Dangerously Insane

Deyan Sudjic

  • BuyThe Architecture of Community by Léon Krier
    Island, 459 pp, £12.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 59726 579 9

Leon Krier does not look much like an architect. Most of them dress in a now somewhat dated all-black Yohji Yamamoto manner. Krier by contrast wears a lot of linen, and he has the wire-frame glasses, broad-brimmed hats and neck stock associated with minor characters in Merchant Ivory adaptations. He keeps his hair in a bird’s nest and has a vaguely clerical air. But despite his mild appearance, Krier is an architect with a violent edge to his polemics, whose impact has extended far beyond the small number of designs he has actually built. His two greatest enemies are consumerism and modernism, characterised by the generic contemporary city lost in a wasteland of business parks, and endless suburbs punctuated by aggressively exhibitionistic landmarks. He celebrates the humility of the traditional city, with its robust, handsome but unpretentious streets, enhanced by the occasional judiciously positioned monument in classical style. He believes that it is not difficult to go on building places with the qualities of central Oxford, Prague or Ljubljana.

It is a measure of his skill as a polemicist that he has made his credo the official architectural policy of the next British monarch, as well as of the current mayor of Rome. Robert Stern, once a board member of the Disney Corporation, now dean of Yale’s School of Architecture and the author of the introduction to Krier’s latest book, is the architect of the presidential library of George W. Bush, now under construction in Texas. And Krier has disciples everywhere from Florida to Romania. He is the father of what his American followers call the New Urbanism, of which the Prince of Wales’s development project at Poundbury outside Dorchester is the prime British example. In argument, Krier takes no prisoners, and apparently accepts no compromises.

He certainly has no fear of unfashionable causes. He has written at length about his architectural hero, Albert Speer, whom he continues to see as the last great hope of classical urbanism. Speer, in Krier’s eyes, was the tragic victim of Nuremburg, incarcerated in Spandau because he was guilty of a passion for Doric columns, while the far more destructive Wernher von Braun was judged useful enough to be whisked to comfortable exile in the US.

Speer’s projects continue, not unlike sex for the virgin, to be the object of pseudo embarrassment for architects … The inability to deal with the problem today in an intelligent manner reveals nothing about National Socialist architecture, but tells us a great deal about the moral depravity of a profession which on the one hand claims against all odds that modernist architecture is better than it looks, and on the other, that Nazi architecture is profoundly bad, however good it may look.

When he was young, Krier argued that it was the melancholy duty of every architect of principle to give up any idea of building at all. ‘A responsible architect cannot possibly build today … Building can only mean a greater or smaller degree of collaboration in a civilised society’s process of self-destruction.’ To build, he suggested, would be to take part in the crime of the century, that is to say, the destruction of the traditional European city. ‘I can only make architecture,’ he said in the 1970s, ‘because I do not build. I do not build because I am an architect.’

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