Léon Krier… is arguably the most curious, potent and significant force in architecture today.”—Urban planner Jaquelin Robertson
The line outside the Museum of Photographic Arts snaked down a ramp and out the door, as Howard Blackson nervously paced.
“I'm not going to have seats for everyone because the Union-Tribune didn't mention to RSVP,” the usually easy-going urban planner fretted. “And something's wrong with Léon's computer. I'm going out of my mind. Oh, here's Léon —.”
His voice trails off as Léon Krier, the night's attraction—and one of Blackson's heroes—steps into the lobby, a grandfatherly type sporting Einstein-esque wavy silver hair. He inquires about his computer (“They're working on it right now, Léon,” Blackson responds) and disappears into the theater.
For five days, Blackson served as Krier's de facto manager, driving him to lectures and dinner parties in San Diego and in Arizona, feeding him his wife's chicken soup when a cold persisted and generally playing cheerleader when the 63-year-old world-renowned architectural thinker and virulent anti-Modernist sagged from exhaustion.
On a modest U.S. book tour to promote his latest compendium, The Architecture of Community, Krier had just visited Chicago, a city that only a few years prior had bestowed upon him the inaugural Richard Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture (and a $350,000 check). This time, only about 40 people attended his lecture there, Blackson said.
“I was really expecting the worst when he came to San Diego,” Blackson would later confide.
But instead, planners, architects, a few politicians, students and the just plain curious from North County to the Mexico border packed Krier's two lectures here last week—the other took place in a crowded auditorium at Downtown's NewSchool of Architecture—and the man anointed by the Prince of Wales to create a sustainable, traditional English town named Poundbury did not disappoint.
He spoke comfortably for two hours at a time, using no notes, just some of his signature illustrations he says erupt from anger when he can't find the words to argue properly his disdain for the state of today's architecture.
For the MoPA crowd, he did not waste time in making people squirm. “When I flew in over the desert,” Krier recounted, “I could not imagine that such a large city as San Diego would appear on the horizon in an ecology for which it's clearly not made.”
You could have heard a mechanical pencil drop.
His lectures were wide-ranging affairs—from the sexual swordsmanship of man building ever-taller skyscrapers that inevitably lead to economic and social gridlock, to this country's former reliance on domestic slave labor that eventually evolved into abuse of other countries in pursuit of the almighty fossil-fuel depository, and finally to a future “post oil peak” when an unsustainable growth obsession leads to economic collapse.
Krier implores his audiences to read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, an alarmist tome about the post-oil world (“I didn't sleep for three nights after finishing it,” Krier said).
Somehow, Krier guides the gloom-and-doom discourse with a hopeful tilt, proposing a way out of our destructive addictions. And it is to expose Modernism as what he views as “an architectural system that is built on the use of synthetic materials and reliance on petrochemicals.”
Krier readily admits that he was once a Modernist devotee—he even likes some modern buildings. But throughout 40 years of careful contemplation, he has concluded that the world needs a return to its traditional architectural roots, using, as he says, “natural materials that are generally locally procured.”
Through technology, architects can easily adopt a “don't care” attitude when the same house or commercial building constructed in the Sahara can be replicated in Siberia, he argues. This globalization of the building trade has done much to destroy cultures, in some ways more so than through war.
His native Luxembourg, which he equates romantically with his love for Balboa Park's similar construction, was bombed heavily during World War II, but it is more modern-day construction of “horrendously cheap” commercial developments in the Belgian city that seems to drive Krier's warning cry.
“When you see that happening to your own environment, it's really like a holocaust, like a rape, which is I think almost more violent than losing a people because it's like wiping out every memory of a place where you grew up,” he explained.
It's these kinds of statements that embolden Krier's detractors to employ a raft of denouncements: that he's living in the past; that his traditionalist communities of Poundbury or even Seaside, Fla., can't replicate a vibrant old village feeling; that he's a Nazi sympathizer (his book portrayal of Hitler architect Albert Speer in the '80s only amplified that claim in some Modernist minds); that the world can't turn back the clock to a simpler time of walkable communities and true architecture, not the fake balconies and faux-Styrofoam adornments of today's building industry.
But Krier is undaunted. In fact, when Blackson learned his mentor would be returning to San Diego, he was ready for Krier to confirm all that he had come to hate about his hometown—the endless sprawl, the greed-driven residential spires Downtown (after all, Krier exhorts that most buildings need not rise any more than three or four floors, and “the Eiffel Tower is a perfect example of that,” Krier says with an impish smile).
But, no. Krier likes San Diego. When he last visited some 20 years ago, the town was “absolutely ghastly. It was not a place where you wanted to get out of your car. And now, it has enormously improved.”
The question he says needs to be asked is, “When will cities like this ever be finished?” And more importantly, perhaps, “How many people can this country house and under what conditions?”
For an answer, Krier believes the architect will play an important role. But as he told the young NewSchool students, many pursuing their Modernist dreams, they must break with “the angst of being left behind, of not being trendy.”
Adds Krier: “It's the fear of backwards. That's why architecture is now, ‘We don't have any more bread, just cream and sugar.' It's like the condition of priapism—you can live with it for a while, but you cannot build an entire environment on this course.
“The real question is, what society can afford to rebuild its own town every generation? A this rate, we're pushing to suicide.”
Got a thought? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.