June 11, 2008


Cities for Living: Antimodernist Léon Krier designs urban environments to human scale. (Roger Scruton, Spring 2008, City Journal)

[A graduate of the University of Stuttgart’s modernist school of architecture, Léon 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.

...to expect much of antihuman infrastructure like airports or highways, which did more damage to the liveability of cities than any carpet bombing or riot ever did.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2008 8:22 PM

It's your power of understatement that keeps us coming back, OJ.

Posted by: Bruno at June 11, 2008 9:04 PM

Of all of the cities of Europe, my personal favorite is Vienna. I try to stay at the Hotel Ambassador which is within the Ringstrasse and near the Opera.

There is a large square just a few blocks from the Ambassador and fronting it is a magnificent cathedral, the Stephansdom. The rest of the square is of traditional middle European architecture, which in this case means a charming mixture of styles from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century.

The exception is a monstrously ugly structure directly across from the Stephansdom which is a chaotic mess of glass and marble built in the 1990s.

The Viennese I have talked to about it shrug their shoulders. No one likes it, but most seem to assume that it is some sort natural occurrence like an earthquake or a tornado.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at June 11, 2008 9:30 PM

which did more damage to the liveability of cities

You left out the Urban Planners and Renewers who created places like Hyde Park when they weren't causing anyone sane to flee from their creations.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 12, 2008 8:19 AM

Concourse C in Newark is actually OK. A reasonable view of Manhattan, nice natural lighting, and easy to get around.

Of course, A and B are about the worst in the country.

Posted by: ratbert at June 12, 2008 11:14 AM