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VOL. 6, NO. 2-- SUMMER 2004

People Who Make a Difference: Léon Krier

In a conversation with Léon Krier, one is reminded that we live in a fragmented universe and the way to find a cohesive path is to look within -- and know ourselves well enough as a whole -- that we can apply all of who and what we are to what we create.

In his visionary architectural and planning work, Luxembourg-born Léon Krier creates with his past -- his Luxembourg family and cultural roots -- and his present. He is clearly guided by an open mind, growing self-knowledge and a respect for wholeness.

Krier is a world-renowned practitioner, theorist and teacher, most closely associated with his advocacy of traditional architecture and urbanism. In March 2003, he was the inaugural recipient of the Driehaus Prize, which honors a major contributor in the field of traditional and classical architecture or historic preservation.

In presenting the award, a committee of architects and educators wrote, "Mr. Krier has produced visionary work and changed attitudes about how to build a sustainable built environment in contemporary life. . [He] believes architecture should not be left to architects alone.

"He says the world is paying a high price for abandoning architecture to the whims of experts, forsaking a healthy urban effect through the creation of viable communities in favor of fleeting fashion. His views have inspired many notable people -- architecture professionals and amateurs alike -- to pursue a better built environment."

A better built environment. When he speaks of his work, one may liken him to a weaver of beautiful, strong cloth. As he looks at the whole cloth of his work -- the built environment -- his eye sees many of the individual threads. They each shine differently, each reflecting a different spectrum, each bringing a special gift. As the artist, he knows where each thread came from, what it can do alone and the strength and richness it brings to a cloth in which it is woven with many others.

Krier tells a story of an adolescent experience that reveals much about Krier the man.

He grew up in Luxembourg with three siblings, a mother -- a musician whose "piano-playing filled the house" and a father, a tailor whose workshop occupied the ground floor of the Krier family's townhouse. It was the family's habit to take holiday trips to Switzerland, France and Italy "to visit places of beauty."

Usually, his family experienced "an aesthetic communion of awe and imagination" on the visits, Krier recalls.

Finally, the year came -- Krier was 17 -- when he was the family member permitted to select a destination. He opted for a trip to Marseilles to see Le Corbusier's Citè Radieuse (built 1947-1952).

Léon was excited about his choice. Luxembourg's traditional architecture was just about all he knew. At the time, he may have thought it rather common.

What he knew of modernist architecture and planning, he had experienced through the books that belonged to his older brother Rob, an architect.

Le Corbusier was hot at the time -- had been for more than two decades. "His work inflamed us," Krier recalls. "Le Corbusier had become for me a second messiah and as a result, I imagined modernist architecture to be something superior to all the beautiful buildings I had seen and grown up with so far.

"They were shocked," he recalls. "I was too." At first the family wondered whether they were at the right address. Poor embarrassed Krier was disappointed that the very first time it is his turn to select a place to visit, it turned out to be such a disaster.

It was a huge building with over 300 apartments.

Built of a system of modular proportions, the Unite d'Habitation was conceived by Le Corbusier as a huge structure for autonomous living. It included a shopping street, hotel, gymnasium, childcare facility, community services and a track.

"A house is a machine for living," Le Corbusier wrote in 1923. He extended the philosophy to everything he built and designed. The Marseilles structure contained 337 apartments. It was a city within a city and utility was its mechanistic lifeblood.

After discovering its "tawdry reality," Krier says "I pretended I liked it for years and allowed myself to think that maybe my parents were wrong.

"Once you are so excited about something -- you think 'this must be great' -- even though you are horrified," and despite growing sick, certainty that the structure -- and modernist architecture -- was "socially unacceptable and aesthetically inferior to all we had commonly admired before."

Later, when modernist architecture began to poison Luxembourg, Krier recalls that his eyes were finally opened wide.

Krier went to study at the University of Stuttgart where "I was told my upbringing [and appreciation for the traditional architecture and urbanism of Luxembourg] was worth nothing."

He left school to collaborate with London architect James Stirling for six years. "I wanted to get away from that deadly teaching.

"I was trying to find something that was not the same awful stuff that I had seen [everywhere else.]"

Stirling, a Scotsman, was an early "Brutalist" (which is still a modernist) and not what Krier was seeking either.

In 1974, he became a professor of architecture and town planning at the architectural association and Royal College of Arts in London. He went on to teach at Princeton and, in 1982, at the University of Virginia.

Krier says his early teaching years were important -- "in the '70s it was income." Also, teaching had an important role in helping Krier crystallize his own ideas. They were different from other people's ideas -- and he says there were no books that encapsulated his ideas

With a wry smile, he explains, "Back then I didn't know anyone [to trust with the ideas and material] so I gave all the lectures myself. It was really a great way to ripen the material."

In the United States, Krier is considered the mind and spirit that has become the impetus of the new urbanism movement. Krier describes new urbanism in a recent article, "Planning for Humanity," as "not a transcendental ideology, but a versatile technique of settling land. Though its goal is to create or restore communities, it does not posit these as products of self-sacrificing fantasy . but as structures which best serve the self-interests of human individuals and groups, be they families, companies or institutions in rural or urban settings."

On new urbanism, he also wrote, "In order for such communities to work, they need to evolve certain patterns of public spaces, of density and size, of hierarchy, of admixture and proximity. Their complexity, however, should not result from social engineering, but needs to be allowed to grow through a variety of complementary activities developed on neighbouring plots, forming urban frontages along streets, squares, parks or countryside within an urban masterplan."

Krier travels often and comes to the United States frequently. He lives in Provence, France, and teaches, currently at Yale. He has won several prestigious international awards. He lectures and practices architecture and town planning.

Repugnance and outrage fueled Krier's vision, work ethic and architectural and urban planning morality. That, in turn, has not only made a difference but changed the world.

As an artist, Léon Krier knows where each thread in his craftwork comes from, what it can do alone and the strength and richness it brings to a cloth in which it is woven with many others. As a teacher, writer, practitioner, Krier is sharing that brightness, bringing more wholeness to the places and people he touches -- and the places and people they touch.