By Ray Sawhill
The post-Warhol now isn’t a moment when a taste for the quiet, the tender and the modest gets you much credit. People who are fascinated by forms, conventions and codes — and who see much that’s potentially wonderful in them — have largely given up trying to make a public case for them; there seems to be no way of escaping their association with stuffiness, let alone (ultimate sin) boringness. The polemicist, architect and town planner Léon Krier is one of the few who’s currently taking this temperament public. His new book, “Architecture: Choice or Fate” (Andreas Papadakis), though stuffy indeed, isn’t just not boring, it’s enthralling.
Although not widely known in America, the Luxembourg-born Krier has been a ferocious and witty provocateur on the town-planning circuit for several decades; his ideas lie behind such icons of the New Urbanism as Seaside, the Florida town that served as setting (and object of mockery) for “The Truman Show.” He’s likely to become more familiar over the next few years as the planner of Poundbury, a new British town in Dorset that’s being created under the sponsorship of the Prince of Wales. More than 100 Poundbury houses have been completed (by a variety of architects and builders), and are now inhabited; the New York Times reports that the development is a surprise hit. Krier — who for years was better known for his ideas than for anything he’d built — has now helped create a town that’s likely to become a standard on the New Urbanist grand tour.
“Architecture: Choice or Fate” provides a chance to sample Krier’s mind and eye. At first glance, it’s simply a handsome coffee-table book by a guy who hasn’t built much. Images and diagrams of schemes, plans and proposals are accompanied by quirkily organized comments from Krier. In fact, in an understated way, it’s a complex and intriguing work. Text, pictures and design all mesh and advance a vision; Krier is making a case and exemplifying a method at the same time. We’re used to this, but we have come to associate it with modernism — with Joyce or Calvino, for example. We make comments when reading such books about how their real subject is “the artist’s mind,” or perhaps “consciousness itself.”
Krier’s book has that kind of complexity and interwovenness, but it’s explicitly anti-modernist — and in discussing buildings and towns, he’s proposing that the mind itself play a different role than it plays in modernism. Forget the fireworks of abstraction and inwardness: How about using the mind (and buildings and cities) to help us find a place in the world, and in history too? If you enter into the book’s method and argument, it can be indescribably moving to turn a page and find a delicate pen-and-ink cartoon of a man on a porch looking past a colonnade toward a plaza: Consciousness and social life, for so long at odds, have opened back up to each other once again.
In this very special branch of literature — iconoclastic thinking about buildings and towns — the two towering figures are Jane Jacobs (a genius version of the little old lady in tennis shoes) and Christopher Alexander, whose “A Pattern Language” has a perennial, Rubik’s-cube-like fascination. By comparison, Krier might be a gentleman poet with a tender-yet-mischievous streak; his easy-breathing and whimsical neoclassicism will be a surprise for readers who associate the style with stiffness, brutality and imperialism.
Krier’s arguments in favor of “the modernity of traditional architecture” often take the form of the wry near-epigram. On how architects are to blame for making themselves irrelevant: “As long as artists arbitrarily assume the right to decide what is or is not art it is logical that the public will just as arbitrarily feel that they have the right to reject it.” On the way modernists and their neo- and post- descendants overemphasize the role of inspiration: “As is the case with all good things in life — love, good manners, language, cooking — personal creativity is required only rarely.”
The book’s art includes reproductions of paintings — by a number of artists, including David Ligare, Rita Wolff and Carl Laubin — of Krier proposals. These images are touching, slightly absurd fantasias that bring out both the impressiveness and the fragility of civilization; you gather that, for the urbane Krier, city life is, or can be, idyllic. Krier himself supplies drawings of towns and buildings he has imagined, as well as a large number of cartoons, some humorous, some didactic. He’s a first-rate cartoonist in the bittersweet-boulevardier mode of J.J. Sempé.
As a production in its own right, “Architecture: Choice or Fate” is lavish yet approachable, contained yet unfolding, affording moments of lush yet pristine beauty as well as pockets of refreshing quiet. This is a book for contemplation and browsing. I found myself beguiled by its principles of organization and by the touches of the marvelous and the irrational in its art and decoration.
Bizarrely, Krier — who so beautifully makes a case for a humane classicism — has often been reviled by other architects and planners; he can be quite funny about how quick some are to call him a “reactionary,” even a “fascist.” Part of the point, in fact, of the New York Times report about Poundbury was that visitors were surprised by how pleasant a place it’s shaping up to be, because what had been predicted was a nightmare of kitsch and control — a miniature, right-wing version of that modernist disaster, Brasilia. I wonder if an explanation might be that some people are outraged by any suggestion that common sense and poetry don’t need to be antagonists. Their loss. If a Krier town is anything like a Krier book, I wouldn’t mind a house in one.
- Buy a copy of “Architecture: Choice or Fate.”
- Here’s the Leon Krier website, maintained by the brilliant Nikos Salingaros.
- Read an interview I did with Nikos Salingaros: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.
- Here’s an interview that Nikos Salingaros conducted with Leon Krier.
- An essay by Krier on sustainable urbanism that’s illustrated with a lot of his cartoons.
- A nice appreciation of Krier’s cartooning.
- John Massengale, James Kunstler and David Brussat are excellent New Urbanist bloggers.
©1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.