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Cities for Living

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Cities for Living

Antimodernist Léon Krier designs urban environments to human scale. Spring 2008
Arts and Culture
Krier's sketch of Poundbury, the Dorset city that he is planning on invitation from the Prince of Wales
Krier’s sketch of Poundbury, the Dorset city that he is planning on invitation from the Prince of Wales

The city, as we have inherited it from the ancient Greeks, is both an institution and a way of life, one coterminous with the civilization of Europe. The confluence of strangers in a single place and under a single law, there to live peacefully side by side, joined by social networks, economic cooperation, and friendly competition through sports and festivals, is among the most remarkable achievements of our species, responsible for most of the great cultural, political, and religious innovations of our civilization. Nothing is more precious in the Western heritage, therefore, than the cities of Europe, recording the triumph of civilized humanity not only in their orderly streets, majestic facades, and public monuments, but also in their smallest architectural details and the intricate play of light on their cornices and apertures.

American visitors to Paris, Rome, Prague, or Barcelona, comparing what they see with what is familiar from their own continent, will recognize how careless their countrymen often have been in their attempts to create cities. But the American who leaves the routes prescribed by the Ministries of Tourism will quickly see that Paris is miraculous in no small measure because modern architects have not been able to get their hands on it. Elsewhere, European cities are going the way of cities in America: high-rise offices in the center, surrounded first by a ring of lawless dereliction, and then by the suburbs, to which those who work in the city flee at the end of the day. Admittedly, nothing in Europe compares with the vandalism that modernists have wreaked on Buffalo, Tampa, or Minneapolis (to take three examples of American cities that cause me particular pain). Nevertheless, the same moral disaster is beginning to afflict us—the disaster of cities in which no one wishes to live, where public spaces are vandalized and private spaces boarded up.

Until recently, European architects have either connived at the evisceration of our cities or actively promoted it. Relying on the spurious rhetoric of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, they endorsed the totalitarian projects of the political elite, whose goal after the war was not to restore the cities but to clear away the “slums.” By “slums,” they meant the harmonious classical streets of affordable houses, seeded with local industries, corner shops, schools, and places of worship, that had made it possible for real communities to flourish in the center of our towns. High-rise blocks in open parkland, of the kind that Le Corbusier proposed in his plan for the demolition of Paris north of the Seine, would replace them. Meanwhile, all forms of employment and enjoyment would move elsewhere. Public buildings would be expressly modernist, with steel and concrete frames and curtain walls, but with no facades or intelligible apertures, and no perceivable relation to their neighbors. Important monuments from the past would remain, but often set in new and aesthetically annihilating contexts, such as that provided for Saint Paul’s in London.

Citizens protested, and conservation societies fought throughout Europe for the old idea of what a city should look like, but the modernists won the battle of ideas. They took over the architecture schools and set out to ensure that the classical discipline of architecture would never again be learned, since it would never again be taught. The vandalization of the curriculum was successful: European architecture schools no longer taught students the grammar of the classical Orders; they no longer taught how to understand moldings, or how to draw existing monuments, urban streets, the human figure, or such vital aesthetic phenomena as the fall of light on a Corinthian capital or the shadow of a campanile on a sloping roof; they no longer taught appreciation for facades, cornices, doorways, or anything else that one could glean from a study of Serlio or Palladio. The purpose of the new curriculum was to produce ideologically driven engineers, whose representational skills went no further than ground plans and isometric drawings, and who could undertake the gargantuan “projects” of the socialist state: shoveling people into housing estates, laying out industrial areas and business parks, driving highways through ancient city centers, and generally reminding the middle classes that Big Brother was supervising them.

But a later generation rebelled against the totalitarian mind-set of the modernists, rejecting socialist planning, and with it the collectivist approach to urban renewal. They associated the alienating architecture of the postwar period with the statist politics of socialism, and for good reasons.

It symbolized the approach to human life of people who believed that they alone had the answers and that they alone could dictate those answers to the rest of us. The mood of rebellion against this attitude was especially evident in Britain, where postwar planners had brought the work of the Luftwaffe near to completion in many cities. Architects like Quinlan Terry, Liam O’Connor, Demetri Porphyrios, and John Simpson, who grew up amid the advancing chaos, burst the chains forged by their obligatory modernist education and began designing buildings and urban projects in a classical style. At the same time, working in comparative obscurity as an assistant to the eclectic James Stirling was a graduate of the University of Stuttgart’s modernist school of architecture: Léon Krier, born in Luxembourg in 1946, who was beginning to publish the laconic monographs and satirical drawings that were later to form the basis of an antimodernist manifesto.

Krier has pursued a career in architecture, but he is also a philosopher and social thinker who believes that architectural modernism is not just ugly but also based in profound mistakes about the nature of human society. As he put it in a recent interview: “Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of a monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong—like communism—to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. . . . Modernism’s fundamental error, however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e., unavoidable and necessary) phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions.” What we need, therefore, is a repertoire of real solutions to the problems of urban design. And that is what Krier has set out to produce.

During the seventies, with the help of his equally talented brother Rob, Krier began producing designs showing how the urban fabric of Europe could be conserved, enhanced, and expanded, while answering to the real needs of modern people. A few enlightened city councils—notably those of Luxembourg and Bremen—commissioned plans and projects from the Kriers, though largely of an exploratory kind. But it was only in the eighties, when the Prince of Wales invited him to plan the new town of Poundbury, adjacent to the city of Dorchester, that Krier found a real opportunity to put his ideas into practice. His work immediately began to attract the critics’ attention.

Professional architects, appalled at the threat to the modernist monopoly, did their best to destroy Krier’s reputation and to dismiss his work as that of a nostalgic dreamer. But to their consternation, Poundbury has attracted enthusiastic residents, as well as industries and shops; it has become a place of pilgrimage, as popular with tourists as any medieval city, and a model that others are following elsewhere. The New Urbanist movement, with adherents in America, Italy, Spain, and Britain, owes much to Krier. His 1998 book Architecture: Choice or Fate is slowly becoming a standard work, though the architectural establishment profoundly hates it. Krier has worked in America, submitting designs for the New Urbanist development of Seaside, Florida, where he built a house for himself, and also designing the impressive village hall at Windsor, Florida—a new community conceived according to the principles that he defends.

Krier presents the first principle of architecture as a deduction from Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which tells us to act only on that maxim that we can will as a universal law. You must, Krier says, “build in such a way that you and those dear to you will use your buildings, look at them, work in them, spend their holidays in them, and grow old in them with pleasure.” Krier suggests that modernists themselves follow this dictum—in private. Modernist vandals like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster—between them, responsible for some of the worst acts of destruction in our European cities—live in elegant old houses in charming locations, where artisanal styles, traditional materials, and humane scales dictate the architectural ambience. Instead of Bernard Mandeville’s famous principle of “private vices, public benefits,” it seems that they follow the law of private benefits, public vice—the private benefit of a charming location paid for by the public vice of tearing our cities apart. Rogers in particular is famous for creating buildings that have no relation to their surroundings, that cannot easily change their use, that are extremely expensive to maintain, and that destroy the character of their neighborhoods—buildings such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for which a great acreage of humane streets had to be cleared and which deliberately turns its back on the historic quarter of the Marais; or the Lloyd’s Building in London, a piece of polished kitchenware surmounted by a pile of junk, dropped in the city as if from a passing airplane.

Traditional architecture produced forms expressive of human interests—palaces, houses, factories, churches, temples—and these sit easily under their names. The forms of modern architecture, Krier argues, are nameless—denoting not familiar objects and their uses but “so-called objects,” known best by nicknames, and never by real names of their own. Thus the Berlin Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster,” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles the “madhouse,” the new building at Queen’s College, Oxford, the “parking lot,” and the UN building in New York the “radiator.” The nickname, in Krier’s view, is the correct term for a kitsch object—for a faked object that sits in its surroundings like a masked stranger at a family party. Classical forms, by contrast, result from convention and consensus over centuries; they earn their names—house, palace, church, factory—from the natural understanding that they elicit, with nothing about them forced.

Modernist forms have been imposed upon us by people in the grip of ideology. They derive no human significance from the materials that compose them, from the labor that produced them, or from the function that they fulfill, and their monumental quality is faked.

Krier identifies the leading error of modernism as that introduced by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: separating load-bearing and outward-facing parts. Once buildings become curtains hung on invisible frames, all of the understood ways of creating and conveying meanings lose out. Even if the curtain is shaped like a classical facade, it is a pretend facade, with only a blank expression. Usually, however, it is a sheet of glass or concrete panels, without intelligible apertures. The building itself is hidden, and its posture as a member of the city, standing among neighbors and resting its weight upon their common ground, is meaningless because unobservable. All relation to neighboring structures, to the street, and to the sky, is lost. The form conveys nothing beyond the starkness of its geometry.

The curtain-wall idiom has other negative effects. Buildings constructed in this way are both expensive to maintain and of uncertain durability; they use materials that no one fully understands, which have a coefficient of expansion so large that all joints loosen within a few years, and which involve massive environmental damage in their production and in their inevitable disposal within a few decades. Modernist buildings are health catastrophes: sealed environments, dependent on a constant input of energy, and subject to the “sick-building syndrome” that arises when nobody can open a window or let in a breath of fresh air. Moreover, such buildings use no architectural vocabulary, so that one cannot “read” them as one does classical buildings. The passerby experiences this as a kind of rudeness. Modernist buildings exclude dialogue, and the void that they create around themselves is not a public space but a desertification.

This failure to provide a readable vocabulary is not a trivial defect of modernist styles: it is the reason why modernist buildings fail to harmonize with their neighbors. In architecture, as in music, harmony is a relation among independently meaningful parts, an achievement of order from elements that create and respond to valency. There are no chords in modernist architecture, only lines—lines that may come to an end but that achieve no closure.

The lack of vocabulary explains the alienating effect of a modern airport, such as Newark or Heathrow. Unlike the classical railway station, which guides the traveler securely and reassuringly to the ticket office, to the platform, and to the public concourse, the typical airport is a mass of written signs, all competing for attention, all amplifying the sense of urgency, yet nowhere offering a point of visual repose. Perhaps the most relaxing and functional public spaces in America are the few classically conceived railway stations—Union Station in Washington, for example, or Grand Central Terminal in New York—where architecture has displaced the written sign and where people, however urgently caught up in traveling, are momentarily content just to be. It is significant that when McKim, Mead, and White’s great Penn Station, modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, was scheduled for demolition in 1962, even modernists like Louis Kahn joined in the protest to prevent it. The demolition went ahead, but New Yorkers widely regret the old station’s destruction, as much on account of the mean, low-ceilinged space that now alienates the traveler, as because of the hideous and oppressive structure atop it.

Such considerations supplement the criticisms of the “zoning” idea—the idea that the city’s functions should be disaggregated, with industry assigned to one area, housing to another, shops and amenities to a third. As Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, this idea has been largely responsible for the steady flight from the urban center and the loss of the humane, lived-in street. What makes Krier new, and so important for us at the critical point that we have now reached—when everyone apart from professional architects recognizes that cities, to flourish, require a centripetal force to replace the centrifugal—is that he has a clear and persuasive remedy, one that town planners and builders everywhere could easily adopt and that citizens would embrace immediately if it were put to the vote.

Krier’s solution is to replace the “downtown plus suburbs” system with that of the polycentric settlement. If people move out, then let it be to new urban centers, with their own public spaces, public buildings, and places of work and leisure: let the new settlements grow, as Poundbury has grown next to Dorchester, not as suburbs but as towns. For then they will recapture the true goal of settlement, which is the human community in a place that is “ours” rather than individual plots scattered over a place that is no one’s. The towns will create a collection of somewheres instead of an ever-expanding nowhere. This solution has a precedent: the city of London grew next to the city of Westminster in friendly competition, and the residential areas of Chelsea, Kensington, Bloomsbury, and Whitechapel arose as autonomous villages rather than as spillovers from the existing centers.

The only thing needed to achieve this effect, Krier argues, is a master plan. By this, he means not one of those sinister experiments in social engineering that appealed to the modernists but a simple set of rules within which people can make the choices best suited to their needs. Krier’s master plan involves an overall layout, a street plan for each quarter, and rules governing such things as the shape of plots, the number of floors permitted in buildings (five, in Krier’s view, is the natural maximum), and the materials and technical configurations to which structures should conform. His aim is to control the quality of “normal, regular and inevitable building.” At present, planners are attracted only to exceptional buildings, usually designed, like the monstrosities of Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, to stand out rather than blend in—to focus attention on themselves, not on the ordinary solaces of human community. It is not exceptional buildings, however, but inevitable buildings—such as the house, the workshop, the garage, and the corner store—that dictate the ambience in which ordinary people work and live. It is here that rules are principally needed; the old classical pattern books (such as those by Asher Benjamin and Minard Lafever, used by the original builders of the New England towns) directed the shape and aspect of inevitable building. They were intended not for architects or designers of public monuments but for the use of ordinary builders in their day-to-day tasks. They were an attempt (useful in the circumstances but also noble in itself) to make architects redundant.

The plan should conform to Krier’s “ten-minute rule,” meaning that it should be possible for any resident to walk within ten minutes to the places that are the real reason for his living among strangers. The rule is not as demanding as Americans might think: Paris, Rome, Florence, Madrid, London, and Edinburgh all conform to it, as would the American suburbs if they grew as Krier suggests—as separate centers in a “polypolis,” so that people could work, shop, relax, and worship in places close to home. Good urban planning does not mean creating distance between people in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ocean-to-ocean suburbs, but bringing people together in ways that enhance their enjoyment of the place where they communally are.

That is the goal of the city, and it is, Krier argues, easily achievable. The polypolis will be a network of genuine public spaces, in which the ideal and the fact of communal settlement are recorded in the lay of the street and the genial side-by-sideness of the buildings. Every visible detail should be architectural, Krier argues, since every such detail is part of the public space. Traditional building styles conformed spontaneously to that principle, since they were controlled by good manners: the builder knew that he was adding to the public space of the town and that he had to conform to its unspoken rules of politeness. As Krier puts it: “All buildings, large or small, public or private, have a public face, a facade; they therefore, without exception, have a positive or negative effect on the quality of the public realm, enriching or impoverishing it in a lasting and radical manner. The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language—they are the foundation of civility and civilisation.”

That is the vision that Krier has tried to put into effect in Poundbury, where he has worked alongside neoclassical architects like O’Connor and Terry to realize his master plan. Krier conceived the town, still being built, as a single and continuous public space, organized around a town hall, each building contributing to the public vistas of which it is a part. Poundbury is a small settlement that will grow, in time, to 10,000 inhabitants—Krier argues that beyond that size, the need is not for further development around an existing center but for another center. And it is now a thriving community, in which people live, work, and shop, and where residents can walk to everything that they need. It has the feel of a medieval town, though with spaces more suited to our busy age, and a grocery store dealing in the environmentally friendly products for which the Prince of Wales is a tireless advocate. Poundbury contains factories, warehouses, offices, and civic buildings; the one thing it lacks is a church.

It is not for the architect to provide such a thing, says Krier, but for the residents to demand it. I suggest to him that the traditional settlements that he most admires began from the marking out of a sacred space, and from the building of a temple as a home for the gods. Where God is at home, so, too, are we; the real meaning of the modernist forms is that there is no God and that Big Brother is now in charge. Krier is inclined to agree with me; but the problem, he says, is to find ways of building that will enable people to rediscover truth for themselves. To try to impose a comprehensive vision against the instincts and the plans of ordinary people is simply to repeat the error of the modernists.

Critics have widely dismissed Krier’s project for urban renewal as impractical, despite the evident success of Poundbury. Undeterred, Krier continues to expound his vision in lectures, articles, and drawings, pointing out to his audience and his readers that he is not informing them but reminding them. Deep within everyone’s psyche, forming the measure of expectations and the image of settlement, is an idea of home, of the somewhere that is not just yours or mine, but ours. We need to reawaken this archetype, which the modernists’ policies have encouraged us to put out of our minds. It is like the laws of logic or the principles of morality: we cannot encounter it without being at once persuaded of its obviousness. I have seen Krier lecture to a roomful of skeptical left-wingers who had agreed only reluctantly to listen to this quaint apologist for a vanished age. And with the unassuming, self-questioning manner of a true teacher, he convinced his audience that the ideas that he laid before them were not his but theirs. They left the room in a condition of cheerful self-discovery, understanding that their socialist utopias were “news from nowhere,” and committed to somewhere instead. Such is Krier’s effect, I have discovered, on everyone he meets.

Perhaps nothing is more striking about Krier, however, than the feature that distinguishes him among architects: modesty. He quietly unfolds his schemes for the city of the future, seeking your agreement and appealing for suggestions. His large face and twinkling eyes radiate happiness, and his hands, as they unroll his drawings of the imaginary polis, are those of a father gently lifting his newborn child from the cradle. Though he abhors modernist vandalism, he never utters an uncharitable word about its perpetrators. His whole being seeks consensus, a democratic pooling of our collective energies, to create the urban environment where we will all be at home. And in his large but placid form you feel the presence of an indefatigable energy, expressing an undaunted love of ordinary humanity.

There are those who say—not of Krier only, but of the whole New Urbanist movement—that it is all very well but that it comes too late. The centrifugal tendency of the city is now irreversible, and the steel frame and curtain wall are here to stay. Such critics need to be reminded that sprawl is unsustainable and will inevitably produce a situation in which centripetal movement is the only alternative to social collapse. And as Terry has repeatedly argued, building with steel frame and curtain wall is also unsustainable: such structures quickly become derelict or too costly to maintain, and leave in their wake a quantity of environmental poison all but impossible to bury. What the New Urbanists propose is not a utopia but a viable alternative to urban decline.

Of course, as the twentieth century—the century of the modernists—taught us, people have an astonishing ability to march toward catastrophe. But why should we endorse that behavior when we still retain our critical faculties? Better to ponder Krier’s words: “By creating cities, we create ourselves. When we despoil our cities, we despoil ourselves. Our most cherished memories will henceforth generate the poison of regret, of irretrievable loss, even of hatred of what we prized most. We then flee from the world and from ourselves. A beautiful village, a beautiful house, a beautiful city can become a home for all, a universal home. But if we lose this aim we build our own exile here on earth.”

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