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Contemporary Perspectives

by LON KRIER
Published in: "Building Cities", Edited by Norman Crowe, Richard Economakis, and Michael Lykoudis, Artmedia Press, London, 1999, pages 40-41.

Today we can affirm fairly safely that the city of the future, or, more correctly, the cities of the future, will not conform to a single and unified vision of whatever kind. There exist universal principles by which to build good cities and villages. They transcend ages, climates and cultures. They are essentially anthropological principles, related to the habitual capacities of the human skeleton, body and mind: streets and squares; cities, villages and urban quarters; development programs and plots; building methods and architecture, of a certain type, size, character, aesthetic, density, functional complexity are the unrenounceable axioms of urbanism. They are not to be confounded with the axioms of suburbanism. The principles of traditional architecture and urbanism are not merely historic phenomena; they cannot therefore, simply be declared outdated. They are practical responses to practical problems. They are as timeless as the principles of musical harmony, of language, of science, of gastronomy. Modernism's philosophical fallacy lies in the infantile ambition to replace the fundamental principles of traditional architecture and urbanism in their entirety. Those architects who claim today to be inventing the architecture and urbanism of the twentyfirst century are clearly even more foolish than the masters of early 'modernism'. Modernism can no longer proclaim itself, against worldwide evidence, to be the sole legitimate representative and embodiment of modernity. Modernity and modernism are clearly distinct phenomena and can no longer be confused or amalgamated. Modernism is like so many 'isms' born out of an excessive, possibly a pathological desire for modernity. Like all forms of fundamentalism, it is reductive and tyrannical in its essence. If modernism wants to become a constructive part of the modern democratic world, it has to learn, at long last, that democracy is based on tolerance and true plurality; that indeed democratic tolerance, also in matters of architecture and urbanism, is based on a constitutionally founded reciprocity. Short of this change of attitude, modernism will become an item of outdated twentieth-century ideology. Urban space is a void, a structured and structuring void; it has a hierarchy, it has dimensions and character, it cannot be just a left-over between haphazard building

operations. Too much of it is a waste, a false luxury; too little of it, a false economy. All buildings have a public facade, acting positively or negatively on public space, enriching or impoverishing it. Streets, squares, and their numerous declinations are the optimum forms of collective space. Neither public nor private enterprise produce public space naturally as a mere by-product of their activities. Public space, the public realm in general, its beauty and harmony, its aesthetic quality and socializing power, never result from accident, but from a civilizing vision, and will. It is not the age but the genetic capacities of the founding principles which ensure the quality of public space. Even one thousand years of suburban expansions will never parallel the civilizing power of urban foundations. Urban centers are not called 'historic' because of their age, but because of the maturity and genetic power of their organizing principles. These principles are transcendent, and timeless. They are known to us; we can, if we so wish, build urban centers which will instantly have the qualities of so-called 'historic centers'. Also today, and on all continents, there are public and private buildings, sacred and profane buildings, buildings for families and buildings for large assemblies, buildings for rest and industry, for silence and for music, for isolation and gathering, for production and consumption, for hiding and for displaying. Architecture must be able to express contrasts, oppositions, characters, etc., in a non-ambiguous, evident, conventional, and accepted way. Architecture must be understood and accepted without explanation, or imposition of any kind. The science and art of building cities, on the one hand, and the science and art of building suburbs, on the other, are fully known to us. Opting for the one or the other is not a matter of historical fate but of culture and political choice. There exist no valid excuses of any kind -- neither social, nor economic, nor political, nor cultural, nor psychological, religious, historical, nor simply human -- for building suburbs, for spoiling cities and land. Building cities is a responsible form of economic development; building suburbs is a corrupt form of economic development. It is not history and age but structure and ideas which confer quality to an urban context. We are not interested in historic centers and architecture because of their age and history, but because of the genetic power of their organizing principles. The fact that a building by a great architect has existed for 500 years or for only one year, does not make a fundamental difference to its quality. It is its organizing structure and the sensuous quality of its materials and design which are decisive, not its age or historicity. The originality of a great building lies not in the age of its original material, but in the originality of its project. In matters of Architecture and Urbanism, fundamental principles are of universal value, but realizations are always local and regional, adapted to specific climate, topography, materials, and industry; i.e., to a geographic and cultural context. Only monumental architecture tends to transcend its regional origins. Although it is anchored to the vernacular of a region (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, etc.) or in the style of a dynasty or a

sovereign, the artistic elaboration and symbolic codification of monumental architecture transcends place and origin and allows a near universal application; it represents a truly international style. Its power and validity are maintained only by strictly controlling its proliferation, by using it for exceptional and symbolically outstanding buildings.