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June 09, 2008

Heterodox Thinking on Architecture

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Is Leon Krier as great an architecture-and-urbanism thinker as Jane Jacobs was? Since I suspect that he may be, it's nice to see that Roger Scruton does too.

If you've ever rolled your eyes in exasperation when reading a conventional piece of architecture history or criticism, Scruton's essay should come as a relief and a blessing. It's a great introduction to a way of seeing and experiencing architecture-and-urbanism that's helpful, down-to-earth, poetic, and moving.

Here's a review of Krier's best-known book. Here's a long q&a with Roger Scruton. I wrote an intro to Jane Jacobs back here.

In related news: Lakis Polycarpou conducts a discussion with James Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros: Part One, Part Two.



posted by Michael at June 9, 2008


MB asked:

Is Leon Krier as great an architecture-and-urbanism thinker as Jane Jacobs was? Since I suspect that he may be, it's nice to see that Roger Scruton does too.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

While I've read all of Jane Jacobs books, I've only read / skimmed a few essays by Roger Scruton and an essay or two by Leon Krier. But judging from I've read of their work so far, it seems to me that, despite a few valid points here and there, their writings on architecture and, particularly, cities are in no way the equal of Jacobs.

I think it might be useful for someone to put together a detailed analysis of the similarities AND DIFFERENCES among these three thinkers -- maybe I'll do it someday when I have more time. But it seems to me (from what I've read of their work so far) that basically Krier and Scruton are really just presenting a late 20th Century (and early 21st Century) version of the late 19th Century (and early 20th Century) Garden City movement. And like the earlier Garden City movement, their ideas seem to be mostly the product of ivory tower thinking and to be largely concerned with aesthetics, while Jacobs'work is more real world oriented and as concerned with the social, political, ecological and economic aspects of urbanism as with aesthetics.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 9, 2008 8:40 PM

I've not read Krier, but what I've read of Scruton leads me to agree with Benjamin Hemric. I do think though that Scruton does make a valid case for traditional architecture being the "natural aesthetic" of man.

However one of the things that seems to bother me about the new urbanism is that they are really the old 20th Century urbanists with a traditional aesthetic. From what I've read of Poundbury and Seaside they are rather dull towns with very little "natural" life in them. Sure they're pretty but they don't seem to functional in the economic sense, being reliant on other towns for their economic survival.

While I applaud many of the initiatives of the new urbanists I cannot but feel that have put the horse behind the cart.
Cities arise out of a combination of economic imperative, cultural factors, ergonomics and chance, architecture is on the bottom of the list. The New Urbanists seem to think that cities can be planned de novo with aesthetics being the guiding principle of city growth, artistry with disregard to economic reality.

Jacob's genius was in recognising that the forces which make up a livable city are complex and in many instances cannot be planned. One of the most insightful points I gleaned from her writing is that a city in which aesthetics trumps economics or other factors is unlikely to be a pleasant place to live. A city in which every building is an aesthetic masterpiece may be so expensive that the creative types that typically make a city enjoyable may not be able to afford to live there.

The City beautiful, Modernist and New Urbanists are alike in that the factors which give a city vitality and growth are subordinated to aesthetic considerations. Man does not live by beauty alone, neither do cities.

Posted by: Slumlord on June 10, 2008 8:24 AM

In the movie Pulp Fiction, the John Travolta character says of a 50s-themed warehouse restaurant, "It's like a wax museum with a pulse". Much as I admire the ideas of the New Urbanists, I've never managed to view their actual work--Seaside, Poundbury--as being anything other than, well, wax museums. And with rather attentuated pulses at that. I mean, doesn't it bother Krier (or Duany) that Seaside was used for The Truman Show?

Now, when it comes to bizarre atemporical fabricated towns, I love me some Portmeiron, the Welsh town used for one of my favourite TV series ever, The Prisoner. Now that may have been a museum piece but it had a definite pulse. An eccentric one, but a pulse. Of course, maybe it wouldn't have that same spooky vibe today, since there would be no Killer Balloons to prevent you from leaving.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 10, 2008 10:36 AM

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