Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: Architecture Choice or Fate

Contributed by Patrick Webb
first published on Real Finishes February 24th, 2016

Architecture Choice or Fate
by Léon Krier

So, I'll confess to being a voracious reader and I've been offering book recommendations for years; however, I thought it time to offer a little more insight into why I find these resources valuable beyond the brief blurb with the addition of proper book reviews on this blog.

Initially, a word on the author Léon Krier. Curiously we've never met although I've been one degree of separation via dozens of colleagues. He is a very accomplished traditional urban planner and architect in his own right. However, I believe his legacy is being defined by his insightful books, lectures, essays. Along with Christopher Alexander, I firmly believe Léon will be remembered as the most accomplished architectural theorist of the 20th century (Sorry Le Corbusier, your ideas might have spread like a Utopian plague across the developed world but I'm only considering agents of positive change). If there is one advantage that I would tilt in Léon's favour is that his ideas are simply explained, accessible even to the architectural novice. Architecture Choice or Fate is laid out in this easy to understand language accompanied with humorous illustrations that effectively convey the spirit of his message.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to laying out how traditional architecture and town planning is entirely compatible and more importantly socially beneficial in the modern world. I would like to focus on two chapters of particular personal interest treating with a critique of Modernism and his appeal for traditional craft.

Critique of a Modernist Ideology

The "Zeitgeist", literally translated from German as the "time ghost", more or less understood as the "spirit of an age" has been from the outset a guiding principle of Modernism. Implicit in this idea is the principle of obsolescence, in the author's description "Architecture that claims to be exclusively of its age...has its sell-by date engraved into it." And what is the interpretation of the spirit of our "Modern" age? Mass production, revolution and continuous warfare? Must our architecture embody industrial uniformity or alternatively reflect fear and uncertainty? Krier's informed opinion humanises the matter: "Authentic architecture is not the incarnation of the spirit of an age but of the spirit, full stop."

The Universal Usefulness of a Modern Craft Industry or the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The mere fact that Léon concludes his book with a chapter of the inherent value and necessity of traditional craft for any architecture that would be considered worthwhile, that recognition gives him high marks from me. Very few architects, even so-called traditional or classical architects, will acknowledge the material value or embrace the moral responsibility of an architecture that uplifts the human spirit not just in its appearance or use but in the vast multitudes physically tasked with its creation. Here he chastises two establishments who have suppressed traditional craft skills. First, the academically led institution of Historic Preservation that treats traditional architecture as an irreplaceable relic and in cultist adherence to the precepts of the Modernist principles laid out in the Venice Charter wastes funds and energy fetishising over ruins falling to dust. Léon offers a humane counter-perspective: "The value of ancient monuments does not reside in their material age but essentially in the quality of the ideas that they embody. An identical reconstruction with the same quality materials, forms and techniques that were used in the original has more value that an original in ruins...Unlike a painting by one irreplacable artist, a building is not usually a totally personal creation."

He further continues to unveil his criticisms against industrial ideology and their influence on public education policy in the Western world: "Neither the state nor industry will in future provide enough jobs to employ the utterly dependent, disoriented and confused masses released for work after fifteen years of obligatory theoretical and impractical general schooling. Ideally the goal of obligatory schooling should be to make people independent and reliant on their individual gifts and vocations rather than transforming them into dependent, passive and depressed masses...The supression of traditional craft skills represents a catastrophic impoverishment of human self-expression, a limitation of human capacity for independence and liberty."

There are of course several other chapters regarding town and city planning as well as traditional architecture that offer comparable insights. The entire work is characterised by a concern for the human spirit. In conclusion I would heartily recommend Architecture Choice or Fate as a masterfully organised, beautifully illustrated, and at under 200 pages an easy and manageable read that should be an obligatory addition for every craftsman's personal library.

Contributed by Patrick Webb
first published on Real Finishes February 24th, 2016


  1. I have for decades identified Krier and Alexander as the two fathers of the resurgence of traditional architecture and urbanism. Unfortunately, they always hated each other. I finally figured out why: Krier represents the classical end of the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum: a master turning many dials at once. Alexander embodies the vernacular: charting the way for the re-emergence of "farmer design." It's a shame they couldn't figure out that each are essential, but I love the work of both of them. Andrés Duany told me when I met him over 15 years ago that A Pattern Language should be considered the "Bible of the New Urbanism," but that Alexander had always been standoffish, whereas Krier had always been generous with his time supporting the New Urbanism.

  2. I concur with your appraisal of the men and would add that I think there personality conflict has been an undeniable impediment to the full resurgence of a traditional, truly sustainable architecture. They are two edged swords, so seductive, so influential. The adherents of Krier and Alexander's respective dispositions, that is to say the traditional architectural and natural building movements broadly speaking, have unfortunately absorbed their mutual suspicion, holding each other at arms length.

    Each camp has made invaluable investments. For the traditional architectural community, the formal knowledge and aesthetic discipline, accompanied with an articulate if diverse ideological and philosophical underpinning. Whereas the natural building community has invested heavily in material technology, local and sustainable building know how, with a strong scientific and engineering basis for those who place primary importance on such things. Both have seriously considered place making and have achieved a good deal of convergence.

    I straddle both sides, in admiration and frustration with both camps. We must find a way to cross pollinate, to overcome our temperaments. That starts by speaking with each other. I applaud the efforts of Michael Mehaffy and a few others to do just that. Not only are we stronger together, we might be just strong enough to move the world.

  3. I shared this critique along with comments with Leon Krier, and he responded by thanking Patrick for "this very muscular support by Webb". Perhaps to keep the record straight (and with Krier's permission), he went on to say in his email response to me, "If C hated me the feeling wouldn't be reciprocal."

    I believe both Krier and Alexander have too much to contribute as individuals for us to get too sidetracked on how they might feel about each other.