Afterword to Leon Krier's
The Architecture of Community
by James Howard Kunstler
Critiquing the twin fiascos of architectural modernism and suburbia was problematical as long as the cheap oil regime remained in force to fuel all their enormities. History ceased to matter. Techno-triumphalism was the order of the day. Doubletalk and groupthink ruled the seminar chambers. The grandees and mandarins in the fine arts promoted each other to the rank of metaphysical viziers in an intellectual despotism aimed at crushing the human spirit. The sociopathic norms of the corporate boardroom – all profits to the shareholders (and gargantuan bonuses to the management)! – eclipsed any other value system. The lumpen public, reduced to so many mere consumer units, were hung out to dry on booby-trapped home equity lines-of-credit. The diminishing returns of all this nonsense and wickedness were ignored as entropy worked its remorseless hoodoo on our culture. The result, in America especially, was a land full of places and things not worth caring about and a living arrangement with no future.
I write in a stunning October week when the world financial markets are blowing up. They are self-destructing in large part because of the looming end of the cheap oil fiesta. The connection between the two has remained strangely recondite, even among people who should know better. It is as follows: the all-time peak of oil production implies the end of industrial growth as we have known it – especially when you correct for the unworkable fantasies that purport a continuing fiesta of so-called alternative or renewable energy sources. The end of industrial growth as we’ve known it implies that the investment instruments which represent the hope and expectation for future growth – stocks, bonds, currencies, et cetera – must lose their legitimacy. An attempt was made in recent years to work around this problem with engineered innovative financial instruments based on something other than industrial growth (namely, on getting something for nothing). These were the various species of mutant tradable papers denoted by their alphabet soup names: MBSs, CDOs, SIVs, CDSs. etc, most of them in one way or another originating from fraud in the real estate mortgage market, which is to say in the financing of suburban houses and their commercial accessories. These aggregate frauds amounted to a grand and comprehensive swindle, and now that swindle has left the world financial system in smoldering ruins.
There are persistent hopes in the so-called development community of production house-builders, property entrepreneurs, realtors, loan officers, and municipal officials that “a bottom” will be reached in the housing bubble debacle, which will lead to a new upswing in “the cycle.” I’m here to tell you that their hopes are in vain. The project of suburbia is dead. The associated projects of Modernist megastructures, as well as their context of the so-called metroplex mega-city, will die along with suburbia. The events of autumn, 2008, can be summarized as vast sums of capital leaving the system, never to return as far ahead as we can imagine. We have become overnight a poorer human race – in particular, those sectors of humanity who imagined themselves to be pretty well off. . . post-industrial. . . cutting edge. . . above the mundane. . . immune to the tedious vicissitudes of history. Not only is the suburban project dead, but the “normal” way of life we have known, as represented by the infrastructure of our Happy Motoring utopia, has entered a terminal state of failure. Everything from the McHouse estates built of chipboard and vinyl, to the Big Box shopping empires, to the numberless strip malls, to the now-unmaintainable roadways themselves are all toast. It will all hemorrhage value and utility in the years ahead, and its destiny is probably some combination of slums, salvage yards, and ruins. Most of this stuff will not be retrofitted, though pieces of it will certainly be recycled, since the end of cheap oil also portends the demise of many synthetic and fabricated building materials.
All of this is to say that we have, suddenly, a new agenda for comprehensively rebuilding the human habitat in those parts of the world that have suffered most from the ravages of suburbia and architectural modernism. The end of the oil regime, and the vanishing of capital means we will have to live differently, whether we like it or not, whether it is fashionable or not. And I am 99.999 percent certain that this means, in effect, a return traditional ways of inhabiting the landscape: real towns, villages, neighborhoods, urban quarters, and cities of a different sort and scale than the hypertrophied monsters of recent decades. Also real buildings of comprehendible typology made largely out of materials found in nature. This is what the circumstances of the years to come will require us to do.
We’re fortunate that Leon Krier has been here all along diligently documenting these fiascos while also preparing what amounts to a strategy for recovering a human ecology with a future. By this, I don’t mean a futuristic science-fiction fantasy of sleek surfaces and robotic leisure – I mean a living arrangement with some prospect of enduring more than a few decades, a place that human beings can truly call home. What’s more, Krier’s vision of this ecology comes loaded with the exact quality that the twin fiascos of suburbia and modernism lacked: authentic humanism, offering spiritual reward for what is best in our nature, namely our ability to apprehend truth and beauty.
The debate over these things – traditional architecture and urbanism versus modernism and suburbia – is now concluded. The future can now reconnect with the past to create that dwelling place I call a hopeful present. This book is Mr. Krier’s gift to the coming generations – who, otherwise, have been left saddled by us with little more than extravagant debts in every way you could imagine. They are going to have to inhabit what remains of this planet, along with whatever remains of its resources, when we are gone, and Mr. Krier’s heroic, often lonely labors, have produced this indispensable beacon of principle and methodology to light their way home.