Their Brilliant Kriers

Pioneering urbanists Léon and Rob Krier share insights as their rare joint appearance at CNU 17 approaches

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Rob and Léon Krier have influenced architecture and urbanism for the past 30 years.

Born in Luxemburg, the brothers witnessed their hometown devastated by poor planning decisions and low-grade buildings, leading them to study the root causes of non-contextual developments. Embracing the principles and techniques of traditional architecture and urbanism, they both have rigorously documented urban places and elements of architecture, sharing this body of knowledge through numerous drawings and ideograms.

Incorporating the lessons learned and respecting the history and culture of the regions where they work, they have produced a canonical oeuvre, with Léon winning deserved fame for designing Poundbury for HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchy of Cornwall and Rob seeing a number of the towns he's designed primarily in the Netherlands come into finely crafted existence.

With their rare joint appearance in an intimate CNU 17 advanced 202 session fast approaching — along with individual breakout sessions featuring each of them and their work — Léon Krier fielded a set of questions from architect and CNU board member Dhiru Thadani. During the interview, Krier produced a set of his famed pictograms for the occasion. Rob, who will be honored with a CNU Athena award for lifetime achievement (joining Léon and a distinguished group of urbanists) also supplied a few response.

Dhiru Thadani began the interview by asking Léon Krier about the topic of his breakout session at CNU 17.

DT: What are the fundamental principles of the architectural tuning of settlements.

LK: The term ‘tuning’ is well known in the world of musical instruments. I introduce it into  the realm of  architecture and urbanism in order to describe a phenomenon, a  set of relations, which is little spoken of, discussed, let alone mastered, i.e. firstly, the relationship  and adequcy of architectural objects with the particular geometric nature of  geographic networks, secondly, the dosage of vernacular and classical geometries and or elements within a building, a group of buildings forming a larger ensemble or indeed an entire city, region, country continent, civilisation. It is the architectural and artistic parallel to Andres Duany’s transect categories ranging from the rural to the urban.

DT: What are the first steps in teaching architects to design more satisfying neighborhoods and towns?

LK: The first thing to understand about a neighbourhood is that it is infinitely more than a single-use zone and by extension that towns are not  merely additions of mono-functonal zones. It follows that mixed-use within a building, a street, a neighbourhood, a town are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for creating an architecturally well tuned artifact.  Architectural tuning allows to orchestrate so to speak a complex functional program into a meaningful architectural or urban composition. Architectural variety represents in that discipline, the logical and legitimate expression of programmatic variety. Mixed use is the typological base on which architectural contrasts and variety are built and by which they are justified.

RK: I’m generally extremely pessimistic with respect to the quality of present-day architecture and construction. The modern buildings that have been, and still are being, constructed right across the globe since the last world war are unfathomably ugly... The fashionable designs of so-called star architects celebrate the hollow personality cults of their creators and can never become common property, i.e. teachable in schools of architecture. If only beauty was as contagious as ugliness! My advice to young people: steer clear of this profession until the cultural scene has returned to its senses. My serious advice to the young people would be that they educate themselves as profoundly as possible in the craft of construction. This is the bedrock of any kind of intelligent design for the enjoyment of the users.

DT: Are there any US examples that you can cite that achieve a good balance between vernacular and classical architecture and urbanism?

LK: The best tuned historical examples are Williamsburg and its agrandizement in L’Enfant’s plan for Washington DC. The unsurpassed recent example is Windsor, Florida by DPZ.

DK: How would you describe the current intellectual climate as it applies to town building?
LK: Diabolical Babelism. That phrase describes the inscrutable complications of modern planning laws. The new Piano Regolatore for the city of Parma, Italy, contained over 700 densely packed pages of prescriptions. Looking at the built results you  understand that the environmental mess which results from their application, is due to the very inflation of prescriptions. It makes almost anything possible. It is the reality where  instead of  planning and resolving large existentially important issues, planning administrations, visionless and bogged down in administrative minutiae of health and safety have strayed away from the objectives of their vocation. In effect they should regulate the building activities in ecological, economic, social and esthetically sustainable ways.

Our societies find themselves now in situations of  hypertrophy, of unsustainable existential extreme of which not only most people, but most planners  are uncoscious of. We live in conditions of imperial dominance without even being aware of  it. Many modernist theorists from Venturi to Koolhaas have taken the position that because you cannot fight it you have to embrace it. They forget that in the embrace the-would-be masters become slaves. The false angelism of an attitude of merely playing with the phenomenon is forgetting that we are in an end condition, a condition of near total loss of mastery, of imperial hubris, violence, and entropy.

Horizontal and vertical urban sprawl are the instruments and expression of modern imperialism, and will come to an abrupt end with the realization of our near total dependance on fossil and nuclear fuels. The consolatory myth of a plan ‘B’ ready to kick into action, when the machine-civilisation is experiencing major breakdowns, are starting to evaporate. We will probably go, as Al Gore feared, from ignoring the problem to despairing about it.