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December 22, 2009
by Bill Millard

Event: The Architecture of Community
Location: Urban Center, 12.09.09
Speakers: Léon Krier — Visiting Professor, Yale School of Architecture
Organizers: Congress for the New Urbanism; Municipal Art Society

Where would civilization be without extremists? Its progress may depend on some of them — sometimes even the ones who don’t believe in progress. An internally coherent and uncompromising position that rejects mainstream core assumptions may never see its ideals realized in the literal form its adherents envision, but such a stance can shift the center of gravity of debate; at the very least, it forces opponents to clarify their ideas. Such may be the ultimate effect of Léon Krier’s advocacy of neotraditional town planning and architectural forms adhering to a classical/vernacular continuum. Though American New Urbanism, British Windsorism, and related movements have translated some of his ideas into practical planning and construction, his direct and undiluted message comes as a shock even to those familiar enough with his writings to expect one.

By “looking at cities in non-sentimental ways,” Krier dismissed not just architectural modernism but modernity itself as a petroleum-gulping, civility-eroding abomination. His argument, he stressed, is not about subjective style preferences but about the technologies that make communities possible and the kinds of communities that might endure if current technologies fail, as he believes they inevitably will. Krier is an unabashed radical, not a fashionable one — but a real one.

Krier addressed a New York audience at the end of his book tour. Apparently prepared to encounter defenses of a city that he said passed its prime around 1910, he seemed at times surprised at the respectful reception he received. He has seen enough of the U.S. in recent months to be appalled not only at its horizontal sprawl but at the skyscraping cities he calls “vertical sprawl,” comprising overdeveloped clusters of “vertical cul-de-sacs.” He minces no words about what we need: “This country has to be entirely reorganized.”

We are headed, Krier warned, for a societal collapse as described in James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, Jeremy Rifkin’s Entropy, and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, among several sources he recommends. The consequences are likely to be asymmetrical: the decline in fossil-fuel production may be much steeper than its recent rise, he noted, and the Corbusian building forms that correlated with that rise strike him as ill-suited to the days ahead. He advocates dismantling the modern city and building only historically familiar forms on biologically based scales: a ten-minute walking radius, plus a height limit low enough to define his vision of “mature urbanity” as more village than city. Even bicycles and elevators apparently fail to meet his sustainability criteria. “If I was President of the United States,” he said, “…I would impose constitutionally that no one should in the future ever build anything more than three stories.” He quickly dismissed arguments linking urban density with sustainability on the grounds that skyscrapers “are buildings which need enormous empires to maintain.” There is essentially nothing about the modern city that he finds beautiful or useful enough to keep.

Krier sees civilization on the brink of collapse. Those tempted to dismiss him over ideas like the three-story limit also need to reckon with ideas of his that they might welcome from a less alarmist source: polycentric mixed-use layouts, unstigmatized affordable housing, the priority of pedestrian life, and the critical civic role of public squares — preferably, he says, organic European-style piazzas. His proposal that some entity buy up four-block areas in American cities and build regularly spaced urban piazzas, varying the artificial geometry of our Jeffersonian grid along with providing natural congregation points, could do a great deal to relieve the anti-communitarian effects of our built environment.

“Unfortunately, architectural education has lobotomized most people who are of common intelligence and sensitivity,” he is convinced, but when the concept of progress strikes him wholesale as illogical and unsupported by evidence, one looks in vain for reciprocal sensitivity to nuance. In dismissing all technologically based visions of the sustainable metropolis, he sometimes relies more on assertion than actual refutation. At times Krier appears to go out of his way to provoke opponents into ignoring his warnings; this ill serves a set of ideas whose gravity calls for serious scrutiny. And, if we are lucky, for the refinement that comes through head-on debate with the champions of the modern city’s capacities for exuberance and resilience.

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