Creative Commons License photo credit: Melanie M!
I met with Leon Krier a while ago and I am posting excerpts of our conversation here. Krier who is among the most influential architectural thinkers and urbanists of our times was passionate and resolute in his views. I think his ideas are more and more relevant as we think about how to build next generation cities.
What makes cities Sustainable?
A sustainable city is only meaningful in a perspective that is not limited by years but in what is the right way of settling in a certain place. The word sustainable has become fashionable today. But the true meaning of sustainability has not been understood. We all know we are growing in the wrong way- Our dependency on fossil fuels and the pollution that we cause is truly catastrophic. We have to start engaging in an alternative way of development that is less intrusive on the natural world.
What are the fundamental errors we have made while building cities?
I think we have worked on the fundamental structures of planning cities. But, we have not understood where to locate and in what densities we should build our cities. I believe that building too high densities is not sustainable in the long run in terms of energy and materials. If you build over 6 floors, you will need to use synthetic materials. The embedded material in synthetic material is so high that it won’t be sustainable in the longer term. The energy used to make concrete, steel, aluminium and plastic is incredibly high when compared with natural materials. We are not aware of it today because fossil fuels like petrol and coal that are required to process these materials are relatively cheap today. But the energy costs are escalating every year and are bound to become extremely costly in the coming decades. We will realize the folly of the current model when we have an energy crisis that will render the present type of construction and development unfeasible.
Further, I think metropolitan development is a mistake and is unsustainable. I don’t think there is one metropolitan in the world that works. Metropolises like London, New York and other big concentrations are really like big imperial power centres rooted in the use of too much fossil fuel. I would encourage a more polycentric approach towards urbanization.
I believe that human civilization is in a systematic problem – we are overpopulated, we have built too high densities, abused the chemistry of the soil and used too much of energy. Societies have settled in the wrong place, in the wrong density and in the wrong way that is heavily dependent on the use of cheap fossil fuels.
What are your thoughts on contemporary development in Indian cities?
It is an explosion of vulgarity in the name of modernism. I could not see one building of great quality and thought among what I saw. Generally people who design these glass buildings call it intelligent buildings. I think they are stupid – they disregard climate and natural conditions completely. One image struck me. I saw a glass tower standing in middle of a slum. It was the metaphor for the future. Once the energy supply becomes critical; it will become so expensive that it will be only monopolized by small groups of people (imperialism).
I think that architectural and urbanist modernism belong like communism – to a set of blunders from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. They are beliefs which literally blind even the most clever and perceptive individuals to deplorable wastes, risks, and dangers. Modernism’s basic mistake, nonetheless, is to suggest that it is a universal (i.e. inescapable and indispensable) phenomenon, thereby justifiably substituting and excluding traditional solutions.
The vernacular techniques and profound traditional knowledge on building towns was about how to use natural materials in order to make a place sustainable. But those ideas seem to have been lost in the newer developments in Indian.
Talk to us about the New Urbanism movement that you endorse.
New Urbanism is an urban design movement that came into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New Urbanists aspire to transform all facets of real estate development. Their effort affects regional and local urban approaches. They are engaged in new development, urban retrofits and suburban infill. They believe in strategies that reduce the use of automobiles (thus fuels), that increase the supply of affordable housing, and curb the unplanned urbanization or sprawl. It is profoundly marked by democratic participation and user-satisfaction is always the main concern. As a theory it is based on traditional settlement patterns but as a practice it is very new.
What is New Urbanist Planning characterized by?
New Urbanist neighbourhoods are walkable, and encompass a diverse range of functions like housing, shopping, recreation and offices. New Urbanists encourage regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning and the combined development of jobs and housing.
New Urbanism is not utopian and does not enforce certain rules for developing a master plan. Instead, it advocates the unlimited diversity of human talent to put together harmonious and pleasant environments. It directs competitive forces to flourish as good neighbours while pursuing their own self-interest. In order for such communities to work, they need to evolve definite 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 multiplicity of complementary activities developed on neighbouring plots, forming urban frontages along streets, squares, parks or countryside within an urban master plan as seen in traditional towns.
About Leon Krier: Léon Krier is internationally known as a pioneering architect, urban planner and architectural theorist. He is especially recognized as a passionate advocate of traditional urban models. He studied architecture at the University of Stuttgart. From 1968 to 1974, he worked in the studio of James Stirling, in London. He has also taught as professor of architecture and urban studies at the Architectural Association of the Royal College of Arts in London, at Princeton University of Virginia and as Davenport Professor at Yale University. He was awarded the Berlin Preis for Architecture in 1977, the Jefferson Memorial Medal in 1985 and the Chicago AIA Award in 1987. He has published books in Japan, Belgium and Great Britain and has exhibitions in many countries around the world, including a major one-man exhibition at the MoMA in New York (1985). He has completed projects in Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Germany, the United States and England.
In the early 1980’s, Krier served as a consultant for the master planning of Seaside, Florida. In 1988, he became an advisor to the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who not only commissioned Krier to design four new towns in England, but has also been advocating Krier’s theories to the entire European Community.
Even though Krier had high regard for Le Corbusier at one point in time, later in his career, Krier came to look upon Le Corbusier as a “destroying angel” because of his desire to rebuild old cities along modernist principles. The Le Corbusier urban vision regarded the city as a machine; whereas Krier saw cities as a natural object or an “individual, possessing a body and a soul”. Krier is best known for his development of Poundbury ‘village’ in Dorchester, UK which was commissioned by Price Charles. He is also known to have had an enormous influence on the New Urbanism movement in the United States of America.

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