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Urbanist Myths

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It would really be no surprise if you asked yourself, upon seeing a drawing of Leon Krier's Atlantis Tenerife project, whether the thing were a serious building proposal or just a precisely drawn flight of nostalgic architectural fancy. With a dense profusion of becolumned temple-like structures cascading down a hillside, the proposed cultural institute-slash-vacation resort in the Canary Islands was published in 1988 and again on the cover of Krier's recent book, Architecture: Choice or Fate. It looks more like an imaginative reconstruction of the ancient Greek City of Priene than the current-day real-estate speculation that it is.

 

 

Then again, Krier as much as anybody has worked for decades to make current real-estate speculations look more like imaginative reconstructions of ancient Greek cities. The Luxembourg-born resident of southern France is a driving force behind the New Urbanism movement. When he gives a lecture entitled "Urbanism for the Long Emergency," on Mon., Sept. 26, in Kresge Hall at Carnegie Mellon, he will address this narrowing gap between his apparent fantasy and developing architectural realities. (The lecture is co-sponsored by the School of Architecture, where I am an adjunct faculty member, in honor of my highly distinguished colleague, David Lewis).

 

New Urbanism was never really supposed to be new, but rather a refreshing antidote to the many errors of Modernism. Instead of alienating megaprojects, intimidating superhighways and isolating suburban developments, it promised human scale, pedestrian access and community-spiritedness, all made possible through recourse to traditional architecture form.  "The poet does not excel by inventing new words, but when by particular arrangements of otherwise familiar words, he makes us see ourselves in new ways," Krier says.

 

Krier's Poundbury, in Dorchester, England, developed in cooperation with notorious anti-Modernist Charles, Prince of Wales, exemplifies the architect's personal approach with densely packed buildings of mixed uses within meandering streets, all depicted before construction with picturesque watercolor renderings. Meanwhile, numerous projects in the United States demonstrate Krier's expanding influence: Seaside and Celebration in Florida, as well as the Kentlands in Maryland, are widely cited examples. Lecture co-sponsor Urban Design Associates has produced similar work, often with greater acknowledgement outside of Pittsburgh than in it, for decades. With Somerset at Frick Park, though, the New Urbanism has reached a higher level of commercial success and popular recognition.

 

Which may be part of what makes Krier's work simultaneously delightful and infuriating.  Anyone who has ever hated an urban interstate highway or loved an historic neighborhood will take significant satisfaction from Krier, who says much of what we want to believe. Walking is better than driving. Smaller buildings are better than larger ones. Craftsmanship is better than mass production. In addition to being a theorist, Krier is a skilled draftsman and a subtly hilarious cartoonist. So when he praises pitched roofs and mocks flat ones in a series of crisp, sly sketches, part of us wants to believe. Darn those Modernists! 

 

But are traditional, recognizable buildings really better than weird, puzzling ones? The mass appreciation of works by Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas would suggest otherwise. More importantly, is classical or traditional architecture going to guarantee redemption of cities? One of the key pitfalls of Modernism in its academic architectural manifestation was the naïve belief that, independent of politics, large-scale, overarching master plans for new development could cure a society's ills, if only they would just build the thing in its entirety. In this respect, though Krier may be slightly more sensitive than his Modernist predecessors (or contemporaries), the architectural utopianism makes him very similar to the people he criticizes the most vehemently.

 

For all of the beautiful line drawings (and these alone, if such traditional drawing suits your taste, are worth viewing), Krier can be surprisingly matter-of-fact about how to make cities better. "There are specific types, dimensions, ratios and numbers which allow us to build harmonious cities, and others that invariably lead to suburban sprawl." Is it really that simple? Are habitable cities really that achievable? Isn't there a whole universe of political, economic and social interests that many architects notoriously overlook? You'd really have to ask Krier. But Monday, you can.

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