Book Review for
The American Enterprise

Leon Krier's
Architecture: Choice or Fate

Andreas Papadakis Publisher, Windsor, UK, 1998
(Available through: National Book Network
4729 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland, 20706)


    Anybody who is distressed by the "fiasco of suburbia" that has become the everyday setting of American life will find illumination in Leon Krier's compelling polemic on the current state of western architecture and urbanism. Krier's message is heroically redemptive: we can choose to live in better surroundings than the universal automobile slum of our time. We don't have to remain captive victims to failed ideologies. There are enduring values in the art of building that are our natural legacy as human beings and we are free to reclaim them.
    Krier may be best known to Americans as the architect behind the Prince of Wales's new town of Poundbury in Dorset, England, and as the intellectual godfather of the New Urbanism movement in America, a campaign to rescue the landscape, townscape and civic life of our nation from the failed experiment of a drive-in utopia. Few public intellectuals in any field use the English language to more powerful effect than Krier, a Luxemburgois who lived in London for twenty years and now makes his home in southern France. He brings an exhilarating clarity to issues of place-making and architecture that have been otherwise subject to a remorseless obscurantism by a colorful cast of self-promoting avant-gardist charlatans ranging from Le Corbusier in the 1920s to Peter Eisenman in our time.
    In this comprehensive book, lavishly illustrated with the author's drawings and lucid, witty diagrams, Krier lays out his case and issues a challenge: The 20th Century belief system called Modernism, and its cultish offshoots, have failed to produce buildings and cities worth caring about, or even capable of supporting the continued enterprise of civilization, and it is time to replace them with something better, namely, traditional principles and methods of building consistent with the real needs of the human spirit. Much of the knowledge necessary to achieve this restoration of civilization's dwelling place already exists in the very history from which Modernism sought to divorce itself.
    Krier is particularly adept at presenting the meaning of the city as both a technical matter and a moral imperative.

    All traditional architecture clearly distinguishes between the public and/or sacred buildings, on the one hand, and the utilitarian and/or private buildings, on the other. The former expresses the qualities of institutions -- dignity, solemnity, grandeur for the res publica and the res sacra; the latter, the more modest private activities of housing, commerce and industry in the res privata and the res economica. . . . [I]f museums look like factories and churches like industrial warehouses, a basic value of the state is in crisis. . . .

Modernist dogma has promoted a confusion of building types that has made it impossible for cities to function meaningfully.

    [T]he sterility of this so-called innovative ideology. . .
    is clearly revealed in the confusion of its terminology.
    A garden city is not a true city and not a true garden. . .
    a curtain wall is not a wall and not a curtain. . . a multi-purpose hall is no real substitute for a church, a theater, or a sportshall. The same is true of a business park, a reception area, a machine for living, a satellite city, green belts, open spaces, etc. . . .This "anti-glossary," the instrument and expression of a so-called "abstract reality," is proof that concrete urban reality is the product of a civilizing vision and not the automatic result of mere building zeal. An industry that produces non-places, unreal reality, abstract objects can only be a transitory phenomenon.

    Krier's criticism of the contemporary non-place or anti-city begins with the catastrophe of zoning -- the systematic disassembly of the complex civic organism into less than the sum of its parts. Zoning may have started as a reasonable response to the novelty of industrialism, but it has evolved into a abstract scheme which fragments daily life and makes car dependency mandatory. Under the bonehead logic of zoning, benign activities like shopping are given the same treatment as glue factories, and detached from the places where people live, with the result that we have become a United Parking Lot of America.
    To his credit, Krier recognizes that a critique of this mess is futile without a workable counter-vision, and he presents a rich one, beginning with graphical master plans for the restoration of several European city centers, a very impressive design for the "completion" of Washington, D.C., moving finally to the actual project of Poundbury which has been under construction in real bricks and mortar for a few years now, and is partially inhabited.
    Among the other putative leading figures in international architecture, Krier's work is the most comprehensive and intelligent. Least of all does he seek to shock with ersatz novelty or dazzle with fake innovative genius. The lexicon of urbanism already exists in fifty centuries of human culture. We need to reacquaint ourselves with it. The invention of the city, Krier has written elsewhere, "was a spiritual and technical achievement the historical significance of which surpassed by far the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel." We need to reconnect our future with the past in order to live in a hopeful present. The city and the town are indispensable, and they must be places worthy of our spirits. Without them, we are liable to not remain civilized.

Jim Kunstler is the author, most recently, of
Home From Nowhere (Simon and Schuster).


Continue on to American Enterprise, fall 1998.


Copyright © 1998 James Howard Kunstler