I was on a pretty big CNU high until this past Saturday morning when Leon Krier brought me back to reality.
Leon Krier is a described neo-traditional architect and architectural theorist who has been a consistent influence on the New Urbanism movement, from his hand in developing the Seaside master plan to his planning of Poundbury, the most well-known New Urbanism development in the United Kingdom. Introduced as the “Godfather of New Urbanism,” he was also described as the intellectual backbone of the movement. The plenary session focused on two issues that he believes the CNU leaves unresolved: the limit of high density and the architectural style and construction of buildings.
Building Height and Density
Krier argues that there should be a limit of 3-4 floors on all buildings. Buildings higher than that alienate people from their community, take an enormous amount of energy, and distort the elegance of traditional architecture. The height of skyscrapers, he explained, also minimize the significance of civic buildings in their context. Tall = important; short = less important. The argument against vertical density has some good points to consider. The comparison between the residential tower and the cul-de-sac is a powerful one. They do say it’s lonely at the top and I am confident it’s lonely at the end of a cul-de-sac. It is true that tall buildings do consume an enormous amount of energy and as we become more dependent on our resources they will become harder to maintain. Fair enough, but I would argue that green construction systems like LEED by the USGBC mitigate a lot of the environmental impacts of tall buildings. As far as the height distorting vernacular and traditional architecture, see below.
To illustrate this point, Leon Krier showed one of the most impactful and unnerving diagrams I have ever seen:
He made his point well, although I would argue that he made it insensitively. It was even a bit of a stretch to connect his theory to terrorism. He said he couldn’t get his diagram published in America; it was apparent to me why.
His argument on building heights, while strong, is very unrealistic. Using his World Trade Center analogy, it is silly to suggest that the density of the Twin Towers could be achieved in 3-story buildings in the heart of Manhattan. It is true that incentives and the fear of risk in the banking industry have led to tall buildings being built in context where they don’t belong. I can look out my office window and see them in Tampa, and I know they exist in my hometown of Charlotte. But to suggest that all buildings taller than 3 stories be prohibited from being built in a country that claims the skyscraper as its only architectural movement is not only unrealistic, it’s a waste of time.
What we really need to get right is how the buildings meet the ground. The disaster of high-rise residential buildings like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green failed, not because of their height, but the design of the ground floor and the land use around it. City grids and mixed-uses were wiped from communities, taking along with them activity in the public realm. I am aware of many people who live in high rises and love them. Their buildings, often in cities like New York and Chicago, exist in a rich urban environment and an active community. The result of which is from good urban design and city planning, not architecture.
First, let me preface this by saying that I am a graduate of one of the architectural schools that Leon Krier (and Andres Duany) so passionately slams. I was taught to be an architect from the perspective that every design decision must answer to a higher conceptual idea. Every building is a functional piece of art that can alter people’s experience of life. Inherent in this belief is that architects must look forward, and not back, to find this creativity. Architecture has been marked by movements where people thinking outside the box moved the profession forward theoretically by creating a new form of beauty. There is nothing higher than this respect and it remains the carrot to the rabbit throughout an architect’s career. Andres Duany is correct in saying that this can be frustrating to an architect in the real world profession; it certainly was for me and was a big influence in my move to urban design and planning. Regardless, I believe wholeheartedly that it is the architect’s prerogative to continue to push that conventional envelope through their design.
The biggest reason I believe this is because most buildings last an average of 40 years. This is not a long time compared to block structure and street design that remains for centuries. I think Leon Krier would agree with me that street design is perhaps the greatest thing to get right. It determines the social, environmental, and economic sustainability potential a place has, and getting it wrong can lead to a destruction that is impossible to turn away from. When we get buildings wrong, we get to knock them down and start over. Don’t get me wrong, buildings contribute enormously to the health of our public realm and their demolition and construction have a big effect on our carbon footprint. But if we’re going to get creative, the building level and public space is the arena in which to do this.
So, I can say here that one of the reasons that Leon Krier’s passionate epilogue didn’t resonate with me is that I don’t think architectural style is that important or important at all. I know, grand words coming from the mouth of a former architect. I’ve written in the past about places like St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida. Known for its walkability, its unique urban form, and interesting mix of uses, it is one of the healthiest urban places I’ve ever witnessed. However, there is no architectural style or quality in the construction of its buildings. When you look closely, the buildings are quite horrifying, but no one seems to notice. The reason for this is that even though there is no architectural quality to the buildings they are functioning to the highest degree by providing a huge amount street activity and interaction.
If you want to understand Leon Krier’s argument on traditional architecture, I invite you to read his literature because it is very in-depth and well-explained through some beautiful drawings. Let me touch upon his explanation of “traditional” architecture, which I did find very interesting. Krier says “traditional” does not equal “historic,” and that through vernacular materials specifically it can still be relevant and contemporary. This resonates with me because I feel the same thing about urban design. I am a “traditionalist” when it comes to urban design principles and design, but I believe they are the answer in addressing modern and contemporary problems in society.
However, the contemporary challenges in urban design and urban planning have a lot more to answer for than the contemporary challenges in architecture. They determine economic stimulation and the growth of industries, transportation systems and mobility, the health of future generations, and the environmental sustainability of our society. What is the consequence of the architectural style of a building if it is “modern” versus “traditional” and still contributes activity to the public realm? None.
I will further say that while he might be correct in the definition of “traditional architecture,” it is a term that means something else to a much larger population. If used among architects, students, planners, politicians, designers, and almost anyone in the built environment profession, they will say that “traditional architecture” is historic. Leon Krier began by saying that you can never please everyone and that the CNU should never compromise its beliefs in order to be successful, gain membership, or have more influence in the industry. While at first I thought this was self-assurance, I soon learned that it was arrogance. Leon Krier could benefit from listening to people like Richard Florida, who says that creativity and open-mindedness leads to success, as well as his friend, Andres Duany, and Richard Hall, who have learned to speak the language of the people who will make the biggest influence in the work they are trying to achieve. Confidence can make change happen, but arrogance can be dangerous.
I will finish by saying that people like Leon Krier and his acceptance by the New Urbanism community is holding back the movement from being at the forefront of influence in the architecture, planning, and urban design professions. While some of the founders of the CNU are traditionalists, many of the people they are trying to influence are the opposite. Having gotten my MA in Urban Design and MSc in Planning and Regeneration in England, I am aware that Poundbury, one of the few projects that Krier has actually built, is ridiculed as a bastardization of traditional planning by the profession and many members of the general public. It has caused the New Urbanism movement to lose an enormous amount of respect internationally, due in large part to Leon Krier.
Also, in my opinion the CNU Charter doesn’t need to answer for everything. That it does not address architectural style and building heights allows it to be more relevant to places like Manhattan and middle-American rural towns. It also allows for demands in the market; like Daniel Solomon says, it is best to avoid the straight jacket that the movement has the possibility to create. Leon Krier’s beliefs are one straightjacket I don’t see worth wearing.
This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.
Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.