Leon Krier talks sustainable architecture
The Prince of Wales’s architecture guru Leon Krier talks with Jules Lubbock about the environmental merits of traditional buildings
Jules Lubbock An important question is the control of the skyline in modern cities and particularly what’s been happening to London in recent years.
Leon Krier The problem with metropolitan developments like London or New York is they are not a product of reason and voluntary decision, but are rather accidents. Like in London [with the Congestion Charge]. Of course this makes traffic lighter but it transforms the city into a privatised zone for a certain class of people. It is not an intended outcome but is an accident.
JL What do you think of buildings like the Gherkin?
LK It’s just a fad. What used to be a subliminal form of frustrated sexuality now becomes an open, indecent demonstration of permanent erection. It’s power madness.
JL Do you think there are any merits in the design? Is it better than other tall buildings?
LK It’s vacuous. I was surprised actually that it’s less aggressive than the other towers. When you see it from Fleet Street, it could almost be a classical cupola. When you are low enough, you think it’s a cupola. It’s less brutal. The others are so ugly.
JL You’ve never been against tall buildings as such, and we’ve had arguments about this because I, 15 or 20 years ago, was in favour of rather rigid height controls, and you had your view that buildings should be limited to four storeys — but the storeys can be very, very tall storeys.
LK St Paul’s Cathedral is a one-storey high skyscraper, the Eiffel Tower a three-storey high skyscraper. [Modern] skyscrapers are clearly a form of dominance of the skyline. When you surround St Paul’s with these kind of buildings, St Paul’s becomes a minor event.
JL The immediate surroundings of St Paul’s, namely the new Paternoster Square, is actually a great success.
LK It’s certainly a lot better than it would have been had the Prince not intervened. I recommended neoclassical architect John Simpson. The first scheme was brilliant.
JL Even the final scheme has its merits.
LK What was built was clearly strongly influenced by that first scheme. It’s certainly much less damaging than it would have been. I looked at [the original proposal] in detail, and just by comparing the figures of what was on offer from the architects and what the law allowed, they were 95% over the allowed density.
Then Richard Rogers was acclaimed as a genius because he had gained 7:1 plot ratio for Lloyd’s of London, whereas the maximum was 5:1. I calculated that by adding three floors to the back of the existing building, which was two storeys high, you would have gained the same density you have now.
They demolished a beautiful neoclassical building. They are not interested in density.
The motivation is not beauty. The motivation is prestige
and money and power
JL It was financial, wasn’t it?
LK No, it’s prestige and the fear, the anxiety of backwardness. They must prove that they are one part ahead of everybody else.
JL There is an argument that with mobile communications, with your iPhone and BlackBerry, the need for the physical office is beginning to decline, that people can work in a nomadic fashion, on the move, from their homes, from cafés, so maybe something radical is going to happen to these highly congested commercial cities.
LK That would mean there had been a need for these high densities. I’m absolutely convinced there never was. They developed because there were lifts and cars and mechanised transport but there was never an absolute need. One could have reorganised modern office building in such a way that you’d never need utilitarian high rise.
JL That’s an interesting theme between the rationality of these decisions and the irrationality of them.
LK And also the complete ignorance that when you have a historic network of streets of a city, which was an extremely refined network of streets and railways, it’s beautiful. When you look at 19th century planning, it was a rich pattern, which was planned for two or three storeys, sometimes four. And then in the late 19th century, [the developers] started packing really dense, becoming more specialised and moving residents out because of the pressure on land.
One of Le Corbusier’s great analytic schemes, Ville Radieuse, had a famous stella diagram which shows how as you get into a city there is density of traffic. Yet the contrary is true when you look at the street pattern: we have big streets outside and very thin, tiny alleys in the centre. How do you get this density into those streets? It’s absurd. And therefore Corbusier’s response was to blow it to smithereens and rebuild.
The other way was to say this is a pattern which is highly intelligent, works extremely well. Clean out the things which don’t work and build the modern city, the really dense, highly mechanised city elsewhere.
JL That’s to some extent what the French did with La Défense.
LK Which was in a way more intelligent.
JL It’s still pretty ghastly, isn’t it?
LK It’s absolutely dreadful. It’s just like everywhere else, because the motivation is not beauty, the motivation is prestige and money and power. They are erections in the most sexual, non-sublimated and totally crude way.
JL So are you saying that even though the new technology of doing business and interacting with one another through mobile communications may point to reducing this congestion, nonetheless the desire of people who run corporations and so on will remain to have these triumphal monuments?
LK Right now — in Bogota, Kiev, Moscow, China — a whole family of skyscrapers is mushrooming. It’s completely nonsensical.
This monopoly of modernism over architectural education still strikes me as quite monstrous
JL Are you being a little pessimistic?
LK I am a happy person. I’m not bitter about it. I just cannot see why intelligent people can’t see it. Because the logic of New York is that every building block becomes a skyscraper. Let’s say there wasn’t an energy crisis, that oil would be $10 a barrel for another 300 years. If you pack the whole damn thing so full that there’s not a single site left without a skyscraper, it is totally unsustainable proposition. I use this term “unsustainable” very rarely.
JL Does it also have to do with leading architects — we won’t name them — as sort of drug dealers, feeding property developers with the drug of building the tallest building?
LK It’s like a drug, and like a really strong drug, it’s suicidal. I remember Stirling, Rogers and Foster wrote this letter to the Times, they wanted to revive Mies van der Rohe’s project for Mansion House Square. This was a project which had been dead for several years, Mies was dead anyway. I knew him from the war fairly well and this was not even a decent Mies. Why would they want to revive this project? My argument was of course you revive it because you want jobs there, because you have no theory which would tell you why not to do something like that.
JL When the Prince was making the Vision of Britain film in the mid-1980s, there was nowhere to study traditional architecture. Now, in the US there are about four places for the whole of the western world. This monopoly of modernism over architectural education still strikes me as quite monstrous.
LK Particularly because traditional architecture is not a matter of ideology but of technique: how to deal with natural materials when you build, what forms come out of putting materials together. And yet it’s treated on the modernist side as something that is not technological but historical. It’s seen as something we can’t do now because things have changed.
The only thing which changed is that through the dominant use of synthetic materials, you can do things which before you couldn’t do. Modernism would not be possible without the use of synthetic materials.
Any idiot can cast a piece of concrete that stands up, despite its illogical form and nonsensical expression. Now when we look at what these materials cost environmentally, we see that concrete is a material which has colossal carbon footprint.
JL Brick uses four times the amount of embedded energy to wood; concrete five times; steel perhaps 10 times; aluminium is the highest of all, and glass, of course.
LK Now we are overtaken by environmental problems that are going to wipe out modernism like it was never dreamed of. If you see it purely as a style, you can be charmed by it because they are very nice things.
I calculated that the volume of kerosene I burned flying across the world to design the Miami University building was larger than the volume of the building itself. It is clearly unsustainable. The way we live is absurd. We are in a situation of extremes because of the imperial centrality of Europe and the US for more than 200 years. The architecture of the past 200 years is the architecture of excess, which is largely to do with drawing energies from other countries.
JL The reason we [in the West] are able to be relatively clean is that we’ve exported our dirty industries to the Far East. So how do you control their urban development—it’s not in our hands?
LK The Charter of New Urbanism is missing a few things, but it’s definitely in the right direction. Politicians have to take decisions and they don’t know what they’re doing. A man like John Prescott, pretends he is an ecologist, but virtually everything he decided was in the wrong direction.
Original print headline: What goes up must come down