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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 5:35 AM
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Antimodern architecture and urban planning: Léon Krier

City Journal, Spring 2008

http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_...eon_krier.html

Roger Scruton

Cities for Living



The city, as we have inherited it from the ancient Greeks, is both an institution and a way of life, one coterminous with the civilization of Europe. The confluence of strangers in a single place and under a single law, there to live peacefully side by side, joined by social networks, economic cooperation, and friendly competition through sports and festivals, is among the most remarkable achievements of our species, responsible for most of the great cultural, political, and religious innovations of our civilization. Nothing is more precious in the Western heritage, therefore, than the cities of Europe, recording the triumph of civilized humanity not only in their orderly streets, majestic facades, and public monuments, but also in their smallest architectural details and the intricate play of light on their cornices and apertures.

American visitors to Paris, Rome, Prague, or Barcelona, comparing what they see with what is familiar from their own continent, will recognize how careless their countrymen often have been in their attempts to create cities. But the American who leaves the routes prescribed by the Ministries of Tourism will quickly see that Paris is miraculous in no small measure because modern architects have not been able to get their hands on it. Elsewhere, European cities are going the way of cities in America: high-rise offices in the center, surrounded first by a ring of lawless dereliction, and then by the suburbs, to which those who work in the city flee at the end of the day. Admittedly, nothing in Europe compares with the vandalism that modernists have wreaked on Buffalo, Tampa, or Minneapolis (to take three examples of American cities that cause me particular pain). Nevertheless, the same moral disaster is beginning to afflict us—the disaster of cities in which no one wishes to live, where public spaces are vandalized and private spaces boarded up.

Until recently, European architects have either connived at the evisceration of our cities or actively promoted it. Relying on the spurious rhetoric of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, they endorsed the totalitarian projects of the political elite, whose goal after the war was not to restore the cities but to clear away the “slums.” By “slums,” they meant the harmonious classical streets of affordable houses, seeded with local industries, corner shops, schools, and places of worship, that had made it possible for real communities to flourish in the center of our towns. High-rise blocks in open parkland, of the kind that Le Corbusier proposed in his plan for the demolition of Paris north of the Seine, would replace them. Meanwhile, all forms of employment and enjoyment would move elsewhere. Public buildings would be expressly modernist, with steel and concrete frames and curtain walls, but with no facades or intelligible apertures, and no perceivable relation to their neighbors. Important monuments from the past would remain, but often set in new and aesthetically annihilating contexts, such as that provided for Saint Paul’s in London.

Citizens protested, and conservation societies fought throughout Europe for the old idea of what a city should look like, but the modernists won the battle of ideas. They took over the architecture schools and set out to ensure that the classical discipline of architecture would never again be learned, since it would never again be taught. The vandalization of the curriculum was successful: European architecture schools no longer taught students the grammar of the classical Orders; they no longer taught how to understand moldings, or how to draw existing monuments, urban streets, the human figure, or such vital aesthetic phenomena as the fall of light on a Corinthian capital or the shadow of a campanile on a sloping roof; they no longer taught appreciation for facades, cornices, doorways, or anything else that one could glean from a study of Serlio or Palladio. The purpose of the new curriculum was to produce ideologically driven engineers, whose representational skills went no further than ground plans and isometric drawings, and who could undertake the gargantuan “projects” of the socialist state: shoveling people into housing estates, laying out industrial areas and business parks, driving highways through ancient city centers, and generally reminding the middle classes that Big Brother was supervising them.

But a later generation rebelled against the totalitarian mind-set of the modernists, rejecting socialist planning, and with it the collectivist approach to urban renewal. They associated the alienating architecture of the postwar period with the statist politics of socialism, and for good reasons.

It symbolized the approach to human life of people who believed that they alone had the answers and that they alone could dictate those answers to the rest of us. The mood of rebellion against this attitude was especially evident in Britain, where postwar planners had brought the work of the Luftwaffe near to completion in many cities. Architects like Quinlan Terry, Liam O’Connor, Demetri Porphyrios, and John Simpson, who grew up amid the advancing chaos, burst the chains forged by their obligatory modernist education and began designing buildings and urban projects in a classical style. At the same time, working in comparative obscurity as an assistant to the eclectic James Stirling was a graduate of the University of Stuttgart’s modernist school of architecture: Léon Krier, born in Luxembourg in 1946, who was beginning to publish the laconic monographs and satirical drawings that were later to form the basis of an antimodernist manifesto.

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.

Such considerations supplement the criticisms of the “zoning” idea—the idea that the city’s functions should be disaggregated, with industry assigned to one area, housing to another, shops and amenities to a third. As Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, this idea has been largely responsible for the steady flight from the urban center and the loss of the humane, lived-in street. What makes Krier new, and so important for us at the critical point that we have now reached—when everyone apart from professional architects recognizes that cities, to flourish, require a centripetal force to replace the centrifugal—is that he has a clear and persuasive remedy, one that town planners and builders everywhere could easily adopt and that citizens would embrace immediately if it were put to the vote.

Krier’s solution is to replace the “downtown plus suburbs” system with that of the polycentric settlement. If people move out, then let it be to new urban centers, with their own public spaces, public buildings, and places of work and leisure: let the new settlements grow, as Poundbury has grown next to Dorchester, not as suburbs but as towns. For then they will recapture the true goal of settlement, which is the human community in a place that is “ours” rather than individual plots scattered over a place that is no one’s. The towns will create a collection of somewheres instead of an ever-expanding nowhere. This solution has a precedent: the city of London grew next to the city of Westminster in friendly competition, and the residential areas of Chelsea, Kensington, Bloomsbury, and Whitechapel arose as autonomous villages rather than as spillovers from the existing centers.

The only thing needed to achieve this effect, Krier argues, is a master plan. By this, he means not one of those sinister experiments in social engineering that appealed to the modernists but a simple set of rules within which people can make the choices best suited to their needs. Krier’s master plan involves an overall layout, a street plan for each quarter, and rules governing such things as the shape of plots, the number of floors permitted in buildings (five, in Krier’s view, is the natural maximum), and the materials and technical configurations to which structures should conform. His aim is to control the quality of “normal, regular and inevitable building.” At present, planners are attracted only to exceptional buildings, usually designed, like the monstrosities of Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, to stand out rather than blend in—to focus attention on themselves, not on the ordinary solaces of human community. It is not exceptional buildings, however, but inevitable buildings—such as the house, the workshop, the garage, and the corner store—that dictate the ambience in which ordinary people work and live. It is here that rules are principally needed; the old classical pattern books (such as those by Asher Benjamin and Minard Lafever, used by the original builders of the New England towns) directed the shape and aspect of inevitable building. They were intended not for architects or designers of public monuments but for the use of ordinary builders in their day-to-day tasks. They were an attempt (useful in the circumstances but also noble in itself) to make architects redundant.

The plan should conform to Krier’s “ten-minute rule,” meaning that it should be possible for any resident to walk within ten minutes to the places that are the real reason for his living among strangers. The rule is not as demanding as Americans might think: Paris, Rome, Florence, Madrid, London, and Edinburgh all conform to it, as would the American suburbs if they grew as Krier suggests—as separate centers in a “polypolis,” so that people could work, shop, relax, and worship in places close to home. Good urban planning does not mean creating distance between people in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ocean-to-ocean suburbs, but bringing people together in ways that enhance their enjoyment of the place where they communally are.

That is the goal of the city, and it is, Krier argues, easily achievable. The polypolis will be a network of genuine public spaces, in which the ideal and the fact of communal settlement are recorded in the lay of the street and the genial side-by-sideness of the buildings. Every visible detail should be architectural, Krier argues, since every such detail is part of the public space. Traditional building styles conformed spontaneously to that principle, since they were controlled by good manners: the builder knew that he was adding to the public space of the town and that he had to conform to its unspoken rules of politeness. As Krier puts it: “All buildings, large or small, public or private, have a public face, a facade; they therefore, without exception, have a positive or negative effect on the quality of the public realm, enriching or impoverishing it in a lasting and radical manner. The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language—they are the foundation of civility and civilisation.”

That is the vision that Krier has tried to put into effect in Poundbury, where he has worked alongside neoclassical architects like O’Connor and Terry to realize his master plan. Krier conceived the town, still being built, as a single and continuous public space, organized around a town hall, each building contributing to the public vistas of which it is a part. Poundbury is a small settlement that will grow, in time, to 10,000 inhabitants—Krier argues that beyond that size, the need is not for further development around an existing center but for another center. And it is now a thriving community, in which people live, work, and shop, and where residents can walk to everything that they need. It has the feel of a medieval town, though with spaces more suited to our busy age, and a grocery store dealing in the environmentally friendly products for which the Prince of Wales is a tireless advocate. Poundbury contains factories, warehouses, offices, and civic buildings; the one thing it lacks is a church.

It is not for the architect to provide such a thing, says Krier, but for the residents to demand it. I suggest to him that the traditional settlements that he most admires began from the marking out of a sacred space, and from the building of a temple as a home for the gods. Where God is at home, so, too, are we; the real meaning of the modernist forms is that there is no God and that Big Brother is now in charge. Krier is inclined to agree with me; but the problem, he says, is to find ways of building that will enable people to rediscover truth for themselves. To try to impose a comprehensive vision against the instincts and the plans of ordinary people is simply to repeat the error of the modernists.

Critics have widely dismissed Krier’s project for urban renewal as impractical, despite the evident success of Poundbury. Undeterred, Krier continues to expound his vision in lectures, articles, and drawings, pointing out to his audience and his readers that he is not informing them but reminding them. Deep within everyone’s psyche, forming the measure of expectations and the image of settlement, is an idea of home, of the somewhere that is not just yours or mine, but ours. We need to reawaken this archetype, which the modernists’ policies have encouraged us to put out of our minds. It is like the laws of logic or the principles of morality: we cannot encounter it without being at once persuaded of its obviousness. I have seen Krier lecture to a roomful of skeptical left-wingers who had agreed only reluctantly to listen to this quaint apologist for a vanished age. And with the unassuming, self-questioning manner of a true teacher, he convinced his audience that the ideas that he laid before them were not his but theirs. They left the room in a condition of cheerful self-discovery, understanding that their socialist utopias were “news from nowhere,” and committed to somewhere instead. Such is Krier’s effect, I have discovered, on everyone he meets.

Perhaps nothing is more striking about Krier, however, than the feature that distinguishes him among architects: modesty. He quietly unfolds his schemes for the city of the future, seeking your agreement and appealing for suggestions. His large face and twinkling eyes radiate happiness, and his hands, as they unroll his drawings of the imaginary polis, are those of a father gently lifting his newborn child from the cradle. Though he abhors modernist vandalism, he never utters an uncharitable word about its perpetrators. His whole being seeks consensus, a democratic pooling of our collective energies, to create the urban environment where we will all be at home. And in his large but placid form you feel the presence of an indefatigable energy, expressing an undaunted love of ordinary humanity.

There are those who say—not of Krier only, but of the whole New Urbanist movement—that it is all very well but that it comes too late. The centrifugal tendency of the city is now irreversible, and the steel frame and curtain wall are here to stay. Such critics need to be reminded that sprawl is unsustainable and will inevitably produce a situation in which centripetal movement is the only alternative to social collapse. And as Terry has repeatedly argued, building with steel frame and curtain wall is also unsustainable: such structures quickly become derelict or too costly to maintain, and leave in their wake a quantity of environmental poison all but impossible to bury. What the New Urbanists propose is not a utopia but a viable alternative to urban decline.

Of course, as the twentieth century—the century of the modernists—taught us, people have an astonishing ability to march toward catastrophe. But why should we endorse that behavior when we still retain our critical faculties? Better to ponder Krier’s words: “By creating cities, we create ourselves. When we despoil our cities, we despoil ourselves. Our most cherished memories will henceforth generate the poison of regret, of irretrievable loss, even of hatred of what we prized most. We then flee from the world and from ourselves. A beautiful village, a beautiful house, a beautiful city can become a home for all, a universal home. But if we lose this aim we build our own exile here on earth.”

Roger Scruton, a writer and philosopher, is currently a professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 6:59 AM
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Really great article.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 7:38 AM
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Krier makes me nauseous. Good urban planning is one thing, but imposing Classical order upon the modern day is a cultural aberration. Besides, Krier's ideas are completely irrelevant outside of Europe and America, indicating a strongly Western bias that evades the realities of urban growth and transformation in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. If the ideal town for Krier is a community of 10,000 people then he is blissfully ignoring the scale of modern urbanity, where cities like Shenzhen and Lagos explode by millions of people in a single decade. Furthermore, if architects such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers (and Rem Koolhaas among them) choose to live their private lives in quaint Victorians it is telling that they do not denounce traditional architecture altogether. By contrast, the real truth is that they understand the importance of finding an identity for the times in which we live, however undefined or vague they may be. If the era in which we live is a time of crisis, tumult, and apparent chaos, then simply harkening back to a pastoral time of sensibility, nobility, and pristine order is as equally an imposition of false will as the efforts of the early Modernists in the 20s and 30s.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 8:43 AM
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^^ I don't think Krier's ideas are applicable only to the Western world... the concept of a polycentric city is exemplified in modern Asian cities.

Asian city-builders already understand that there need to be many nodes in a city, although I doubt they would cite the same sentimental "place to call home" rationale that Krier does. No, the fact that Asian cities have the same philosophy but arrived at it from a completely different history just confirms the strength and truth in the idea. Populations may explode by millions, but the growth is responded to by creating new urban centers, not by simply slapping random development onto the edges of existing centers.

At any rate, while Krier's philosophy does touch on many broader truths, he definitely approaches city planning from a Western perspective. Why? He aims to fix problems that he sees in the Western world. His social commentary on city-building and Modernism is based off of his observations in North America and Europe during the 20th century, and his particular style of planning aims to fix those problems.

Asian cities on some level already understand much of the basic truths underlying Krier's philosophy, yet they cope with a completely different set of problems - building and constructing fast enough to match population growth. It's a logistical and resource problem, not an architectural one.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 9:29 AM
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Originally Posted by ardecila View Post
^^ I don't think Krier's ideas are applicable only to the Western world... the concept of a polycentric city is exemplified in modern Asian cities.

Asian city-builders already understand that there need to be many nodes in a city, although I doubt they would cite the same sentimental "place to call home" rationale that Krier does. No, the fact that Asian cities have the same philosophy but arrived at it from a completely different history just confirms the strength and truth in the idea. Populations may explode by millions, but the growth is responded to by creating new urban centers, not by simply slapping random development onto the edges of existing centers.

At any rate, while Krier's philosophy does touch on many broader truths, he definitely approaches city planning from a Western perspective. Why? He aims to fix problems that he sees in the Western world. His social commentary on city-building and Modernism is based off of his observations in North America and Europe during the 20th century, and his particular style of planning aims to fix those problems.

Asian cities on some level already understand much of the basic truths underlying Krier's philosophy, yet they cope with a completely different set of problems - building and constructing fast enough to match population growth. It's a logistical and resource problem, not an architectural one.
There's a current thread on the "New New City" that you should check out. It's way more interesting regarding contemporary urbanism than Krier's pastoral townscape views. Basically the gist of the article in that thread is exactly that urban environments are transforming so rapidly that it is impossible to predict where culture is going. Architects are trying a number of new 'experiments' and the irony is that the work of any single architect is insignificant in the whole scope of development occurring there. The impact is that the city merely absorbs each individual work, regardless of whether it was a success or not. A lot of Modernist policies failed here but have been reallocated successfully on large scales in Asia. Polyvalency is simply one small aspect of Krier's philosophy, and while I generally think it is the most relevant of his ideas, it is not where he puts his stress. His focus is on rewriting architectural codes to enforce the language of Classicism so that a house is a 'house', a church is a 'church', a column is a 'column', etc. The architecture is neatly tied into a package with the town-planning schemes he devises. Programs have changed, needs have changed, and technology has changed. Such typological clarity is no longer warranted or desirable, and frankly such antiquated planning gestures are retrogressive in a socially unfit way. If anything, the West should be learning from Asia, not from Krier's second-hand Classicism.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 11:15 AM
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the problem with leon krier, and many other supposed architectural reformers, is that their focus is disproportionately directed towards aesthetics and not any real alternative to our dependency on the car.

traditional towns may look good and they certainly are fashionable. but modern settlements are overwhelmingly in large metropolitan areas which desperately require a viable alternative to car based transportation. unless these poundbury-like developments are hermetically sealed from the outside world (e.g. seaside), their inhabitants will continue to find ways to reach beyond their little hamlets for friends, jobs, schooling, etc. polyvalency is an incremental improvement on strictly zoned all-residential areas which extend for miles. but these 'full service' town centers are a flawed solution at best. many suburbs already provide mixed usages in their town centers. some people have shorter commutes, others commute to far off employment centers.

krier does have a high profile though, and he is a darling of disney and other developers. the disney owned bookstore in celebration has an entire wall devoted to NU-themed coffee table books. coincidentally (or not), much of krier's emphasis on classical aesthetics fits in with the developers' marketing for their aesthetically attractive yet conventionally functioning developments.

Last edited by slide_rule; Jun 8, 2008 at 12:00 PM.
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Old Posted Jun 8, 2008, 8:58 PM
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I do like Krier but especially in Asia its unworkable as a useful model. If all the new construction in China alone this past decade had been in traditional materials the country (some say the world) would have run out of its sand, stone, mortar and brick supplies by now. Its a shame.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 12:15 AM
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Originally Posted by realm0854 View Post
Krier makes me nauseous. Good urban planning is one thing, but imposing Classical order upon the modern day is a cultural aberration. [1] Besides, Krier's ideas are completely irrelevant outside of Europe and America, indicating a strongly Western bias that evades the realities of urban growth and transformation in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. If the ideal town for Krier is a community of 10,000 people then he is blissfully ignoring the scale of modern urbanity, where cities like Shenzhen and Lagos explode by millions of people in a single decade. [2] Furthermore, if architects such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers (and Rem Koolhaas among them) choose to live their private lives in quaint Victorians it is telling that they do not denounce traditional architecture altogether. By contrast, the real truth is that they understand the importance of finding an identity for the times in which we live, however undefined or vague they may be. If the era in which we live is a time of crisis, tumult, and apparent chaos, then simply harkening back to a pastoral time of sensibility, nobility, and pristine order is as equally an imposition of false will as the efforts of the early Modernists in the 20s and 30s.[3]
1. Krier would not say that he wants to impose a "Classical" order, but a human/humane one. The principles of architecture and urban design have been more or less constant in the West until the early 20th century, when a radical break occurred. The streetwall, the human referentiality of architecture, the central square, these are some of the principles that lasted, with great permutations, for thousands of years in the West. And then, for some reason, a modernist ideology was imposed on the city. That is the cultural aberration.

2. Most mature Asian cities, like Tokyo or Seoul, are indeed multi-nodal, with some surprisingly traditional urban spaces. In Tokyo, whether in Shibuya, in Sinjuku, in Ikebukuro, or in outer-ward Kinshi-cho, the pedestrian space in front of the train station functions like a traditional town square: it is a defining meeting place, and it imposes a legible human-scaled order on the commercial spaces around it. In my six months in Tokyo some years ago, I was repeatedly shocked and surprised at how European, how pedestrian and human, its various nodes were. By contrast, a superficially modern new city like Shenzhen is an inhuman, chaotic disaster.

3. If we are living in "a time of crisis, tumult, and apparent chaos," isn't our apparently chaotic architecture partly to blame? Shouldn't architecture be more than a reflection of putative social and intellectual conditions? Doesn't architecture shape our sensibility as much as it responds to it?


Along the lines raised by this article, here is a long quote from a review of a recent Mexican movie by Steve Sailer at http://isteve.blogspot.com/ :

[QUOTE=iSteve]One important point that "Under the Same Moon" drives home to Americans who assume that everybody must long to live in America is that millions of Mexican immigrants dream constantly about going home.

It's not just that Mexico isn't really that poor anymore (life expectancy there is now 75.6 years, compared to 78.0 here). To Latin Americans from small colonial towns, where social life centers organically around the plaza, California cities, with no focal points but endless stripmalls, seem dishearteningly featureless. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: "There is no there there."

Thus, when the child finally arrives in East L.A. knowing only that his mother will try to call him the next morning from a street corner that has a laundromat, pizza parlor, and mural, he begins searching, only to discover, nightmarishly, that every corner looks like that.

In contrast, I once had to arrange to meet a friend in a week's time in the fount of Latin culture, Rome, a city neither of us had ever visited before. We eventually agreed that we would get together at the Egyptian obelisk in Bernini's great piazza in front of St. Peter's. Now, there is most definitely a there there.[/QUOTE=iSteve]

Tokyo and Seoul are also full of such meeting places for pedestrians...
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  #9  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 1:47 AM
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I generally agree with Jaroslaw's above points, though there is one thing that needs to be clear here.

Modernist city planning and modernist architectural design are two different things. Using the Tokyo and Seoul examples about, a city can be full of modern-style buildings that easily conform to classical/human scale proportions. Just as easy, a centerless sprawling area can be full of buildings that badly try to emulate historic architectural elements.

It's the modernist planning which is the bad part. Things like: sterile plazas, parking lots, poorly-built/ disposable one-story buildings, highway ramps, extremely wide roads built to accommodate only car traffic, are what makes a city a dreadful place to be.

I think trying to regulate architecture is a rather slippery slope. Setting parameters for urban deign is great: setbacks, height limits, ect., architects excel best when given a context to work with. But NEVER try to dictate style, you'll end up with the most banal, lowest-common-denominator crap possible.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 2:42 AM
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In Asia a lot of planning accords to Modernist principles. And it works, in often very unexpected ways, precisely because the culture transcends the limits of the built form. The idea that cities of today should prescribe to the old rules can be thrown out the window because countless cities are functioning in previously unwitnessed ways that have absolutely nothing to do with traditional patterns of urbanism. To evaluate them through the Greek or Roman model of city planning is irrelevant. To try to impose the ancient order on them is to pass a value judgment in favor of maintenance of the past. It is to kill their potential future as great NEW cities simply because one is afraid that what does not conform to the time-tested model will not work. Tokyo and Seoul are not European cities, so it is quite foolish to look at them with surprise that there were so many "European" aspects to them, as though all successful urbanity originated in Europe. In the last several decades both cities have developed at a rapid, perhaps chaotic, pace, and have achieved their current form through a lot of "accidents." To suggest that Shenzhen cannot morph into something much greater than its present form within a couple decades is short-sighted because it underestimates the self-orgnanizational capacity of the Chinese to take an environment and make it their own. Though in the US we are typically defined - and limited - by our physical environment, the Chinese move in and immediately start to propogate different parts of their city for myriad uses.

This very limitation Americans have with respect to their understanding of urban space is evidenced by the things that are happening with converted strip malls now inhabited by Asians and Latinos in cities across America. When American businesses inhabited these malls they were basically boring and non-descript. Now that the immigrants have come in they have been remade into bustling hubs of activity, with abundant signage, hybrid store formats, and a much greater concentration of places that mean something to the community. The focus in America should be on building density, because density is what enables things to happen. Personally I don't think it's that important whether the density is allowed to occur in crazy, unplanned, chaotic fashion, as long as it is sustained and people continue to move in. The physical environment, whatever its actual state, is able to absorb and be transformed by the gobs of people who inhabit it. Of course the physical environment needs to provide some sense of place to start with, but even when it does so inadequately, if people concentrate there, its imperfections begin to matter less. Tokyo, Seoul, and now Shenzhen all exemplify this trend.

America, while experiencing some benefits from New Urbanism, is actually quickly losing ground to its Asian counterparts because its cities just aren't stimulating enough. Even Manhattan, as our most dense urban environment, is basically repetitive and the streets aren't full of life like they once were. Back in 1910 the Lower East Side would have been the place to be to witness all the various layers of the city, of the comings and goings of people and goods, of the day-night life-cycle of the city. Certainly to an extent that is now still true, but the city has lost something. It has become much more coherent and sanitized, and many of its layers of activity have been eradicated.

The great thing about a sidewalk in Tokyo is that it's still full of STUFF... the public realm is animated with all kinds of random crap. In New York a typical sidewalk isn't all that different or more interesting than the ones we have right here in Downtown Portland. My point here is not to single out New York. It is to indicate that the US, and Europe as well, has a lot to learn from Asia - in fact, much more than we have to learn from the Greeks. We need to learn how to make stimulating environments, not containers of monuments and "proper" civic spaces. Paris is a great city, and I lived there for awhile, so I know it a bit. And I will attest that the most interesting parts of the city are actually the inner suburbs, because they are teeming with the most activity. The 16e, by contrast, is dull and ordinary. Like the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We have much to learn in America, but it isn't from the New Urbanists and its proponents like Leon Krier.
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  #11  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 3:42 AM
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Leon Krier had an interesting career path. He apprenticed with James Stirling, of all people.

Some of his earlier designs were quite compelling. I recall his plan for La Villette, which rebuilt the area as a traditional European-style quarter. It was sort of a mix between classical/pre-modern and modernism which made it sort of interesting.

His "European Quarter" for Luxembourg was also a great little design, where he proposed to urbanize an auto-oriented office building landscape.

He had some good design concepts, like the
"quarter" or neighborhood as the building block of the city, and limiting these to a 10 or 15 minute walk in distance.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 4:09 AM
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Tokyo or Seoul, are indeed multi-nodal, with some surprisingly traditional urban spaces... superficially modern new city like Shenzhen is an inhuman, chaotic disaster
strangely, tokyo and seoul and the other developed asian cities were widely seen as hellholes just a short while ago. tokyo, seoul, hong kong, taipei, and singapore espoused modified modernist planning principles to varying extents. for the purposes of this discussion, 'modified modernist' means the rationalist goals of efficiency in housing and transport, but without the achilles heels of american modernism, auto reliance.

places like shenzhen are a mess because they're works in progress, not because of any obscure link to modernist thinking. i visited taipei in the late 80s, and it felt like shenzhen does today. lots of concrete and frustratingly choked traffic. present-day taipei still has plenty of concrete and 'modernist' aesthetics, yet its public transit system has allowed its residents to travel efficiently through a large city. this, along with advances in living standard, have made taipei a pleasant place. there's no reason why modernist 'looking' places cannot be functional.

strangely, the original article on leon krier was focused on his influence on NU developments. the problems faced in north america are different from the ones faced in developing asia. leon krier says he aims to create 'pedestrian focused' and socially inclusive places... like poundbury. unfortunately poundbury, like celebration, cornell and that thing in plano, are essentially conventional edge city/suburban developments with a facade of classical detailing and incrementally higher density.

it's been tried before. victor gruen intended MALLS to serve as de facto city squares. malls have accomplished that to a certain extent. unfortunately both leon krier and victor gruen did not propose any alternative to car dependence. it's a tautological point, but it cannot be stressed enough.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 4:36 AM
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Wow, that's a long-winded way of saying "I like New Urbanism."
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  #14  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 4:40 AM
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actually Shenzhen is one of the most heavily planned cities - its success remains to be seen, but it is no longer a mess. The startup of the 80s and 90s saw unmitigated mass development but the past decade has seen a total sea change in policy - heavily depended public transport, arterial roads, self sufficient but connected suburbs and a huge amount of greenery. This is the tertiary makeover stage of development of a city - making it liveable (and thus more productive and discerning). Already in typical Shenzhen accelerated style theyre gearing up from moving from manufacturing to services already, and putting in place the cultural infrastructure demanded by an increasingly discerning and sizeable middle class.

Thus factories in the early 90s to highrises and malls in the late 90s to museums, universities, galleries and parks and offices in 00s.

Check it out here: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=152363

I predict the stage after that may well be along the lines of Leon Krier - 'slotting' in history and sinicising parts of the city as seen in cities like Shanghai and recently, Beijing (after years of destruction). The interesting thing about Shenzhen of course is there were no old buildings to 'restore' anyway, considering it was all paddy fields in 1990. Instead new developments built in old style:

as in Chongqing (all new builds) Hong Yadong district:







Shanghai Old City:





Beijing new housing and Qianmen hutongs projects:




Last edited by muppet; Jun 9, 2008 at 5:12 AM.
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  #15  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 4:43 AM
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yeah, i was thinking that too. but i assumed a long-winded reply would somehow be taken more seriously.

leon krier doesn't just like NU, he's the duany faction's paid spokesperson.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 4:47 AM
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^shenzhen isn't bad at all. at least it's improved a HELL of a lot from just a few years ago. all the razzle dazzle and quotes from some neocon blogger, yet who knew that providing housing and transportation would actually allow for a place to become more livable? *gasps* the old textbooks said it, but people are more interested in the tweed jacketed neoclassicist vs. all-black avant garde debates about aesthetics.

re: the buildings in chongqing. they're nice. but it'd be difficult to promote that style of architecture as a model to be emulated. with current levels of construction technology and labor prices, these styles of buildings will be the preserve of the very wealthy or be used to attract commerce, or be built to compromised levels of quality. similarly, 'authentic' neo-classicist architecture even in the wealthy US will be out of range for the vast majority of prospective homeowners. most of the neo-classical developments are built to a cost, with facades covering up balloon frames. they look good initially, but will age like other developments. that is, they'll age like the pink stucco houses of the 80s, as opposed to the grand public buildings of older cities.

Last edited by slide_rule; Jun 9, 2008 at 5:21 AM.
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  #17  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 5:50 AM
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traditional architecture and materials is becoming the open air mall du jour of China's cities. Coming off the back of the success of the heavily restored Xintiandi district in Shanghai, which has become a chic boutique and cafe happy destination now, each city wants to emulate the economic rewards to be reaped. Hongkou's Jewish district and the French Concession is following suit in Shanghai while Beijing is seeing its hutongs in Qianmen being rebuilt and restored, and its Ming/ Qing dynasty villages becoming upscale resorts. Chongqing so far has 3 Old City's.
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  #18  
Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 9:33 PM
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I don't care what anybody says, East Asia in general knows how to build cities better than any place else on Earth.

Considering the amount of wealth available, the US has got to be among the worst, though it wasn't always that way.
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 10:49 PM
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-As some people have pointed out, the question of how you deal with the car is quite crucial, but there are so many other variables there as well. Car ownership in Japan and Europe is not much below US levels, and yet the cities are totally different. There is definitely an ideological component to city planning, and as I thought about the huge differences between Shenzhen and, say, Tokyo, property rights seem a big part of that ideological or ideational circumstance.

In Shenzhen and generally in China, cities are redeveloped in swathes, because individual property rights are weak. This means that modernist "towers in a park" principles can be applied quite easily. In Korea, there is a huge difference between the older city areas with diffuse property ownership, and satellite "new cities" built from scratch on the modernist model. And in Japan, where property rights were enshrined in the post-war constitution, expropriation is almost impossible, and you simply cannot assemble the large plots you need for modernist urban redevelopment. In return, you get a much tighter, more individualistic urban fabric. If you look at google images of Shenzhen vs. any Japanese city, the difference is immediately obvious. I just came across a nice set of pics from Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, and it also has a very Japanese, human-scaled urban fabric, totally unlike what you see in most of China (the pics posted from Shanghai or Chongqing represent a miniscule portion of the respective cities, and do not reflect "the real feel" of how most people live there).

Here is Kaohsiung, modern-styled architecture but definitely a pre-modernist, traditional urban fabric:

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpo...5&postcount=67

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpo...3&postcount=68
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Old Posted Jun 9, 2008, 11:10 PM
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eh... how did an essay on leon krier and his love of classical proportions and NU segue into a discussion about asia?

while japan and europe do possess high levels of car ownership, it's the AMOUNT of driving which is important. the most attractive areas of japan and europe are also the least dependent on the automobile. the far off periphery of paris is more car dependent than the haussmann areas, but which one actually possesses more of the 'humane' spaces?

kaoshiung actually feels a lot more like shenzhen than tokyo or seoul. it's a large industrial city with an incomplete, yet ultimately ambitious public transit plan. it's not a slight. it's just that kaoshiung's infrastructure hasn't yet been fully developed.

furthermore, one shouldn't conflate political ideology with 'human' scale. the assorted superblocks have been erected in both socialist and capitalist societies. 'officially' socialist china's superblocks closely resemble the superblocks in 'officially' capitalist korea and singapore. superblocks are a reaction to the pressing needs of housing large populations. shenzhen is used as an example of modernist planning, but its scapegoated modernism isn't even emblematic of all of china. if you want smaller 'human' scale, head to an older city.

no one should conflate the narrow, neoclassicist approach of krier to tokyo or seoul or just about any other asian city in the first place. leon krier's greatest influence is found in NU areas like celebration in orlando and cornell in toronto. as it's been pointed out before, leon krier's high-profile and well-publicized exhortations about classical aesthetics and antimodernist thought ring hollow when his actual body of work is examined.
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