Reflections on My Morning with Leon Krier

19 May

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:

Leon Krier Cartoon : 3-4 Storey Theory.

Leon Krier’s articulation of his 3-4 storey theory (Source: Leon Krier)

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.

Architectural Style

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.

Leon Krier - architecture school education cartoon

Leon Krier’s commentary on architecture school education (Source: Leon Krier)

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.

Poundbury Dorset UK from the sky.

Poundbury, Dorset, England (Source: The Telegraph)

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.
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10 Responses to “Reflections on My Morning with Leon Krier”

  1. Urbanlou May 19, 2012 at 5:32 PM #

    Right on. The hierarchy certainly starts with streets and public space. Transportation, environmental quality annotobably a host of other issues come into play in my opinion before architecture. I love interesting buildings with unique design, but in a vacuum. 3-5 story height limits is insane… I have only spent a few months across Europe but certinly there are hundreds of examples of cities and towns with great height density than 4 stories that are some of the best spaces in the world. I find the terror diagram appalling and a weak attempt at sensationalism, that really holds no weight.

    Great writing keep it up!
    Louis

    • Urbanlou May 21, 2012 at 2:39 PM #

      Next time I won’t comment from my phone, silly auto-correct. While you all are commenting on Poundbury, I know nothing about it other than what you have mentioned, from the photo above what is going on with the odd shape of the street section and the large swath of paving in the foreground, it looks like some twisted auto-cad mistake….?

  2. Matthew Hardy (@drmatthewhardy) May 21, 2012 at 9:17 AM #

    You are out of date about Poundbury. It is now held up as a model for socially-acceptable density – double that of conventional development – and for equitable allocation of public housing – 30% social housing – being miles ahead of the ‘council estate’ model that Modernist architects bequeathed this country.

    The change came about 2005. It was first accepted as a model by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister under the Blair government, and by CABE, the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (now Design Council CABE). Further, it is overwhelmingly popular as a style among the public, as several MORI polls done for CABE prove. Indeed, the only people left who ridicule it as “a bastardization of traditional planning” ARE the architectural profession, or rather, the Modernist architectural profession.

    You do your readers a disservice to suggest that it is still regarded as outré on this side of the pond: quite the opposite!

    • Erin Chantry May 21, 2012 at 2:33 PM #

      Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. Just as there are many opinions on traditional architecture, I am sure there are many debates on Poundbury. The general opinion I experienced was from the Urban Design program as well as the Urban Planning program at Oxford Brookes University (one of the best)and the local city planning Councils. I’ve actually not heard Poundbury slammed by modern architects, but traditional town planners. In fact youre the first Brit Ive ever heard thats supported it. It’s great to hear that it is accepted on some level, that will be needed for future New Urbanism projects in the UK. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Howard January 29, 2013 at 2:42 AM #

      Read Dr. Hardy above, and to believe that 40 years is the life-span of ANY buidling is an embarrassment to the design profession… THIS is the trap you must escape. Only then, will you understand Leon’s message of hope and buildings that resonate with places (urban patterns).

      • Louis January 29, 2013 at 8:36 AM #

        But built in obsolescence is the way of the future…[tongue firmly in cheek].

  3. Howard May 28, 2012 at 1:36 PM #

    Your points that only the ground floor streetscape matters (reference to Pruitt-Igoe failure comment) and that ‘style’ is not important to place making are too simplistic. It is unfortunate for this blog that you did not get along with Leon personally during your interview as I would hope you would have discussed these limited platitudes. Know that the quality and character of places do matter. What happens beyond/below the first floor matters as well. The design of each is important to our profession… as are correct building forms, streetscapes in relationships to places and buildings. This is what I heard Leon discussing at CNU. And, just as style’ discussions in architecture are still taboo (Can’t call crap, crap), so is the idea that ‘only’ the streetscape matters and don’t talk or look beyond that human-scaled streetwall. Read Jan Gehl’s, “Cities for People” and you will see Leon’s words.

    • Erin Chantry May 28, 2012 at 10:46 PM #

      Hi Howard,

      Thanks so much for reading and the great comment.

      I am guilty as charged in making my argument very simple. I do that because I get frustrated with the devastating condition of our urban/suburban environment and I want to see change. And complicated arguments often get left on the drafting table, while simple ones get implemented. I of course know that every issue, especially in urban planning and design is extremely complicated. In this case, I believe the reduction to simplicity is not only fair, its effective.

      I have always said that the architectural design of buildings can have an enormous effect on placemaking and building identity. You are 100% right. In the rare occasions that property owners and developers want to invest heavily in the public realm and architectural quality, a place will only be stronger and more sustainable as a result. I just returned from a weekend in Rosemary Beach and was VERY impressed. (Stay tuned for a post early this week.) But I also believe a place can work perfectly with poor architectural ‘style’ as long as buildings “meet the ground” in a way that contributes activity and safety to streets and public open space. I believe it because I have seen it, many times.

      In my opinion, the argument that urban designers make to developers are often seen in $$$ signs. Investment into the public realm and architectural detail ‘style’ are both very expensive, with what they consider questionable return. In addition, they know what sells, and a pedestrian oriented and multimodal streetscape isn’t necessary in many parts of our country to do that (neither is high quality architectural style either.) I have spent most of my years in the south and buildings sitting in the middle of parking lots is the standard, and I argue the most devastating. Realistically change needs to happen incrementally, and our built environment’s “problems” with the most devastating consequences need to change first.

      I will always be open to learning from Leon, and will continue to read his work. He certainly has years of experience on me. But I felt it was my duty as a member of the CNU to speak my thoughts on what I thought was a very arrogant delivery of a misleading and oversimplified message. When we have connected streets, multimodal transportation systems in place, a healthy and safe pedestrian environment, and a diversity of mixed-uses in every neighborhood in America I will be first in line to champion an open and creative template of architectural quality.

      Thanks again for your comment. I really appreciate you reading. Jan Gehl is my absolute favorite urban designer and “Cities for People” has a prominent home on my desk!

      Erin

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. CNU20: Final Reflections. « At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog - June 30, 2012

    [...] is no doubt that the magical matchmaking I felt with CNU, hit a stumbling block with Leon Krier’s plenary session. I will not elaborate here, but you can read my past post on the topic. And while [...]

  2. A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside. « At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog - June 30, 2012

    [...] finished up with a swing by my mate, Leon Krier’s house, the Truman Show house, and the Seaside Chapel. It was a whirlwind day in Seaside. And while [...]

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