Dangerously Insane

Deyan Sudjic

  • The 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 Nuremberg, 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.’

None of these apparently once crucial statements is reproduced in The Architecture of Community, a collection of Krier’s writings, even though it is illustrated by a selection of his projects going back 40 years which might be understood to have been shaped by them. Instead Krier has decided that the time is now right to engage with the world, and to offer a set of prescriptions that, if followed, might offer a solution to what he perceives as our self-destruction. ‘After years of failed promises and experiments, the critical situation of the suburbs leaves us little choice but to seek practical solutions. These are, in fact, readily available, but it is evident that a modernist bias harbouring ideological and psychological blockages causes traditional solutions to be ignored, discarded and even discredited.’

Even when Krier is being conciliatory, he flavours his text with invective. His opponents are guilty, he says, of ‘unjustifiable nonsense’. Regulations that he takes objection to, even if they concern nothing more controversial than street lighting, are ‘insane’. Naturally, ‘the idea of replacing the world’s rich panoply of traditional architectures by a single international style is dangerously insane.’ (Would anyone suggest such a thing?) However, there is a certain family resemblance between the languid village hall in Florida designed by Krier and the replanned Italian town of Alessandria also featured in his book.

‘Modern is chronology, while modernist is ideology,’ Krier points out, to demonstrate that he isn’t a hopeless reactionary; he is perfectly ready to accept fast cars, and to deftly sketch in a silver-hulled four turbo-prop engined Super Constellation in the skies over his scheme for the completion of Washington in the grandest classical manner. He discusses typology: we know what a church looks like, so we don’t need to invent it every time we build one. We are perfectly capable of developing new typologies, as and when required: railway stations, for example, and even, belatedly, airports – Krier approves of the new departure gates at Charles de Gaulle, and César Pelli’s work at Washington. What he finds dangerous is innovation for the sake of innovation – although so did Mies van der Rohe, who always wanted to design good buildings rather than interesting ones. ‘In traditional cultures, invention, innovation and discovery are the means to modernise proven and practical systems of thinking, planning, building, representing, communicating in the arts, philosophy, architecture, language, the sciences, industry and agriculture. They are the means to an end, they aim to conceive, realise and conserve a solid, durable, practical, beautiful, humane world.’ Krier finds the antithesis in modernist cultures. In them, ‘invention, innovation and discovery are transcendental ends … For traditional cultures imitation is a way of producing objects that are similar but unique.’ Traditional architecture, he explains, ‘comprises two complementary disciplines, vernacular building on the one hand, classical or monumental architecture on the other’.

Alongside his definitions, there is practical advice on how to use artificial lighting in public spaces, including the shrewd observation that you get more architecture out of low buildings with high ceilings than you do from high buildings with low ceilings. And he offers firm guidelines on how to achieve the right balance of public and private space in a city: more than 70 per cent public is too much, less than 25 per cent is too little.

What makes his book palatable is that it is embellished with sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes dazzlingly witty drawings. They recall the great 19th-century champion of the true principles of Christian architecture, Augustus Welby Pugin, though they are rendered with the calligraphic style of Barbar the Elephant and in a format that owes quite a bit to Le Corbusier’s polemical tract Vers une architecture. Things that Krier and Le Corbusier disapprove of are crossed out with big Xs. When they have something IMPORTANT to say, they burst into capital letters.

Krier, who was born and brought up in Luxembourg, describes an early visit to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. As he tells it, as an adolescent he had fallen in love with images he had seen of Le Corbusier’s work. But when he finally got to Marseille he was horrified by the streaked concrete madhouse he found there. Krier calls it a defining moment. What was meant to be a transcendent experience turned into a betrayal, and it is clearly this sense of betrayal that has driven his animus for modernism. He even publishes evidence of a touching attempt to redeem his fallen Lucifer. Decades after his visit, he set a class at Yale the task of redesigning Le Corbusier’s gleaming white house, the Villa Savoye, retaining the energy of its plan and composition but using traditional materials and techniques.

Whatever did or did not happen in Marseille, it didn’t stop Krier from going to London in 1968 to work for James Stirling. Often described as the foremost British architect of the 20th century, Stirling was not somebody who appealed to the Prince of Wales. Indeed enthusiasts at Cambridge for the prince’s views on architecture did all they could to get the Stirling-designed History Faculty Library demolished. And though Stirling’s development at Number One Poultry clearly shares many of Krier’s compositional techniques, the prince denounced it in terms almost as intemperate as those he had used for the Mies van der Rohe glass stump it replaced. Krier’s deft pen-and-ink drawings were used to powerful effect while he was with Stirling. In the corner of his perspectives of the Olivetti training centre, Krier placed Stirling’s bulky figure in a representation of one of the Thomas Hope chairs his employer collected. Krier played a significant part in the competition design Stirling submitted for the centre of Derby. They didn’t win, but the project would have included a sweeping semi-circular galleria and turned the classical façade of the town’s existing assembly rooms into a piece of flat stage scenery, tilted at a 45º angle. Krier also put together a monograph on Stirling’s complete works, in a style closely modelled on Le Corbusier’s own Oeuvre complète. Krier’s change of heart did not come at once. Indeed in the 1970s, he even confessed that he’d been moved more than he had expected by a visit to Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, an intricate steel and aluminium aircraft hanger cum Greek temple.

After Krier left Stirling, he started teaching at the Architectural Association, a private design school in London which during the 1970s served as a kind of unofficial opposition to the lacklustre world of mainstream British architecture. He developed a contempt for his profession that was shared by Rem Koolhaas, another architect with a Le Corbusier fixation who happened to be teaching at the AA at the time. While Krier came to believe that no respectable architect could build anything with a clear conscience, Koolhaas ridiculed what he took as the sentimentality and impotence of architects whose only response to the tidal wave of business parks and mega-malls overwhelming the globe was to retreat into an autistic obsession with the precision with which doors could be fitted into walls, or the width of the gap between a floorboard and the plaster wall that floated above it. Koolhaas seemed to be trashing the very possibility of architecture, on his way towards the exit. Neither he nor Krier seemed much interested in the physical, material possibilities of architecture. The difference was that while Krier had acquired a William Morris-like horror of the modern world, Koolhaas inoculated himself to it by embracing the nightmarish vision of what he characterised as ‘Junkspace’, the soft underbelly of shopping malls, giant sheds and airport terminals.

Both Koolhaas and Krier have changed their stance now. Koolhaas met Miuccia Prada and the director of Chinese state television, while Krier joined the court of the Prince of Wales – to whom he archly dedicates this book. The world, Krier thinks, is ready to listen. At one point he suggests that one more heave is all that’s necessary. He claims to have won the argument on city planning: all that remains is to banish plate-glass skyscrapers and the exhibitionism of the current crop of architectural stars:

Modernism represents the 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 … In fact, for several years now neo-modernists have had to admit that there is no true substitute for the traditional fabric of streets and squares. Nevertheless, they continue to reject traditional architecture with the same obsolete arguments that yesterday compelled them to reject traditional urbanism.

Certainly there is little to choose between Krier’s ‘living streets’ and animated public spaces, and the café society of piazzas and cities with tightly delineated edges championed by Richard Rogers.

The title page of The Architecture of Community is adorned with a photograph that shows Krier with Prince Charles – they appear to have just emerged from a military helicopter. Krier prepared a masterplan for Poundbury for the prince, and has also worked for the developers of Seaside (a holiday resort on the coast of Florida), designed a villa on Corfu for Lord Rothschild, new towns in Italy and Romania, and been commissioned by Stuart Lipton to replan Spitalfields Market. He has even worked for me. As one-time editors at Blueprint magazine, Dan Cruickshank and I asked Krier to look at London’s South Bank. He managed to conceal the National Theatre and the Festival Hall in an agreeable thicket of Palladian monuments and urban quarters – the scheme is reproduced in the book.

This isn’t the only volume that Krier has dedicated to the man he calls ‘Mon Prince’, but the monograph that he produced in 1985 on Albert Speer is not one of them. Krier’s obsession with the work of Speer could be seen as a provocation. But demonstrating that there is no necessary connection between classicism and authoritarian regimes is one thing; campaigning to save Speer’s streetlights, and referring to the ‘brutal demolition’ of the only substantively realised part of his scheme to build Germania, is quite another.

Krier’s sympathy for Nazi architecture, to which he draws little attention in this book, shouldn’t in itself discredit his prescriptions. As he points out, Mies van der Rohe did all he could to secure the commission to build Hitler’s new Reichsbank and produced a design for a Brussels pavilion in the same reduced glass and steel manner of its predecessor in Barcelona, except for the eagle and swastika insignia that he proposed to put on its flat roof. Yet nobody would claim that Mies was a Nazi, or that the Seagram Building is an example of Nazi architecture. But Krier’s enthusiasm for Speer’s plan for Berlin is evidence of a naivety that is also reflected in his decision to work for Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome and a lifelong member of the MSI, Italy’s now reconstituted Fascist party, at a time when Alemanno was threatening to demolish Richard Meier’s white steel and glass pavilion for the Ara Pacis. In The Architecture of Community there is a drawing by Krier of three heads, supposedly displaying the idealised and harmonious racial characteristics of a European, an African and an Asian over the legend: ‘true pluralism’. It shares the page with another image, of a face made up of a violent blend of all three racial characteristics, and the message ‘false pluralism’. Can such a sophisticated polemicist really be unaware of the possible interpretations invited by these images?

The Prince of Wales has attracted many architectural advisers over the years. Most of them have been discarded as inconveniently interested in self-publicity. Far from being dumped, the word is that Krier had to be persuaded not to resign from the Poundbury project in despair at the watering down of his guiding principles. His designs are vigorous and inventive, light years ahead of the feeble neo-Palladianism of Quinlan Terry, let alone the heavy-handed Robert Adam, or John Simpson, or even his own brother, Rob Krier, also an architect. They take traditional elements and reassemble them in new and unfamiliar ways. They do not try to evoke things they are not. Their impact comes from their vigour and energy, the quality of the physical experiences they offer and the intelligence of their imaginative manipulation of the elements of architecture. Yet, though you would never guess it from Krier’s book, the way our cities look and work is hardly the exclusive result of decisions made by architects, but the product of economic and political systems, of population growth, of wealth and poverty, of transport systems and highway engineers. These are rarely the targets of Krier or his patrons. Instead, they take the narrower view, thus reinforcing architects’ sense of self-importance. Krier’s militant humility is perhaps not humility at all.