In June’s AR, Joseph Rykwert wrote a profile of Léon Krier for Reputations. Léon Krier replies to him with this open letter
On Speer and Nazi architecture
The reprint of my Speer book is causing a lot of criticism, much of it wilfully distorting my words and intentions. Your confessed grudging admiration for some of my work is naturally more to my taste than the delinquent accusations of Owen Hatherley: ‘Leon Krier is a former modernist who had a road-to-Damascus conversion in the ’70s, when he suddenly began to write advocacy in the architectural press for Albert Speer, both architectural and, gradually, political.’
Countering such fraudulent amalgamations was the foremost reason to originally publish and now reprint the Speer book. I never believed Speer to be innocent, and anyone pretending that I did is accusing me out of: 1. Ignorance, 2. Stupidity, and 3. Spite, generally motivated by opposition to modern traditional urbanism and architecture and to those who advocate it, namely the Prince of Wales or me.
I occupied myself with the unsavoury subject because, when I started designing in the mid 1960s, any reference to traditional architecture, be it vernacular or Classical, would be scolded by family, friends, teachers, critics, juries as ‘Speeresque, Nazi, reactionary, fascist’. Those persistent and perverse reproaches led me to research a subject on which bountiful prejudice is supported by little intelligence and even less argument.
The disgusting slander which began in London in 1985 when the publication of my book was announced, led to adebilitating personal depression of such proportions that I became unable to continue my first building commission, namely the design of the National Gallery extension, to which I had been appointed eight months before by Jacob Rothschild and the trustees design committee.
The competition, won by Robert Venturi, was organised only after my complete collapse and resignation from the job in August 1985. At the time, the arguments I advanced in the book were at best ridiculed, at worst rumoured to be motivated by philo-Nazism.
The German magazine Bauwelt dedicated a special number called ‘Leon Krier’s great Speer Festival, from Classicism to Genocide’. This resulted in me being professionally banned from that country ever since. You, Joseph, were among the critics who internationally ridiculed my undertaking.
Against your parti pris, which by the way is still common doxa, I advance the question, ‘Can a genocidal criminal be a great artist?’. I demonstrate that the negation of such a possibility is an unreflected and unfounded a priori.
Curiously, that prejudice, however widespread in common parlance, has to my knowledge never been sustained in print. It is not only intellectually untenable, but more deviously, it serves as a vademecum to avoid argument by means of condemnation. You tell me that no amount of argument can change your conviction that Speer was a mediocre architect and that Hitler had no artistic talent or judgement, full stop.
Against that opinion I propose the following hypothesis: ‘what if Speer and Hitler had been great artists?’ What then? None of my critics seems to be able to conceive such a possibility. It is so much more comfortable to keep psalleining: ‘Our arch-enemy can’t possibly have serious artistic worth’; ‘Our arch-enemycannot possibly be in tune with the Zeitgeist’; ‘Our arch-enemy must be inferior to us’ … what does that remind you of? Speaking of naivety? What if Hitler had appointed Corb or Mies or Hilberseimer?
For you that is an utter impossibility negating the political ambiguity of many Modernist master architects and more importantly the eye-catching futurist-high-tech side of Nazi politics, economy and culture. Nazi hubris was in competition with that of other contemporary empires, using the same modern social and technical means of domination.
Nazi classicism was intended to legitimise a criminal regime, as were Nazi engineering, technology, language and industries. My question is ‘why were classical architecture and art delegitimised by their abuse and not engineering, industrial technology, industrialism, language? ‘It is the parallels, not the differences with our systems of producing, planning, managing, educating, circulating, which should interest critical inquiry and so shed light on the ominous aspects of our own body politic.
Poundbury, like most modern developments, depends heavily on local politics, planning law and market forces. It is not a philanthropic project nor can the client or the masterplanner dictate what happens there. Every non-standard design solution is endlessly debated, contested, modified before it is finally permitted and built.
The West Dorset District Council are ever watchful that Poundbury is not becoming the future urban centre of Dorchester. Such a possibility is actively countered by the authorities. That is why we have been refused the public buildings and funds which we were initially promised, the District Court, the Leisure and Sports Centre etc.
And yet, contrary to your statement Joseph, Poundbury is not a suburb. It mixes systematically houses, schools, shops, services and industries. In fact my objective of equating the number of workplaces and residential units within each of the four quarters has been more than fulfilled. The Non-Residential Uses diagram is closely adhered to. Mixed use is what deploys naturally in human settlements unless it is expressly forbidden by planning law and policy.
Congress for the New Urbanism
You suggest that my reputation has been tarnished by being mixed up with my New Urbanist followers. You seem to ignore that the CNU Charter is still the only coherent modern urban planning document to replace the outdated but universally reigning Charter
of Athens principles.
It has been formulated by a phalanx of great professionals, now backed up by a formidable scientific and technical literature. The validity of New Urbanist theory should be assessed separately from its practical applications. The latter are largely dependent on commissions from the private sector.
Locations, briefs, densities, construction methods and style are mostly predetermined by clients’ business plans and existing zoning ordinances. They are often compromised by unprepared and hostile professional, legislative and bureaucratic environments. The debased realisation of my Florence-Novoli Masterplan by subsequent administrations and Fiat Immobiliari Spa is a case in point.
The core value of the New Urbanism movement lies, then, not in its many fragmentary realisations, but in its broad environmental vision. New Urbanism is not a set and sealed doctrine. Like scientific theory, it evolves through trial and error. New Urbanism’s body of knowledge is definitely not a theology nor a transcendental theory, but the technology for settling the planet in ecological, aesthetic and ethical ways.
To equate the Truman Show scenario with the actual life of Seaside or Celebration is simply ignorant of reality. It condemns without appeal what has become the only viable alternative to sprawling gated and cul de sac-ed suburbia. It is best to visit those places yourself rather than repeat their opponents.
Contrary to what you write, Cayalá is neither a suburb nor a gated community. The ‘gated community’ lie was jump-started by Huffington Post. It took 10 years to get the ‘no gates’ idea accepted by the client because our Israeli security advisor had nearly convinced the client to wall the entire project.
So far only a tenth of Paseo Cayalá is built. The principle of mixed use and programmatically-tuned architectural variety has laid the foundation for a powerful public realm. The growth of a true urban community takes, however, more time than the two years it took to build the first streets, squares, parks and a miraculous sense of place.
Cayalá is not gated nor will it be a town for the rich. It represents a first step in reconstructing a public realm for the Guatemalan urban middle-classes, bedrock of a democracy, mediator between the extremes of a society reconstructing itself after a murderous civil war.
An important residential population is to elect here home shortly. The construction of their houses, apartments and penthouses has only just started. This new urban community is a rare and precious flower taking root in the tormented soil and history of modern Guatemala City.
Cayalá should be judged not as a finished product but as the first step of a vision-in-the-making, the inception of a complex urban and social creation. Lies being repeated unchecked do great damage to what is an extraordinary social experiment.
Henri Ciriani et al
I enjoy Henri Ciriani’s small projects, his Arles Museum and the houses in Peru particularly − I also appreciate some of Zholtovsky’s work.
● The slave-labour which was used to build the Stalinist metros, the Nazi Volkswagen factory and motorways, the foundations of Saint Petersburg, or currently the profusion of Modernist fireworks in Dubai or Beijing, doesn’t seem to cause the same ethical and aesthetic revulsion with critics as does the Nazi slave labour used for building classical monuments.
● I have not worn a moustache for about 35 years.
● I use computers, planes and cars with advantage and delight and why should I not? Have you ever seen or heard me writing or saying anything against motorised vehicles as such and on principle? I criticise uncritical, unnecessary, obsessive, enforced and
damaging dependence on them.
● I am not against industrialisation as such and on principle, but against the ideological, unnecessary and damagingindustrialisation, against industrialisation as panacea, as political and metaphysical ideal, against industrialising subjects and activities defying reason, eroding the immense font of artisan technology and creating instead a mass society of ill-educated unemployed dependents, incapable of autonomy.