A talk with architect and urbanist Léon Krier

Renowned architect, architectural theorist and urban planner Léon Krier, known worldwide as the godfather of the New Urbanism movement, is one of four luminaries slated to give an Urban Talk at World Urban Forum 7. As a prelude to his Wednesday evening event, Krier spoke to a rapt audience this afternoon, detailing the theory and practice informing his most recent projects and dispensing abundant wit and wisdom along the way.

Krier was one of the first to offer a serious critique of architectural modernism, and today's discussion left no doubt that his disdain for functional zoning, suburbanism, and other bêtes noires remains intact. As he moved through a series of slides depicting city plans, diagrams and other illustrations, his commentary was peppered with deft stabs at various architectural and urban-planning adversaries, from the "completely nonsensical" processes and pronouncements of "stupid bureaucrats" to the "indescribable human disaster" of Britain's National Housing Policy.

The main thread of the narrative, nonetheless, was a compelling description of How Cities Work — and why, from Krier's perspective, they often do not. He gave vivid illustrations of the virtues of mixture and variety — with respect to "use, income, materials, sizes, scales, everything" — in the composition of the polycentric city and the generation of "good public space." ("Big cities need a language that distinguishes between public and private, important and unimportant...") He opposed metric regularity (and the bureaucratic mindset that is its handmaiden) with the multiplicity and diversity that flow from clarity of architectural language ("It is the motor of use which creates diversity"). He evangelized for architectural control of building sites as a way to rein in the "authentic fakes" with which modernist architecture is dotted ("Modernity is not the problem. The problem is the fake"), and stressed that "it is very important to regenerate the building crafts" — referencing "the 39 traditional building crafts, each of which is needed to form a really competent traditional architecture of the future." And he argued persuasively for both the need and the means required to create centrality in cities — as distinct from, say, the "anti-urban labyrinth" of suburbia.

Krier rails better than just about anyone, and his scathing dismissal of the "exaggerations" of modernism was classic, as he ridiculed "the insistence that a toilet seat must be designed as a masterpiece" — speaking, not of Duchamp, but of the magisterial approach to architecture in which every detail, however minute, must express the architect's genius. He continued in an offhand tone: "It was this nonsensical artistic exaggeration that led to the destruction of art."

In passing (but very much in context), Krier recommended a book: Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell. He also recommended another — his own, The Architecture of Community. "I hope you will acquire it," he said wryly, "for the good of humanity." As we should, and will.

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