Architecture

Ray Sawhill reviews "Architecture: Choice or Fate" by Leon Krier.

Topics: Books,

The post-Warhol now isn’t a moment when a taste for the quiet, the tender
and the modest gets you much credit. People
who are fascinated by forms, conventions and
codes — and who see much that’s potentially
wonderful in them — have largely given up trying
to make a public case for them; there seems to be
no way of escaping their association with
stuffiness, let alone (ultimate sin) boringness. The
polemicist, architect and town planner Leon Krier
is one of the few who’s currently taking this
temperament public — and his new book, though
stuffy indeed, isn’t just not boring, it’s enthralling.

Although not widely known in America, the
Luxembourg-born Krier has been a ferocious and
witty provocateur on the town-planning circuit
for several decades; his ideas lie behind such
icons of the New Urbanism as Seaside, the
Florida town that served as setting (and object of
mockery) for “The
Truman Show.”
He’s likely to become more familiar over the next few years as the planner of Poundbury, a new British town in Dorset that’s being created under the sponsorship of the Prince of Wales. More than 100 Poundbury houses have been completed (by a variety of architects and builders), and are now inhabited; the New York Times reports that the development is a surprise hit. Krier — who for years was better known for his ideas than for anything he’d built — has now helped create a town that’s likely to become a standard on the New Urbanist grand tour.



“Architecture: Choice or Fate” provides a chance to sample Krier’s mind and eye. At first glance, it’s simply a handsome coffee-table book by a guy who hasn’t built much. Images and diagrams of schemes, plans and proposals are accompanied by quirkily organized comments from Krier. In fact, in an understated way, it’s a complex and intriguing work. Text, pictures and design all mesh and advance a vision; Krier is making a case and exemplifying a method at the same time. We’re used to this, but we have come to associate it with modernism — with Joyce or Calvino, for example. We make comments when reading such books about how their real subject is “the artist’s mind,” or perhaps “consciousness itself.”

Krier’s book has that kind of complexity and interwovenness, but it’s explicitly anti-modernist — and in discussing buildings and towns, he’s proposing that the mind itself play a different role than it plays in modernism. Forget the fireworks of abstraction and inwardness: How about using the mind (and buildings and cities) to help us find a place in the world, and in history too? If you enter into the book’s method and argument, it can be indescribably moving to turn a page and find a delicate pen-and-ink cartoon of a man on a porch looking past a colonnade toward a plaza: Consciousness and social life, for so long at odds, have opened back up to each other once again.

In this very special branch of literature — iconoclastic thinking about buildings and towns — the two towering figures are Jane Jacobs (a genius version of the little old lady in tennis shoes) and Christopher Alexander, whose “A Pattern Language” has a perennial, Rubik’s-cube-like fascination. By comparison, Krier might be a gentleman poet with a tender-yet-mischievous streak; his easy-breathing and whimsical neoclassicism will be a surprise for readers who associate the style with stiffness, brutality and imperialism.

Krier’s arguments in favor of “the modernity of traditional architecture” often take the form of the wry near-epigram. On how architects are to blame for making themselves irrelevant: “As long as artists arbitrarily assume the right to decide what is or is not art it is logical that the public will just as arbitrarily feel that they have the right to reject it.” On the way modernists and their neo- and post- descendants overemphasize the role of inspiration: “As is the case with all good things in life — love, good manners, language, cooking — personal creativity is required only rarely.”

The book’s art includes reproductions of paintings — by a number of artists, including David Ligare, Rita Wolff and Carl Laubin — of Krier proposals. These images are touching, slightly absurd fantasias that bring out both the impressiveness and the fragility of civilization; you gather that, for the urbane Krier, city life is, or can be, idyllic. Krier himself supplies drawings of towns and buildings he has imagined, as well as a large number of cartoons, some humorous, some didactic. He’s a first-rate cartoonist in the bittersweet-boulevardier mode of J.J. Sempi.

As a production in its own right, “Architecture: Choice or Fate” is lavish yet approachable, contained yet unfolding, affording moments of lush yet pristine beauty as well as pockets of refreshing quiet. This is a book for contemplation and browsing. I found myself beguiled by its principles of organization and by the touches of the marvelous and the irrational in its art and decoration.

Bizarrely, Krier — who so beautifully makes a case for a humane classicism — has often been reviled by other architects and planners; he can be quite funny about how quick some are to call him a “reactionary,” even a “fascist.” Part of the point, in fact, of the New York Times report about Poundbury was that visitors were surprised by how pleasant a place it’s shaping up to be, because what had been predicted was a nightmare of kitsch and control — a miniature, right-wing version of that modernist disaster, Brasilia. I wonder if an explanation might be that some people are outraged by any suggestion that common sense and poetry don’t need to be antagonists. Their loss. If a Krier town is anything like a Krier book, I wouldn’t mind a house in one.

Ray Sawhill worked as an arts reporter for Newsweek.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>