The Artisan Architect

Leon Krier interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Justin Fowler

Having led society to the brink of ecological crisis, Modernism may have outlived its mandate. Leon Krier, one of the most tireless advocates for architectural tradition, has in recent years become an unlikely voice in the ecological debate over the future of cities. With an approach to architecture aligned as much with resurgent artisan practices as with the development legacy of old European towns, Krier is returning to craft both by choice and by fate.


Jeffrey Inaba: More than most architects working today you seem to have a profound appreciation for the history of the city. How do you now approach this history in your design work in light of your early theoretical drawings and manifestos?

Leon Krier: I am not really interested in the ‘history’ of architectures and cities as such but in the technology, the techniques, and ways in which they are planned, organized, and built. The very term ‘historic city’ is a misnomer.  What we generally name by historic is not age or historicity but maturity, richness, beauty, charm, structure, form, and complexity. We have to distinguish categorically, not between historic and modern, but between towns and non-towns. Modernism hasn’t built cities so far. Age doesn’t turn a non-town into a historic town. It is not history, but fabric and material which comprises value.

Today there is a monstrous disconnect between historiography and traditional architecture. The term ‘Modernity’ has been fraudulently monopolized by a small movement of intellectuals, architects, and artists dividing humanity into forward looking or backward-looking zombies. Ever since, the ‘fear of backwardness’ is clouding judgment, producing uncounted and unnecessary damage, mental and physical. The fact is that we the living are ‘modern’ full stop. There is no more merit in being modern than being red, white, or black. There is a widespread confusing of terms. In fact the loading of the term ‘modern’ with a specific worldview and ideology should be termed as ‘Modernist’. In this light, modernity and tradition are not contrary propositions, but Modernism and tradition are.
It follows that to build a traditional building today with natural local materials is not anachronistic, as Modernists would have it. It is a technological not an ideological issue. 

JI: To recover from the biases of Modern architecture what would you say are timely issues to address?

LK: We as a profession have lost the know-how of building with natural materials. Besides the dear ecological consequences, that technological loss has destroyed the intellectual, economic, and social fabric of 39 traditional building crafts, and has put millions of people out of work. Paraphrasing Aristotle, I would say that crafts are the expressions not only of what human beings are individually good at doing, but also of what they can do with extraordinary profit for themselves and for others, for self-realization and personal happiness. Modern education ignores the fundamental fact that modes of production should be subservient to individual human gifts rather than enslaving them in ever more alienating production processes, be they intellectual, manual, corporal, or digital. Very few individuals are gifted with analytic-theoretical intelligence, yet that is what modern institutionalized education is imposing on the majority of citizens with cataclysmic results. Personal and professional architectural and urban design premises have a decisive influence in regards to the building economy.  On them depends whether we promote the use of local materials and local craftsmen or whether we succumb to the interests of large industrialized building conglomerates.  As the latter need no promotion I suggest that we as a profession sustain the former as much as it be in our power and possibilities.

JI: What experiences have challenged or confirmed this point of view? Have there been instances that have helped you to refine your beliefs about craft and rationality?

LK: I’m always waiting for someone in one in my public lectures to stand up and demonstrate that I am wrong and on what particular point. I was brought up as a Modernist, so I know the mindset from the inside out.  It took me ten years to get over it. My brother [architect and urbanist Rob Krier] had been trained in the Modernist dogma before me, so I didn’t have to submit to the full academic brainwashing myself. I’ve been trying to establish common denominators of reason ever since. I think our luck was to have grown up in an incredible town, Luxembourg, which was a perfect demonstration of what I’ve tried to do ever since. It was a small Capital City, a perfect model of a polycentric metropolis. It was divided into separate independent urban quarters not exceeding 80 acres divided by deep canyons, parks, and fairgrounds and linked by numerous bridges and viaducts. It proved to me that a large town can be a family of small towns and that work and life, education and commerce could be successfully integrated within each quarter. Before functional zoning and mechanical transport took command, large towns had to be ordered that way without fail.

Being an independent nation, Luxembourg had all the institutions and structures of a larger state. It was a microcosm easily observed. It was both grand and domestic. The north of the country had been devastated in the Second World War by the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans were pushed back through my country, the American bombers and artillery laid flat many beautiful towns, villages, and farmhouses. These were all reconstructed exclusively by small craft enterprises in record time. We would travel to France and see the horrendous industrialized reconstructions there lagging far behind what we experienced. The French were building matchboxes for their people, while in Luxembourg we were building stone houses many times faster and infinitely more beautiful. Architectural education, however, had evacuated those experiences, stigmatizing them as historicist, backward-looking, and anachronistic. The building of Poundbury in England, which I have been master-planning since 1988, has largely been undertaken by small local craft-based builders who are also developers. In the course of 20 years, we’ve employed only two large national house-builders and the experience was negative, with the products not anywhere nearing the quality achieved by small builders. The present crisis was foreseen and prepared for by these small builders for several years before it started and they are faring well even as the crisis is hitting the bottom. One of the large house-builders went belly up and had to sell his development to one of our small entrepreneurs.

Justin Fowler: You’ve stated that you are not a utopian thinker, yet your understanding of the city is as much a theory of reductive abstraction as it is about the realities of place and materials. What do you see as being the relationship between these qualities, or rather, these ways of perceiving the city?

LK: Our everyday reality is shaped as much by material necessities as by desires, which are themselves often shaped by ideas and ideology. It is by understanding the inter-relations of facts and ideology that we can start to influence them and reduce danger, violence, and waste. Traditional town-building is determined by climate, topography, and the motion of soil and animals. Modern development largely ignores all four, its ignorance caused by terminal fossil fuel addiction. When I saw my hometown being transformed and terribly damaged by nonsensical and criminally irresponsible ideas I became existentially alarmed. I discovered a life mission. Not finding anywhere an architect/thinker able to stand up to and revert the folly, I felt a calling to do it myself.

I left architecture school after one year because one was only taught what I already knew was fundamentally wrong. I looked for a master but found that even James Stirling, who had a reputation for being way ahead of everyone, had no idea of what it was all meant to add up to. What I understood readily was that protesting led nowhere if one didn’t know what one was aiming for. Criticism without a project was pointless. A problem so fundamentally dangerous couldn’t be fought successfully on the periphery. It had to be attacked at the center by de-legitimizing it. In fact I was not after a utopian ‘nowhere’, but my main objective was to relegitimize the architecture and urban environment in which I had grown up. Building a theory about the reconstruction of the traditional European city was not about describing the new or prescribing the unknown but basically about returning legitimacy to a technology and an art form which, against all reason and good sense, had been abandoned. Pier Luigi Cervellati had written a formidably important book on the structure of historic towns [Tipologiae Morfologia Della Citta Storica, 1972], particularly Bologna, but unfortunately he had no global theory of how his analysis could be applied to modern planning architecture and development. The key to his restoration policy for Bologna was that not only do you conserve walls, roofs, and street networks, but with them a specific and infinitely precious form of urban life and society. It was ironic that a Communist administration championed the conservation of traditional urban and social fabric. I found much of the critical philosophic, political, or planning literature of that period to be extremely opportunistic. Those in political opposition were generally concerned more with political victory than with a political cultural or economic project to improve the current situation. I kept asking, ‘Victory for what reason? Imagine tomorrow you become the minister of urbanism in our culture. What is your project?’ The inspiring global thinkers and critics such as Ivan Illich, Michel Bosquet, Jeremy Rifkin, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Denis de Rougemont, René Girard, and Wendell Berry were outside of my field.

JI: Could you talk more about post-war modernization and the planning decisions by municipal governments? Are you saying some officials recognized the need to incorporate new technologies while also coping with the human trauma of metropolitan reconstruction?

LK: I don’t think anyone ever wholly conceived of a metropolis like London or Paris. These cities weren’t following a plan. There were many models put forward to evolve such cities and these intellectual constructs had little influence in mastering something which was essentially involuntary and undesired in its overall outcome. Modernism and its excesses are essentially a by-product of fossil fuel economy. James Howard Kunstler argues that we are literally fossil-fuel-drunk. Once these energies become less available all our economic projects, based on secured growth, will go into terminal crisis. Even though these themes are now becoming a general concern there is no articulate theory and practice on how to reform our ways in a permanent and global recession. How do you start with yourself when all your work is based upon hours of flying or driving away from your place of residence? Such change is difficult enough for an individual and totally unknown for entire societies. Modern states are built entirely on that exploded model. 

We need to recover the use of local and natural building materials, growing local food, employing small enterprises, planning small towns which can be fed by their immediate surroundings, constructing buildings which are adapted to local climate without heavy hydrocarbon expenditure, etc. We have to ask and then answer a series of fundamental questions: How many humans can live in given locations, regions, countries, continents, in given geo-climatic conditions, for how long, under what political economies, and with what technical and biological inventories? And beyond: What can be our moral, aesthetic, technical, and technological value systems in conditions of limited free-energy resources? 

JI: Can the ideas you speak of contribute to putting a better system in place? In other words, can large-scale planning work effectively to, on the whole, improve human conditions in your mind? Or are you saying that we ought to develop alternative forms of settlement in order to work around what you see as the inherent problem of trying to provide improvement and advancement at a large scale? 

LK: It is important for people to understand what they are good at and where their talents lie. Then you unfold and develop these talents to create a model that will make for a more livable society. People will be able to hone their craft and work for as long as they wish rather than be forced into an early retirement. We cannot rely on any state construct imagined by a genius or a saint to reform society or reform a man or a woman into better humans.  We already have an entrenched global system, but we don’t have an established model for the small scale. The ‘Modernist Empire’, intrinsically based on large-scale industrialization, requires massive investment and managerial organization. If a person is not ambitious within this system he becomes a mere pebble in the desert. In a modern traditional society, there can be a gradual buildup of forces, an incremental accretion of variously sized even small viable entities. Modernism is in love, obsessed with the very large scale, with mega-structure. These are extremely unstable constructs. If we don’t want to return to slave labor in the aftermath of peak oil we need to prepare for that not happening.

JF: Elsewhere you’ve suggested that your thinking has migrated from ‘Architecture: Choice or Fate’ to something more aligned with the idea of necessity. What sort of urban or political forms best serve necessity?

LK: What I meant with the title ‘choice or fate’ was that I hoped that the rationality of a traditional building economies, once clearly articulated and compared to Modernist ones, would impose themselves by their categorical superiority. Failing that I thought that scientific evaluation of such models would necessarily lead to their imposing themselves like scientific paradigmata. Extremely long-term monitoring of various global environmental models will necessarily lead to a return of traditional agriculture, architectures, and settlement patterns. I do not see that happening anywhere in a serious way yet, but such projects should become the priority of Academies of Science. I fear now that sheer necessity will have to push us that way, literally ‘collapse’ us in that direction. This will be an extremely violent process, that if unchecked will produce an even greater rift between the extreme rich nations and individuals and those in poverty. We are geometrically and philosophically overextended and have expanded across the planet, but we have no philosophical model to understand what we have done or where we want to go. There are no intellectual or practical models known let alone experimented.  It’s as if we’re dreaming that we are falling and only now realize we don’t have a parachute to absorb the shock. There’s no ‘plan B’. The intellectuals in and around ‘New Urbanism’, particularly Andrés Duany and James Kunstler, are the only ones who mark out these issues in their globality, but going from there to becoming global policies is a long shot. It needs similar efforts in all fields of human endeavor.

JF: If much of your work has been positioned against top-down planning, would ‘plan B’ consist of a series of fragments based on localized necessity or would it still entail a more holistic approach? 

LK: I think it requires a reconstruction of the architecture and urban planning professions, which to this point have been totally dominated by Modernist models.  Science is working from top-down and from bottom-up; it combines ideas and empirical reality. Traditional models survive everywhere and work everywhere. Instead of seeing them as leftovers from a bygone age we have to evaluate them as technological and ecological experience and not just as history.

JI: You’ve often acted as a provocateur within the architectural community, critiquing Modern architecture when it was professionally unfashionable to do so and situating architecture into a mainstream discourse. Today, your views on craft and the city similarly resonate with a popular sentiment. How do you see your position in relation to the professional debate today?

LK: I am not a born agitator, but I had to raise my voice in order to be heard in a generalized and stultifying intellectual brouhaha. We live in an age dominated by the ersatz and the fake. In order to be consumed, kitsch needs first to be produced and willed. Universities and politics are heavily involved in the monstrous fraud. It will not go away by itself and in its collapse it will poison a lot of soil before authentic cultures can flower.