Krier may be best known ... as the intellectual godfather of the New Urbanism
movement in America, a campaign to rescue the landscape, townscape and civic
life of our nation from the failed experiment of a drive-in utopia.
Krier [is] a Luxemburgois who lived in London for twenty years and
now makes his home in southern France. He brings an exhilarating clarity to
issues of place-making and architecture that have been otherwise subject to
a remorseless obscurantism by a colorful cast of self-promoting avant-gardist
charlatans ranging from Le Corbusier in the 1920s to Peter Eisenman in our time
... Among the other putative leading figures in international architecture,
Krier's work is the most comprehensive and intelligent."
-- Introduction by James Howard Kunstler, from a review of Léon Krier's
book Architecture: Choice or Fate.
Nikos A. Salingaros interviews Léon Krier on the future of cities, followed
by two sections from Léon Krier's book Architecture: Choice or Fate.
1. Tall buildings.
Nikos Salingaros (NS): With the recent tragic events of September 11,
do you think that our civilization needs to change direction in its thinking
about urbanism? Does the perceived unease in inhabiting tall buildings also
indicate a crisis with modernist architecture in general?
Léon Krier (LK): The tragic events of September 11 affect
our general perception and thinking about tall or low buildings for both psychological
and practical reasons. Assuming that the Pentagon and one of the World Trade
Center towers had a similar floor area (roughly 5 million square feet), we can
compare the relative damage done to one or the other by the same explosive charge.
It is evident that it is of a fundamentally different order [approximately
200 versus 2000 casualties]. Assume that the Pentagon establishment had
been housed in a single tall rather than a low building, and reflect on the
potential damage that could be done to the entire U.S. defense system by one
civilian aeroplane. Conversely, assume that the World Trade Center had been
housed in 4-storey-high traditional building blocks and reflect on the question:
How many aeroplanes would have been needed to cause the destruction of its compounded
floor area? I guess the number to be around 160 aeroplanes of Boeing 737 size,
instead of 2.
The tragic absurdity of the World Trade Center is that a very poor piece of
architecture has become an involuntary martyr -- a phantom tombstone of monstrous
scale. A fake architectural monument (i.e. private economic activities dressed
in a monumental garb, and housed in memorial pillars, totems and the like) has
become a true memorial through its disappearance. By its bodily dissolution
it has gained the (immortal) soul which had so far eluded it.
There are lots of good reasons to build high symbolic structures, such as the
Washington Memorial, the Capitol Building, the Eiffel Tower, St. Paul's Cathedral;
there exists no sound reason, however, for building excessively high utilitarian
buildings (with the exception of financial gain). Their collateral damage is
such that society cannot afford such absurdities as general propositions; the
problem today is not so much that they exist, but that some architectural thinkers
want to make us believe that they are inevitable and necessary even in the future.
These buildings make a very large impact as sex and power symbols, but considering
the very real damage they do to their host cities, users, and neighbors, they
may not only be considered now to be fragile and dangerous, but also obscene
rather than powerful.
2. Skyscrapers as an experimental typology.
NS: How far and on what points do you agree with Kunstler and myself
that "the era of skyscrapers is at an end"; that it is "an experimental building
typology that has failed"? Are there any issues raised in our paper
published in PLANetizen with which you disagree?
LK: I would rather reformulate your quote as "the era of the utilitarian
skyscraper is at an end". It's not the metric height but the excessive number
of floors which causes systemic problems. Applied science and technology undertake
typological experiments in controlled conditions. They don't fly civilian passengers
in experimental planes: nevertheless, that is exactly what modernist architects
have been doing for three generations; they literally build buildings which
are not ready for common use.
3. False steps and ideology.
NS: Has humanity, as you claim in your writings and talks, made a fundamentally
false step in building its cities, and if so, what can be done about it now?
LK: Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of
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.
They are ideologies which literally blind even the most intelligent and sensitive
people to unacceptable wastes, risks, and dangers. Modernism's fundamental error,
however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e. unavoidable and necessary)
phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions. Thank
God there are, through the applications of New Urbanism in the last 20 years,
enough positive experiences worldwide to see a massive return to common-sense
4. New Urbanism.
NS: Many of the leading new urbanists look to you for inspiration. What
are your suggestions for the future of cities if the world can be convinced
to build in a New Urban context?
LK: There already exist excellent New Urbanist models for living in
small and medium size towns; higher density projects are only recently being
completed, but they don't get the media attention they deserve, so the learning
process is slower than it could be. Very great sums are being invested now to
renovate 1950s and 1960s modernist estates and campuses, but many of these are
no more than the artificial prolongation of failed experiments of social and
architectural collectivism. New Urbanism is not utopian and does not impose
social master plans. Instead, it allows the infinite variety of human talent
and ambition to build harmonious and pleasing environments. It channels competitive
forces to flourish as good neighbors while pursuing their own self-interest.
The very great challenge of the future, however, will be the urbanization of
suburbia, the redevelopment of sprawl.
The theoretical models are ready, but their application is slow. What is now
already certain is that even the most soulless dumps on earth can -- with the
right ideas and people, and sometimes very modest means -- be turned around
to become places of beauty and human thriving.
NS: There remains a serious misunderstanding. Planners -- and more importantly,
citizens in general, including those elected representatives in a position to
make decisions -- don't realize that the solutions you propose apply to all
cities, irrespective of style. Urban structure obeys scientific rules that are
independent of region. There is a secondary dependence on local tradition, climate,
resources, and materials, but that has long been erased with the uniform modernist
approach. Current planning practice creates two separate and artificial images
of urban form: traditional, Classical and historic centers on the one hand;
and vital, dynamic, growing urban fabric on the other. Within this mind-set,
the governing body of a city comes to you only when it wants to revitalize itself
in a Neo-traditionalist manner. Have the New Urbanists, in carving out a niche
for themselves, helped to isolate New Urbanism from mainstream planning? How
can this be corrected, and how do you convince the profession that there is
no such difference?
LK: You are absolutely right to point out that urban structure as a
set of organizational principles is largely independent of style. Many New Urbanist
projects are done using buildings in traditional style because that is the way
that we prefer them to be done; at least for the time being. Modernist architecture
is generally so bad and arbitrary that it is almost totally inappropriate for
most common uses and climates. The most successful and well publicized New Urbanist
projects are of course the neo-traditional ones like Seaside, Celebration and
Poundbury, but there are plenty of similar schemes done using modernist architecture
in Holland, Denmark and Germany, which follow the urban principles but are architectural
no-man's land -- and consequently remain unknown.
I personally resist for the moment mixing traditional and modernist architecture
because from experience one modernist building is enough to destroy the spirit
even of a largely traditional scheme. The Steven Holl building in Seaside may
be the best example of this. Modernists seem to be so disorganized in their
ideas that they are quite unable to realize anything so coherent and complex
as Windsor or Poundbury; the situation is so critical that Andres Duany and
I have discussed for a while designing a modernist town simply to show them
how it is done. A town design code could easily limit itself to Le Corbusier's
1920s or 1950s grammar and produce a meaningful townscape; the same could be
done with Frank Lloyd Wright -- or even Zaha Hahid or Oscar Niemeyer idioms.
New Urbanists are at any rate not limited to traditional architecture, and yet
a lot of people spend sleepless nights and are torn between old and new allegiances.
But I would say that this is not a transcendental or moral issue, and in the
end every one should do in this area what he or she feels is right; and if one
is not sure, experiment around a little if the client is prepared to take the
risk and then make a lucid choice.
However, if you are faced with a political situation of common complexity I
would always recommend a local vernacular as the basic architecture, because
it moves design issues away from the arbitrary and from the political terror
of modernist moralism. This choice reduces stylistic and architectural errors
to the level of the bearable and away from spectacular errors so common to modernist
experiments. Traditional detailing generally has to do with resolving practical
problems of building in an elegant way, whereas style is really the quality
with which you master what are technological issues.
What we have to point out to modernists again and again is that in democracies
even architecture and urbanism are a matter of choice, and are not metaphysical
constraints or absolutes of their own making. Those who don't accept choice
in these matters are ultimately anti-democratic, totalitarian and possibly un-modern,
however futuristic their buildings may look.
5. Scarcity of land.
NS: Architects trained in the modernist tradition of our schools do
not share the same reverence for your ideas as do New Urbanists. They argue
that you neglect the serious population pressures that force high-rise buildings
on the third world, and commercial pressures that do the same in downtowns the
world over. Can you respond to such criticisms?
LK: There is strictly speaking no correlation between demographic pressure
and high rise buildings (with the rare exception of the type of conditions found
in Hong Kong). In the US or Europe the "scarcity of land" argument is promoted
and maintained by people with a variety of contrasting agendas, reaching from
those of landowners to those of ecologists. It is an artificially fabricated
myth which dissolves into thin air when we look down onto those continents from
the air. We will then realize that our towns and landscapes do not suffer from
a scarcity of land or generalized road and building congestion, but rather from
badly used land, hence from bad planning. For instance, while Paris doubled
its population it spread its buildings over a territory 15 times that of central
Paris, despite the proliferation of utilitarian high rise buildings.
6. Market forces.
NS: The built environment is created by market forces, speculative greed,
zoning legislation, etc. Is it even possible to build a humane environment within
these unfortunately real restrictions?
LK: Market forces are vectors of human energies and enterprise. No city
can be built without them. Planning laws have in the past often strangled such
activities rather than let them flourish. New Urbanist principles have the simplicity
and practicality of moral precepts rather than the tyrannical sophistications
of utopian reform. They are not so much prescriptive as they are permissive.
In that perspective, the common interest, in the form of public spaces, is the
product of neighbors realizing their contrasting and variegated self-interests.
7. The electronic city.
NS: I would like to know your thoughts on the developing network city
which incorporates telecommuting and information technology. Have you thought
about how this will affect urban morphology?
LK: Traditional patterns of streets and squares are the optimal means
of networking pieces of real estate of whatever size. Electronic networking
completes spatial networks of public spaces but it does not replace them. To
believe the latter is a philosophical error of the same degree as believing
that the wheel could replace the leg.
8. Building typologies.
NS: The pressing issue is the following: does the increasing development
of electronic networking have spatial consequences? The information revolution
is generating enormous social and commercial forces, so in which direction will
those forces act? Does the network city push the urban fabric towards a modernist
typology, or a traditional typology; or does it do neither?
LK: New types of building are generated by new kinds of use. For instance
it is the aeroplane which caused airports to be developed as a building type,
not the reverse. New building types however may generate uses for which they
were not intended, like Roman market-halls (basilicas) becoming Christian churches,
or airports being used as shopping malls, etc. It is not the urge for innovation
which brings about new building types as some modernist thinkers would have
us believe. Typological innovations based on such utopian ideologies are generally
short lived. Strictly speaking, there is no "modernist" typology ... for, any
type of building which becomes established as a recognizable and reproducible
type becomes ipso facto traditional; be it an oil drilling platform,
cooling tower, office building, or house.
There are, however, building types which are the result of excessive concentrations
of uses of one kind under one roof; these are typological aberrations which
can be built in any style or using any form of construction. The utilitarian
skyscraper and groundscraper are such typological hypertrophies. They are generally
unreflected outcomes of financial or political mechanisms, and are not uniquely
related to modernism. We could for instance build a city based on traditional
building types and street patterns but entirely designed in a modernist style.
It may even be pleasing and successful on aesthetic and social terms, and many
users may be very happy to live there. However, a city built entirely of ground-
and sky-scrapers -- even if built using traditional building methods and designed
in traditional styles -- may be pleasing to look at but would in the end alienate
human relations and lives as radically, if less cruelly, than its modernist
To sum up the argument: there is strictly speaking no "modernist typology"
but modernism has been remarkably proficient in typological aberrations.
NS: There is a profound loss of reverence for human sensibilities --
the building tradition which produced even modest, pleasing structures has vanished.
How can a world without deep values regain such a philosophy?
LK: Traditional architecture and urbanism is not an ideology, religion,
or transcendental system. It cannot save lost souls or give meaning to empty
lives. It is part of technology rather than style; it is a body of knowledge
and know-how allowing us to build practically, aesthetically, socially, and
economically satisfying cities and structures in the most diverse climatic,
cultural, and economic situations. Such structures do not ensure happiness but
they certainly facilitate the pursuit of happiness for a large majority of people.
10. The effects of modernism.
NS: Certain spatial structures having particular mathematical qualities
provide positive sensory feedback to an observer. Mankind has built these, from
the scale of cities, down to the scale of artifacts, so as to give meaning to
the environment. I don't refer to meaning in one's life, but to meaning in one's
surroundings that is contained in cognitively accessible complexity. A wholescale
removal of meaning was perpetrated by the modernists in pursuit of their agenda.
How could this have happened when it goes against our physiological make-up?
LK: Modernism is a totalitarian ideology which, like all dogmatisms,
is based on unprovable assumptions. It is unable to tolerate, let alone accept
opposition, contradiction, or refusal. If you accept such fantastic assumptions
you necessarily abandon your own cognitive capacities and blind yourself to
overwhelming evidence, in spite of interior and exterior contradictions. Modernism's
declaration of war against tradition was not just a rejection of obsolete traditions
but it included all knowledge and know-how which does not fit its reductive
vision of humanity, history, technology, politics, and economy. It is a systematic
rape of man's psychological and physiological make-up. It therefore took three
generations to recover from a mental rape which goes against human experience,
against accumulated human intelligence, instinct, and sensibility.
NS: Modernism has replaced the means that human beings use to connect
to each other, and to external structures. The city as a framework for establishing
connections among members of an urban population has been changed to a spatial
structure whose aim is to disconnect. This applies both to path connectivity
-- people easily walking to meet one-another face-to-face -- and also to visual
connectivity between an individual and the built components of the city. My
investigations reveal that a city is a system of systems -- with a logical architecture
(in the sense of computer architecture) that is far closer to the human brain
than to existing electronic computers. Cutting connections, as the modernists
have done, is akin to cutting the wiring in a computer or the neurons in the
brain. After decades of psychological conditioning to a sterile world, people
have accepted disconnectedness as a way of life. Are human beings changed so
they no longer value spatial structures that satisfy basic sensory and social
LK: Your question contains the answer. Modernism operates through incapacitating
people's autonomy and ability to think individually. It is a form of radical
brainwashing from which very few, once they have experienced it, are able to
escape. Millions have fallen victim to its powerful lure, yet it is as if nature
with each new generation was producing antidotes for such massive ideological
aberrations; that at least is my hope.
The following two sections are from Léon Krier's book, Architecture:
Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis Publisher, Windsor, England, 1998).
The most beautiful and pleasant cities which survive in the world today have
all been conceived with buildings of between two and five floors. There is no
ecologically defensible justification for the erection of utilitarian skyscrapers;
they are built for speculation, short-term gain or out of pretentiousness.
Figure 1. Limited building height. Maximum realization of rentable
floors implies minimum ceiling height, generating a uniform skyline.
Paradoxically, the imposition of a universal height limit for buildings of
between two and five floors does not exclude very tall buildings or monumental
buildings. St. Paul's Cathedral in London is a skyscraper on one level. The
Eiffel Tower has only three floors. The Capitol in Washington, Nôtre-Dame
de Paris, the Forbidden City in Beijing and even the Seven Wonders of the World
respected these limits. The universal limitation of building heights to between
two and five stories would both protect historic centers threatened with overdevelopment
and at the same time encourage the redevelopment of the suburbs. Instead of
inflating the cost of buildings in the center, such a limitation would contribute
to an increase in property values in those areas that remain arbitrarily undervalued.
Figure 2. Limited number of floors. No height limit implies maximum
variation of building's ceiling height, generating a varied skyline.
Thus, building heights should not be limited metrically (such regulations are
always arbitrary and lead to a stultifying uniformity) but by the number of
floors -- between two and five, depending on the character of the village or
city, the nature, status and use of the building, the width of roads and squares,
and the prestige of the site. It should be observed, moreover, that building-technology,
servicing and conception change radically (separation of structure and wall
construction, lifts, expensive services, fire protection, etc.) for buildings
of more than five floors. In addition, a limit on the number of floors permits
an evident and natural differentiation between public and private uses, between
symbolic and utilitarian character, and between monumental and domestic architecture.
Figure 3. Low buildings and high ceilings.
Figure 4. High buildings and low ceilings.
Historic cities rarely surpass a plot ratio of 2:1 (ratio of floor area to
plot area). This density is easily achieved by buildings not exceeding three
to five floors, allowing well lit and humanely proportioned private gardens
and public spaces. Since the nineteenth century we have observed with each new
revision of land-use plans a regular, irreversible increase in plot-ratios (in
the City of London, for instance, the coefficient regularly exceeds 6:1). This
excessive density leads to the functional and general congestion of historic
centers. Streets become gloomy, noisy corridors and private gardens shrink to
dank service yards. The result is the degradation of the concept of the traditional
city itself, justifying the exodus to the suburbs.
Figure 5. Conservation versus overdevelopment.
If authorities allow developers to exceed the critical point of five floors,
the value of building plots rises astronomically, which in turn creates more
pressure for higher and higher densities. It is a vicious circle which, in the
long term, leads to an insidious "Manhattanism" and represents the financial
overexploitation of the land of the city whose unavoidable structural bankruptcy
must in the end be paid for by public funds. Conservation areas are, by definition,
those areas that have achieved optimum density both in form and appearance.
It is complete nonsense to increase plot-ratios in these sectors. Such decisions
ensure that the real estate value of a listed building becomes indefensible
in face of the potential added value of denser redevelopment. Consequently,
increases in plot-ratios regularly defeat even the staunchest conservation policies.
Léon Krier's book, Architecture:
Choice or Fate is published in seven languages, and a reprint of the
English edition is expected in January 2002.
Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros
is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. A collaborator
of Christopher Alexander, he is recognized as one of the leading theorists of
architecture and urbanism today. In addition to numerous scientific articles,
he is the author of the two online books, Principles
of Urban Structure, and A
Theory of Architecture.