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Modern Problems

Léon Krier advocates a return to more conscientious urban development

Léon Krier

By Scott Carlson | Posted 9/30/2009

Léon Krier discusses The Architecture of Community

Presented by the Greater Towson Committee, Goucher College Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.

Visit greatertowson.com for more details.

It's helpful to understand that Léon Krier is an architectural traditionalist before starting his book, The Architecture of Community (Island Press), or you might not get what his fuss is about. He begins with a rather provocative thought experiment: "If, one day, for some mysterious reason, all the buildings, settlements, suburbs, and structures built after 1945--especially those commonly called 'modern'--vanished from the face of the earth, would we mourn their loss?"

Well, yes, it seems we would. Just think of the great buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, and so on. But Krier's thought experiment doesn't end there: What if, instead, all of the pre-modern buildings--the ones we consider historic--disappeared? Would we weep more for them?

And there begins the rather provocative arguments that Krier lays out in Community. Krier contends that modernism, whatever its virtues in small scale, has been nothing but a disaster in larger scales--a force that has managed to sterilize cities aesthetically, ruin years of expertise in building trades, and lead planners and developers to compose cities in unsustainable ways. Krier punctuates his arguments with his illustrations, which are sometimes more like architectural editorial cartoons, presenting modern architecture in grotesque exaggeration. (If you're more of a picture-book kind of person, you might pick up Drawing for Architecture [The MIT Press], Krier's recently released collection of these illustrations, sans essays.)

With his attacks on modern architecture, Krier has built a following and fan base among traditionalists--no less than Prince Charles, who has taken to calling some famous modern buildings "dustbins" and "carbuncles." The appreciation goes beyond aesthetics. James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil prophet and author of The Long Emergency, who wrote Drawing's foreward, believes that Krier offers the most practical vision of architecture in an energy-starved world. Robert A.M. Stern, the traditionalist architect and dean of Yale University's architecture school, says that Krier is a "realist" who counters the utopian visions of Le Corbusier, who imagined cities as tidy, vertical machines. Krier contends that cities are messy places, like organisms, that are best built around transport on two legs.

Now, architecture is a bit like popular music: It's a very personal taste, and people discuss it with strong opinions and thin skins. I rather like the clean, streamlined lines of modern architecture, but it's hard to argue with Krier when he makes this point: Modern architecture and contemporary urban planning have grown up at a time of copious energy supplies, particularly in fossil energy. That energy supply is anomalous in history and quite possibly running out soon. So shouldn't we make cities that are more traditional in shape and size, which have survived centuries?

Krier's problem is that he takes his argument to extremes. Again and again in Community, a collection of micro-essays written over the architect's career, Krier lays out a devastating attack but then goes over the edge. For example:

A mere half century ago modernist movements claimed to have developed definitive solutions to all the problems of the built environment. Today, one truth is evident: without traditional landscapes, cities would be a nightmare on a global scale. Modernism represents a negation of all that makes architecture useful: no roofs, no load-bearing walls, no columns, no arches, no vertical windows, no streets, no squares, no privacy, no grandeur, no decoration, no craftsmen, no history, no tradition. Surely the next step must be to negate these negations.

Yes, a purely modernist city would be quite terrible. One essentially has that in Washington, D.C., where Brutalist and sterilized modern buildings compose whole parts of the city. (That architecture is part of the reason why people say that Baltimore, which kept its old buildings, is the "real city" of the pair.) But consider for a moment the work of Marcel Breuer: Yes, he produced his share of rubbish, but the Whitney Museum, the Abbey Church at St. John's University in Minnesota, or the Annunciation Monastery in North Dakota are all quite grand, decorative, intimate, and certainly historic. And in the process, he engineered new kinds of building techniques to pull off the massive structures.

At one point in the book, while Krier is railing against skyscrapers, he says that the best cities are composed of buildings between two and five stories. "There is no ecologically defensible justification for the erection of utilitarian skyscrapers," he writes, asking the reader to "imagine if both the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a campus-type three-story development." Again, you can see the appeal of such a statement if you consider a place like Baltimore's Mount Vernon. But if we squashed down and spread out the activity in the skyscrapers of New York--which should appeal to Krier's ideals for a walkable, vibrant city--we would have the sprawl nightmare of Los Angeles, or worse. (Then again, if in the future we don't have the energy necessary to power urban megastructures, Krier's nostalgia for smaller-scale buildings may seem prophetic.)

Whatever Krier's taste in building styles, his point about the structure and sustainability of cities is unassailable. Too many cities grow like cancers, spreading without planning, with various functional zones--residential, commercial, recreational--isolated from one another. Communities should be mixed from the start, growing by duplication, with the 10-minute walk being the measure of proper scale. (Forward-thinking cities like Portland have tried to plan around the 20-minute walk or bike ride.)

For now, Krier laments, we are wrapped up in celebrating green efforts only in high-profile individual buildings. "Sustainable development or city is a powerful myth with little reality," he writes, adding that the notion of sustainable planning exists only as hypothesis. "For the time being, the abuse of the term 'sustainable' erodes its social and political persuasiveness and postpones the advent of eventual solutions."

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