Good introduction to a major influence
Architecture: Choice or Fate by Leon Krier. Papadakis, 1998. 224pp. £24.95
For those who have followed the career of this remarkable man from his arrival in James Stirling's office in 1972 to his departure to the South of France in 1992, this is the layman's Krier. Leon Krier will, no doubt, one day join that pantheon of European urbanists (particularly northen European) - Camillo Sitte, Otto Wagner, Eliel Saarinen, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, among others. Dedicated to 'mon prince', this book was first published in Rome in 1995 following the start on site of the Prince of Wales/Krier project for Poundbury in the previous year. It is a compilation of various articles, drawings, projects and paintings prepared over 25 years and now distilled into seven chapters under the apocalyptic title, Architecture: Choice or Fate.
For those familiar with Krier's work there is nothing particularly new here; in a sense that would be a contradicition in terms. The uninitiated reader is presented with a critique of Modernism, and by extension a criticism of modern times and the fatality implicit in the contemporary city. Within its own hermetic world the line of argument from critique to the general urban design proposition is still hard to fault.
Although many of these observations have now become part of a shared body of pc opinion on the city, many were initiated and championed by Krier in the 1970s. It is with some amusement, therefore, that one reads of Alan Baxter's recent campaigning against the problematic urban cul- de-sac, and of official New Labour policy in support of brownfield sites. Krier has been there before and we are grateful to him for that.
If you did not buy into the technological approach to architecture, the importance Krier attached to architectural typology and to drawing holds a special appeal. The typological argument was initially presented to an English-speaking readership with his remarkable book, Rational Architecture (1978). By then his influence was evident on both sides of the Atlantic - the productions of both Stirling and Michael Graves deliberately shifting as a result of it.
It is when we are finally presented with Krier's 'choice' as to the appearance and character of architecture, given with the same certainty as his principles of urban design, that doubts begin to arise. At this moment I remember his provocative comment, 'Because I am an architect I do not build.' The dreamlike and ethereal nature of Rita Woolf's beautiful paintings of his projects further underlines the unattainable quality of his architecture.
I gave a lecture at the riba in 1986 on the Mississauga City Hall (a building parti indebted to Krier). At the end Krier asked the question, 'Do you intend the forms to have an absence of detail or is it just that you do not know how to do it?' My answer was defensive. The question touched a sensitive spot in my development of the design: the moment when a Classically- inspired plan can either take on the full agenda of traditional architecture, with its referential detail, or one holds back - with the realisation that the language of Modern architecture is not necessarily antipathetic to the traditional city.
I will always be indebted to Krier for his observations on the city - for his re-evaluation of the urban quarter (cities within the city) as a decent, achievable idea set heroically against a muddle-headed Anglo- Saxon view of urban villages. I unreservedly recommend this book: as an introduction to Krier the publicist, to be provoked by Krier the polemicist, to share the ideas of Krier the urbanist, and to be made wary of Krier the architect.
There is a well-used adage, 'never judge a book by its cover'. The publisher has produced an extremely vulgar cover which denigrates Carl Laubin's painting of Krier's Atlantis project and, with its gilded typography, looks like a cross between a child's history book and an upmarket package- holiday brochure. Don't be deceived.
Edward Jones is partner in Jeremy Dixon. Edward Jones