The satirist masterplanner favoured by Prince Charles is worthy of a grudging admiration
Like the proverbial curate’s egg, Léon Krier is really excellent in parts. His early defence of the street and the square as the inalienable seed-forms of the city were an essential, timely reminder. That defence was conducted in combative and carefully reasoned texts as well as clear, fluent − and often brilliant and witty − drawings which have entered the treasury of 20th-century architecture. Some of the drawings and many of the ideas Léon shares with his elder brother Rob, a much more prolific (if a less chaste) draughtsman and builder − and sculptor. Both of them were involved in the movement which called for the revaluation and recall of the concept of type in building against the wearisome (and by then exhausted) effort to make everything new − or at least worked out from first principles − as if invoking precedent in building were something rather shameful.
Léon’s attacks on the functionally-zoned city of CIAM were well-aimed and timely, though the more insidious and constricting zoning imposed on world-cities by land-and-building speculation over the last two decades seems to have escaped his attention. Perhaps his wholesale rejection of industry − among whose products he inevitably lives, and whose by-products (such as having his own web-site) he unquestioningly uses − has not struck him as involving any painful and insoluble paradox. At any rate in his early career his loyalties were crossed; he entered James Stirling’s office as a young architect (Rob chose to work for Oswald Mathias Ungers in Cologne) and the figure of his corpulent master, seated in a favourite Thomas Hope chair, has appeared in some drawings. But, of course, Léon was not a passive assistant and their dialogue is an interesting byway of late 20th-century architecture.
It has become difficult to disengage Krier’s gold from the New Urbanist dross since he has entangled himself too stickily in its webs
Has he mellowed over the intervening years? I doubt it. In his recent publications he seems merely to have restated the position he took 20 or more years ago. Some of the intransigent attitudes he has taken up seem rather to illustrate one of the problems which I, at any rate, have with some of the polemics in which he has been involved, in which his position is characterised by a political innocence verging on insensibility, almost flippancy. His enthusiasm for the architecture of the late unlamented Albert Speer may be a case in point.
Speer had escaped the Nuremberg gallows by claiming to be a neutral executor and administrator of others’ policies and ideas. Yet his buildings (the Berlin Chancellery most notably), which I consider ham-fisted exercises in academic planning (they would certainly have been deprecated by any competent teacher trained in the Beaux-Arts method), were made of the bricks and of the granite produced and quarried by inmates of those very concentration camps that Speer had been instrumental in building and planning. I wonder if it is at all significant that Léon has no analogous words of praise for the marginally less blowsy, though equally historicist-academic Ivan Zholtovsky.
Studied at the University of Stuttgart for one year but left for London in 1968 to work with James Stirling
Turning away from Modernism and consumerism, taking up neo-traditionalist ideas and becoming the ‘godfather of New Urbanism’
Poundbury, Dorset (1988)
‘Viewed from a certain distance and under good light, even an ugly city can look like the promised land’
But then Zholtovsky was involved in the ‘traditionalist’ re-planning and the ‘greening’ of Moscow, a city too big by Krier’s standards, though of course the Hitler-Speer ‘World-capital Germania’ (their transformed Berlin) was to be vastly bigger than any contemporary Soviet project. On the other hand, Krier has invoked, even deliberately emulated, Heinrich Tessenow, Albert Speer’s consistently anti-Nazi teacher (whose opinion of his ex-assistant’s architectural achievement was no better than mine) on the need to limit city size and city growth; yet he does not seem to have heeded the lesson which Tessenow, like Ebenezer Howard (his contemporary), insistently repeated: that for any human settlement − village, town or city − to have any vitality, it must be productive. The fallow city is a contradiction in terms.
Krier’s lack of interest in such matters is illustrated by his involvement in the self-labelled ‘New Urbanism’, a tendency which has flourished in the United States and in Latin America, and he has recently planned a gated suburb, Cayala − outside Guatemala City − that advertises itself as the place ‘where the rich can escape crime’. Indeed, we have our own royally-promoted precedent for it in the village of Poundbury, now 20 years old, which seems to prosper since expansion is planned. The village is in effect a suburb of Dorchester of which Krier is the planner, and where he has designed several buildings. There is even talk of a parallel project in India. He has of course designed his own house in the New Urbanist settlement of Seaside, in Florida. The style he has adopted is perhaps best described as William-and-Adelaide (somewhere between Regency and early Victorian). Why some of its practitioners claim the label ‘Classical’ or ‘traditional’ for the manner I fail to understand.
‘New Urbanism’, too, is something of a misnomer, since the nature of these settlements, allegedly communitarian and pro-pedestrian, in fact discourages public transport and relies on the private automobile. That, and the limiting of the population to owner-inhabitants, imposes a middle-income limit on those who choose to live there, while their policy excludes both industry and agriculture. It is arguable that really makes them not New but Anti-urban. However, the Krier brothers have recalibrated their collaboration over the years, and Rob’s thickly-textured metropolitan spaces seem to speak of a rather different urban ideal from Léon’s. The life of such gated settlements was famously satirised 20 years ago in The Truman Show − a film which should be shown in schools of architecture along with the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster as well as the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe; and in fact the realities of the New Urbanism have reduced most, if not all, of the settlements based on their ideology to the status of gated suburbs, served by unruly and often squalid outskirts where the supermarket attendants, cleaners and scavengers who depend on them eke out their living. Celebration could not subsist without its adjoining messy suburb, Kissimmee.
Still, much like some of the other New Urbanism advocates, Léon is a fluent and persuasive speaker. He also has the advantage over some of them of being a person of unaffected charm. Always trim in a suit (a just reproach to my scruffy corduroy bags and sports jacket), he is also an enthusiastic and accomplished musician. The last time we spent an evening together was in a tango bar in Buenos Aires (on the occasion of the local architectural biennale) with the Peruvian-Parisian master Henri Ciriani, whose architecture is certainly more to my taste than to his: but though some of us were brave enough to dance to the preliminary music, we were soon put to shame by the lean, pencil-mustachioed and beshawled tangoists who demonstrated what none of us − not even the Latin American Ciriani − could even remotely emulate.
By now it has become rather difficult to disengage Krier’s own gold from all that New Urbanist dross since he has entangled himself too stickily in its webs. For all that, those early, unaffected drawings remain a sterling achievement and much of his polemic retains its force: they invite respect and even a grudging admiration.