? How can a TND make a walkable city when at every mile a thoroughfare cuts off the pedestrian links? How can a sustainable city emerge when only one form of link, long-range auto trips, can be made between destinations?

The threat that we face today is not suburban sprawl. New Urbanism and Smart Growth have been victorious in that aspect. The danger we face is dense sprawl, (see Eric Eidlin, The Worst of All Worlds Los Angeles and the Emerging Reality of Dense Sprawl) where our disconnected cities become denser and denser without becoming more complex, resulting in even poorer urban conditions. The suburb is not the design. Sprawl is the design.

Our cities may not be what we wanted, but they have not been accidents. They are the result of designs applied by the local (and sometimes not-so-local) authorities. They will only change if we invent and apply new designs for them. They cannot be architectural designs founded upon control of the artist. They also cannot be the endless grid of highway strips. Yet they must have both art and highways. It is a whole new method of design, emergent design, that we must master.

Reference

Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ sprawling vision

A measure of urban connection

What does it mean for a city to be connected? And is there quality resulting from this property? Let’s define the basic node of a city as a doorway. (Not necessarily a building. A single building can have many doorways to separate spaces.) A connection is the distance from this doorway to the next node, that is to say the next doorway. A well connected city is a city where the distance from doorway to doorway is minimized, since everything will be easily accessible from the public space.

Shopping malls have mastered this aspect of cities. They tightly connect boutiques which are long and narrow together, and place large stores at terminating vistas such that their bulk does not create a connective void. They have even restored the practice of kiosks, placing them in the largely unused central width of their interior street. Every effort is made to prevent holes from closed-down stores. Mall operators have found that when people run into such an absence of connection, they turn around, making a chunk of the mall unattractive and isolated. Since the mall exists to allow separate shops to benefit from each other’s proximity, it is terrible business to have such a hole in the network.

The concept of the suburban shopping mall is a reactionary invention. When urban planners defined the new city as being strictly automobile-based, some clever businessmen found it worthwile to restore the city street as an enclosed megabuilding, (what Leon Krier would call a landscraper) offering the connective value of the traditional city to otherwise stranded suburbanites. And the only way they could slip it by the planning authorities was to wrap it around a massive shell of parking. As such, although the mall’s interior street is an extremely well connected public space, once you exit that street the measure of connection drops close to zero. While you can walk in the mall from one doorway to another in a few seconds, to reach another doorway after leaving the mall may well take several minutes. (And you’ll almost certainly need to take your car.)

The most basic thing a city can do to build connections is create sidewalks from doorway to doorway. Humans move on foot. Everything else is just a shortcut.