Michael Carey talks with Léon Krier.


(*Note: this was originally a round-table discussion conducted by Traditional Building Magazine. Editor-in-Chief Michael Carey moderated a panel that included Andrés Duany, William H. Hudnut III, James Howard Kunstler, and Thomas Norman Rajkovich. The present condensation and edit makes it look like an interview, which is not the original format -- Ed.)


Michael Carey: What, in your opinion, is a city and what makes a good city?

Léon Krier: A city is a network of interrelated public spaces and buildings, of individuals and groups. A good city is one where beyond its functional, social, securitarian and economic aspects, the interrelatedness is aesthetic. The meaningful and commonly readable structure of urban plan and silhouette, the quality of buildings, spaces, materials, colors and activities, and the successful relation of all this with the geographic conditions of climate and ecology, mean that the good city is not an idealized abstraction, a utopia, but a crucible for a tangible reality, for desirable forms of human intercourse.

MC: It seems to me that there are two types of characterization going on here: the city as an embodiment of social and cultural ideals and the city as a functioning organism. While we may be able to agree on how best to keep an organism functioning, I wonder if we can agree on what makes a city, as an embodiment of ideals, work. I agree with Tom Rajkovich's insistence on the importance of beauty and on its intentionality, but I also wonder if we can include beauty as an embodiment of ideals. Some very beautiful things have been built in the name of less-than-beautiful ideals. Can cities of the past still serve as useful models today?

LK: Any object of desire, be it natural or artificial, anything that is pleasing, useful or meaningful to us, whatever its age and origin, can and does serve us as a model today. Nature works fundamentally through reproduction/imitation and so do all human activities. For those who don't get it, I propose that they range architecture and urbanism with technology rather than with art history. If they still don't get it and go on repeating that "one can't go back", I propose that they tattoo their forehead with "not one, but I can't" and then stop all activity related to art or architecture. Those who can't shouldn't stop those who can.

MC: A criticism of New Urbanism is that it takes the village as its model, rather than the city. How does a city differ fundamentally from a village or a series of villages?

LK: The practice of New Urbanism is largely related to commissions coming from the free market sector. The locations, briefs and densities are mostly predetermined and only partially shaped by New Urbanist thinking. As a theory, it is not a set and sealed doctrine, but it evolves like scientific theory, through trial and error. Anyway, it is not a theological or transcendental system, but 90% a technology for how to settle the planet in an intelligent, ecological, aesthetic and socially attractive way.

MC: Is there a limit to the size of a city, if it is to be civil, and how should a city relate to its surroundings?

LK: Anything useful, pleasing and desirable has a limited size, form, weight. Maturity is the end goal of all processes of healthy growth. Cities cannot grow otherwise, without becoming parasites, natural and human disasters. Geography, climate and ecology will eventually define again the location and size of cities and villages. The sooner the better, but New Urbanism is a relatively young discipline.

We know yet very little about the long-term carrying capacity of the planet nor even of given geographic areas. We however assume that gigantism in the form of utilitarian skyscrapers (giant vertical cul-de-sacs), single-use landscrapers or single-use zones (giant horizontal cul-de-sacs) are in every case oversized functional and social isolators, parasites, excluders; they are also network congestors and depressors, if not killers.

In that sense, they are ultimately anti-urban, anti-social and anti-ecological. They are not expressions of vitality and health but of pathological hyperactivity. It should already be possible to define scientifically the carrying capacity (maxima and minima) for existing street networks, as they exist in consolidated urban centers, and describe the necessary network modifications that are imperative if skyscrapers and other "network busters" are implanted into them. Short of radical measures, such giants ought simply be considered unaffordable dinosaurs of a pre-ecological past.

MC: If suburban sprawl is, to use the currently fashionable phrase, "a fact on the ground", how can it be urbanized?

LK: Residential suburbs or single-use zones can be urbanized by canceling the single-use ordinances, allowing higher plot ratios, taking measures for enriching the network of streets, alleys and avenues, creating central urban squares, prohibiting one-way streets, connecting cul-de-sacs, etc. Increased property values will be the motor of such urbanization.

MC: There are many examples of the revitalization of urban areas that are in some sense spontaneous. The revitalization of Williamsburg in New York City, for instance, was not planned and, in some cases, involved violating zoning regulations and codes. Given that these kinds of spontaneous shifts are crucial to the vitality of cities, how is planning and regulation to be balanced with spontaneity?

LK: The NIMBY mentality and fear of property devaluation are now important supporters of single-use zoning ordinances. Only the multiplication of New Urbanist models can eventually turn the tide of sprawl.

MC: A word of clarification: by "spontaneity", I was simply referring to unplanned, unregulated and self-generating changes in the urban fabric. It was not used as a psychological category and there was no intended "therapeutic" meaning. In Tom Rajkovich's opinion a return to traditional building principles is aesthetically desirable, and in Jim Kunstler's opinion this will be an economic necessity. This shows, I think, a central lack of sustainability -- ecologically, economically and aesthetically -- in many contemporary building technologies and the designs that are derived from them. The organizational principles of city building are often seen as independent of any architectural language, working only at the level of the plan. If the fabric of cities is the result of both planning and architecture, how should these two interact?

LK: Even though traditional cities allow in plan and silhouette an infinite variety of composition and articulation, there are certain rules and principles about networking, building hierarchy, density, location, siting of private and public uses and above all the number of floors, which cannot be ignored without paying a terrible price in quality of environment, space, light, meaning, circulation of people and hardware and foremost in the loss of architectural language. It was the nonsensical and hysterical architectural exaggerations of 19th-century historicism that provoked, as a backlash, the wastelands of Modernism. These cycles of generational hysteria will eventually calm down by exhaustion and rivaling exacerbation. Historicist/Modernist education has produced human bombs that will only vanish when all traditional architectural cultures will have been raped and exploded by two centuries of terrorist attacks.

A city that is functionally and socially mixed, typologically and volumetrically well composed, in plan and silhouette and built along a geographically sensitive network, needs remarkably little architecture to become a beautiful and interesting place.

The marriage of organic geometry and vernacular architecture produces endearing aesthetic effects. However, the natural formal minimalism of vernacular building is ill suited for highly regular and Euclidean geometry, parallel street frontages and uniform cornice heights! I live in a hill town that is essentially made up of naked walls, openings, tiled roofs and tile cornices; only a few doorways and the inside of the church display some architectural elaboration, and yet it is a blessed place. In my opinion, Classical (Euclidean) urban plans need an elaborate display of (Classical) architectural rhetoric in order to reach an acceptable degree of character, sense and life.

For larger cities and groups of cities, the full display of vernacular and Classical geometries, and their artful architectural dosage, is necessary. Overkill or poverty of expression, aesthetic exhaustion or boredom set the upper and lower limits. If they forego their means of control and articulation, cities go into a spin of gigantism; of horizontal or vertical scale breakages and even catastrophes. The hysterical visual violence of most metropolitan centers and deadly anemia of their surrounding sub-urban sprawl, don't seem to be understood yet for what they are, namely, outpourings of deranged human energies; voracious, violent, suicidal, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The vulgar priapism of these centers of activity is but an illusory escape from the suffocating embrace of the suburban matriarchy.

The daily global mobilization between unbearable extremes cultivates the need for ever more virtual forms of sociability, of escape and consolation, namely religion, drugs, etc.

MC: Many cities are now host to diverse communities, diverse in terms of race, religion, economy and, perhaps most importantly, expectation. How important is the role of maintaining cultural continuity in the development of cities and how is this to be balanced with diversity?

LK: Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" explains why certain peoples and civilizations expand and conquer whilst other don't. The development of agriculture, language, architecture and cities are intimately linked. And yet it is as if the Christians and Muslims were the only conquerors or settlers to export their architecture to other continents. The Japanese didn't export their architecture to China, nor do the Chinese or Jewish quarters around the world display other than trivial detail of their own original architecture. German towns in Russia, Portuguese towns in Brazil or English towns in Virginia, Dutch towns in Java or South Africa were literal export products. Why the migrations of the Indian, Chinese or Africans around the world, whether voluntary or enforced, were not accompanied with a migration of their architectural and settlement patterns is still not satisfactorily explained.

I am struck by the fact that topography, local materials and climate, more than geographical proximity seem to characterize building and cities. Buildings in the Nepalese, Swiss or Basque mountains have more similarities amongst each other than they have to their neighboring lowlands architecture. Hill towns in the Atlas Mountains or those in Afghanistan have extraordinary similarities more due to geographic and climatological similarities than to those of religion. The development of modern concrete, of the lift and of air conditioning, more than any other inventions have temporarily confused the regional characteristics of traditional architecture and urbanism. I do not think that this development is a historically irreversible fatality. The historicization of traditional tectonics and urbanism was ideologically motivated. It is erroneous because of the fact that nature of traditional building and urbanism are technological and therefore universal. The expansion of the ecological imperatives and conscience will lead to an inevitable resurgence of traditional techniques and their dominance over Historicist/Modernist ideologies.

There is absolutely no reason why some Modernist ideas could not be integrated into the body of traditional architecture. The flat roof and the inclined roof, the curtain wall and the load-bearing wall, the vertical and the horizontal window, are not, as Modernists pretend, ideological opponents or contradictions, but different techniques of roofing, constructing, sealing and lighting buildings.

The nightmare scenarios for the future are ethnic sectarianism at one extreme, and leveling of cultural and geographical differences, on the other. The only certainty is that there will not be a single global architectural style. It is contrary to reason and ecology. Espousing traditional architecture and urbanism should not be an ideological but an intellectual decision, not an emotional but a rational intent. Polyglotism in architecture should be valued in the same way as polyglotism in speech. Rather than marking cities like animals mark their territories, traditional architects spearhead the revival of ecological conscience, of cultivating the spirit of place and leaving the spirit of the age where it belongs.

MC: If the most concrete manifestation of cultural continuity is architecture, to what degree should architects use a traditional architectural language in city building?

LK: Any form of non-Hermetic language, be it written, spoken, sculpted, danced or hand-gestured, is by nature traditional. Unlike spoken languages, traditional architecture and building are universally comprehensive and do not need translation to be understood. Even the forms and elements of artistically elaborate traditional architecture are of a tectonic, technical, fabricated, commonsensical nature. The philosophic error of Modernism was to oppose the idea of the "new" with the idea of the "traditional", to posit the flat and the sloped roof as irreconcilable contradictions; to want to replace the load-bearing wall with the curtain wall, to fight the column with the piloti, the vertical with the horizontal window, the multifariousness of regionally and climatically differentiated styles and materials with a unique international style of glass, concrete and steel exclusively. A de-ideologized building technology, be it high, medium or low tech, encompasses all building materials, natural or artificial, according to their specificity and in the long term it is their ecological price that will decide whether a building material, technique, language or type is traditional and therefore modern or obsolete and therefore "historical" and dated.

MC: The Charter of the New Urbanism states: "Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city." If cities derive much of their character from their public buildings and these buildings express a communal identity, how should architecture articulate this identity? What does the current fashion for the "stunt" architecture of Gehry, Hadid et. al. in public architecture say about the contemporary role of public buildings?

LK: Traditional architectures imitate traditional typologies of construction and organization. They are human artifices and inventions. "Stunt" architectures in general try to escape those patterns, but they are nevertheless and without exception of an imitative nature; their sources being often extra-architectural, rock formations, clouds, trees, road intersections, train collisions, innards, hills, factories, rocket-launch structures -- you name it. There is no reason why the designs of Gehry, Hadid, Le Corbusier, Eisenman, could not become grammatical, urban, traditional, typological, tectonic; given the experience and will. So far their intentions are often more guided by a need for recognition than by credible technical, artistic or social visions. Meaningful architectural works, however, gain their value not merely within an art-historical chain of isolated artistic achievements, but as integral parts of a social, urban and architectural context. Modernism has so far merely achieved to replace, at an enormous ecological cost, established traditional languages with incomplete inventories of raw spare parts, assembled into ill-fitting and temporary geographic arrangements.

"Wow-buildings" and "stunt architectures" only make sense for "wow" and "stunt" occasions and building programs. Architectural acrobatics that can make sense for conceiving concert halls or cathedrals became meaningless when applied to residential, industrial or business architecture; this should be as evident as the use of tempi (lentissimo to prestissimo) or dynamics (pianissimo to fortissimo) in music. Architecture as a vehicle for transmitting a commonly understood meaning cannot play havoc with structure or space without defeating its own purpose.

Every organized society needs spaces for large groups of people and spaces for single persons; buildings for assembling or for isolating individuals, families, societies. Those form the basis for a meaningful architectural language, for the collective and the individual, the monumental and the domestic, the serious and the trivial, the joyful and the tragic. Traditional architectures of all cultures and climes have at their disposition a complete grammar and syntax. We can only ignore them at our own expense. We then roam punch drunk from architectural minimalism to architectural maximalism; are permanently torn between anorexia and bulimia; and condemn the environment to ever faster cycles of suicidal resource consumption.

The Leon Krier website