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DEMOCRACIES , ARCHITECTURE , URBANISM , ECOLOGY and THE COMMON GOOD 1945-2020

ANTA Leon KRIER 2021


In 1990 after the reunification of Germany I was invited to Dresden to debate the future of the bombed-out historical Altstadt, (old town). The brain-storming session in the Town Hall, gathered a large audience of citizens and the country’s most renowned architects of the moment: Günther Behnisch, Meinhard von Gerkan, Hermann Henselmann, Thomas Herzog, Joseph Paul Kleihues, Frei Otto, Christoph Sattler, Karljoseph Schattner and Albert Speer Jr. I was the only foreigner on the round-table and predictably the only one to support the delegation of prominent Dresden Citizens who championed the reconstruction of the famous Frauenkirche and the surrounding Neumarkt square. The German experts rudely scolded the good citizens and their idea of reconstruction. The Alstdadt area represents a 1/386.000th part of the German territory and I suggested that the honourable gentlemen may consider relenting their stronghold over an infinitesimal speck of their reign. The national newspapers who reported the 2-day sessions ignored without exception the historic controversy which dominated the debate. Thanks to a massive and unfailing popular support, the citizens were able to get their way against politicians, administration and the incorporated architects. After 30 years of relentless efforts the splendid ensemble is nearing completion as I write. The same scenarios play in the historic reconstruction projects in Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt, Dessau, Nurnberg.


A Harris Opinion Poll, commissioned by the National Civic Art Society of Washington DC, in October 2020 published its findings which reveal that of the 2028 adults interrogated about their preferred choice for Federal Buildings Architecture, 28% favoured Modernist and 72% Classical Style. The minute difference between Republican 73%, Democrat 70% or Independent 73% voters demonstrates an astonishing congruence of choices in a season when US Citizens seem irreconcilably opposed on most major issues.


In 1987 the Pater Noster Square proposal commissioned by Prince Charles was presented in a public exhibition as a counter project to Arata Isosaki’s winning modernist competition entry. A first opinion poll found that 61% of visitors were against the classical project. However, a detailed analysis based on voter’s occupations reported that 59% of visitors were architects 97% of whom rejected the classical proposal whereas 91% of the non-architect voters approved of John Simpson’s beautiful scheme.


Rarely have the rift between a democratic public and the architectural profession been so bluntly exposed.


Why precisely democracies perform so poorly and un-democratically since 1945 in matters of architecture and urbanism is rarely addressed. At closer inspection the formidable blind spot turns out to be due not to accident but to intent. The fact is that modernism and its declinations, triumphantly self-promoted as the only possible architecture of democracy, paradoxically never took the pulse of popular feelings nor cared to win people’s hearts.


While individual freedom of choice is vaunted as a supreme right and merit of individuals in modern democracies one wonders why for so long there should have existed so little choice in architecture, in architectural education and in professional representation. Notre Dame University in Indiana remains the only School of Architecture in the world to teach a full graduate course of Classical Architecture and Urbanism as a technical and artistic syllabus.


Thirty-five years ago, I proposed that the RIBA, (The Royal Institute of British Architects), a modernist club, in order to reflect the democratic spectrum be reformed in separate professional chapters, renamed RICBA (Classical), RIMBA (Modernist) and RIUBA(Unpredictable). In 2002, at the instigation of Robert Adam, the Traditional Architecture Group, TAG, was formed within the RIBA. This unfortunately remains a unique occurrence and should be a model for architects professions around the world to open up to the democratic reality.


The built environment concerns everyone in a daily way. That it ought to be aesthetically appreciated by the majority of people of all ages, origins, religions, wealth, colour, is a fundamental call. A sense of beauty is inborn in most humans. Everyone constantly makes qualified aesthetic judgements by the simple act of loving or disliking, by being attracted or repelled by things, beings, events. Traditional and classical buildings, be they temples for Gods or stables for animals, are liked not because they are old or historic but because they, be they grand or modest, are beautiful in lasting ways. This was largely the case before 1945, it was a reality in all civilizations, throughout the ages. The peasant admired the beauty of the castle, the agnostic enjoyed the beauty of temples and the Prince valued the beauty of farmhouses and stables. It is a catastrophic loss to humankind that this should no longer be the case. The fact that the formal and stylistic chart of democracies should be so grossly indistinguishable from that of totalitarian neighbours speaks volumes about the mindset of its propagandists and practitioners. Everywhere, except Bhutan, no country is spared the deluge of architectural insignificance; gross offences against human scale, good taste, good manners and common decency have become the rule.


With the exception of Prince Charles and his projects, an unpopular and illiterate architectural tunnel vision is sanctioned by political leaders of all parties and countries, promoted by institutions, imposed by bureaucracies, hailed by academies, favoured by business and industry. And yet despite a relentless propaganda the ubiquitous modernist building fabric remains unloved, its disappearance nowhere causes public grief. Civic protest against the demolition of beautiful buildings and landscapes are an exclusively modern phenomenon. They are without exception devoted to rescue the classical heritage and halt modernist replacements. The novel political advocacies are explained by the simple truth that in the complex production-chain of traditional towns and buildings, the individual pleasure and satisfaction taken in conceiving, building, decorating, furnishing, illustrating, promoting, is without long explanation received and treasured by residents, visitors, users, owners.


The profession of building and planning had been in good hands everywhere before 1940. The trust of the public was rarely disappointed. New buildings were welcomed by young and old, rich and poor because as a rule they were more beautiful than what they replaced. The loss of treasured beauty spots, a tree grove or street corner, would be more than compensated by the completion of an attractive farmstead or town square. New building was synonymous with a better and beautiful world. This is no longer the case. It took a generation for the inept theories and hideous practices to meet decisive and articulate opposition in the form of protests and counter-projects. Citizen participation-initiatives in environmental design decisions are no less than a vote of no-confidence in modernist planning and design, full stop. Historically speaking, protests were at best caused by excesses of architecture. not by a lack thereof. The Protestant schism was ignited by the bombast, not the dearth of Bramante and Buonarotti’s designs for St Peters.


Modernism continues to be propagated by mass-media, public officials, schools and institutions as the only legitimate architecture for modernity, democracy, progress. Democratic architecture however is itself a mis-nomer. There is no democratic or un-democratic architecture, no more than there is an architecture of progress or reaction. There is only architecture or its absence. Citizen protests are uniquely motivated by the sore absence of architecture and beauty. Aggressive ugliness accuses not a simple absence of beauty, it is not a neutral state, it is instead an abyssal, degrading, destructive force. If the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco were replaced by a vulgar erection not merely the Piazza but the Serenissima itself would be given a mortal blow. There is no more totalitarian or democratic architecture than there is totalitarian or democratic cooking. Traditional Classical architecture is not political. It is an instrument of politics, for better or worse. Thus, basilicas are transformed into Bazaars, palaces into libraries, villas used as hotels but also monasteries turned into prisons, leisure pavilions into torture chambers, parks into parking lots. There are ways of using or abusing the powers of architecture. Above all there exist humane and inhumane forms of producing and exploiting architecture.


The urban public realm is the prime physical realization of a Common Good. It has been second nature for generations and is under terminal attack. The vast territorial restructuring and cultural revolutions engineered by modern industrial economies has actively eroded the nature of traditional cities and their public realm. Despite 70 years of gross environmental and social failings, the electorate is made to believe that town planning and architecture remain in competent hands. They are not. Modernist planning, building industries and administrations are maniacally engaged at realizing single use zones, horizontal and vertical sprawl, suburban dilutions and barbaric hyperconcentrations. Territorial mono-functional zoning is what they practice, what they exclusively believe in and promote. Dominated by global multi-nationals and criminal cartel interests, they legislate the anti-city, de-structure civil society. As a result, the traditional built environment, a world of beautiful and robust objects of use is systematically turned into a disenchanted world of short-term objects of consumption. These policies are aesthetically and ecologically unsustainable.


The tidal wave of ecological concerns which is flooding the media is merely the corollary for their being ignored for too long. The Club of Rome, The Global 2000 report to the President of the United States and foundational texts like Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler have been in the public realm for decades


In terms of ecology and civilisation «sustainability» is a non sequitur. As the mathematician Georgescu-Roegen pointed out more than 50 years ago, the more population the planet has to nourish now, the less it will be able to nourish in the future. In my opinion, the authentic traditional city is the only relatively sustainable settlement model. However, all forms of human civilisation are stressing the natural environment on which they feed. Whatever we do in the world reduces the stock of free energy available to humans in the future. We live on a finite stock of free energy on this planet and in the foreseeable future we cannot consider other planets to provide us with materials we have been robbing from distant continents in the last 500 years. The only free energy which all civilizations have used so far is the solar energy but the hope that photovoltaic cells, hydrogen and wind-power are going to replace fossil fuel energy one day are a delusion. Without freely available fossil fuel energy there will be no high-tech industries, suburbia nor what is known as « modern architecture ». The decisive intellectual concept to grasp is that technology means logos of techniques. In an ecological perspective, technology is neither high nor low. What superficially looks like high may be extremely low in ecological terms and vice versa.


We live now a capital moment because we collectively realize that the idea of permanent economic growth, on which the idea of modernism, progress and democracy are built, cannot be sustained. How then to pay for accumulated debts if there is no foreseeable economic growth beyond Peak-Oil or slave labour. Those who pretend that human ingeniousness holds a solution ready to kick in when needed, won’t lie to themselves and us much longer.

Our politicians are pressed to take decisive environmental decisions and the electorate is made to believe that such decisions are based on solid information whilst they generally result from hypotheses with scant scientific or philosophic foundation. The same intellectual misery applies in regard to urban growth, building technology and transport. However brave science has been in exploring the micro and macro scales, there is no sound science of climate, let alone of ecological civilization. How then are intelligent long-term decisions to be taken when lacking reliable resource data? The questions which science and philosophy have to address and answer are …


HOW MANY HUMANS CAN LIVE IN GIVEN LOCATIONS, REGIONS, COUNTRIES, CONTINENTS, IN GIVEN GEO-CLIMATIC CONDITIONS, FOR HOW LONG, WITH WHAT POLITICAL REGIMES AND ECONOMIES, and WITH WHAT TECHNICAL, LEGAL AND BIOLOGICAL INVENTARIES? And beyond « WHAT ARE OUR ETHICAL, AESTHETICAL, TECHNICAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL VALUE SYSTEMS IN CONDITIONS OF LIMITED FREE-ENERGY RESOURCES ?


When we ask these fundamental questions, we butt against overwhelming ideological-metaphysical walls. The evidence shows that we peace-loving and caring human beings are citizens of a murderous empire. Imperial violence is delegated to professional bodies and hence there exists no collective consciousness of « empire » to speak of.


The return to traditional architecture and settlement patterns will, contrary to what I had hoped and argued for*, not come about by democratic choice but by fate, by overwhelming necessity.


Traditional Architecture and Urbanism are a central part of an all-embracing environmental project. However, the global ecological project remains un- and ill-defined. Critical analysis is not a project. Scientists, philosophers, economists, political thinkers, legislators have not done their work. The promotion of so-called green-suburbs, green-skyscrapers, green-transport, -food, -fuel and green-everything are ploys which may postpone Peak-Oil by a mere few days in the near future. For now, they are merely eco-chitchat, pathetic diversions from the burning issues. The term « sustainable City » or “carbon-free City” are utopian fabulations. In reality no generalizable, pragmatic models for such a city can exist. There are only partial visions. The traditional models in terms of building and planning are however more than vision. They represent not mere history but unrenounceable experience. Beyond their geometric and physical characteristics, they are the most commonly attractive and evolved forms human communities have been able to realize so far.


For the time–being the grotesque abuse of the term « sustainable » erodes the word’s social and political potential and postpones the advent of eventual solutions.


My subject is traditional architecture and urbanism and their indispensable role in building the common good in democracy. As 70 years of modernist domination demonstrated the common good is not an inevitable product of democratic governance. It is a project which not only is bitterly absent from democratic political action but is systematically sabotaged. For it to become reality it must become the shared goal of individuals and constituted groups, must transcend political, religious, social, racial, linguistic differences.


Few people are conscious in how decisively the common good is given substance by the form of cities and their built fabric, their streets and squares. These have united societies despite profound divisions due to customs, religions, languages, politics. The urban public realm, a unique gift of the Persian-Greek-Roman-Christian civilizations is the neutral ground where the spectrum of human diversity is deployed peaceably and interacts in constructive rivalry. Without that public space, democracy could not have developed and without it, democracy fails.


The model most fitted to the gregarious nature of humans – which no sophistication of circulation and virtual communication technologies can supersede – is the Polycentric City of Independent Communities: the aggregation of self-sufficient mixed-use, human scale urban quarters. Gated Compounds and single use developments of whatever covenant cannot replace the formative role of Public Space in maintaining democracy, in making democracy a daily reality.


If they are not regulated by graceful manners, etiquette and style, human exchanges in general and the expressions and exertions of power in particular inevitably breath a measure of coarse despotism. What holds true for human intercourse is critical for buildings where political power is exerted and represented. National Parliaments in most democratic countries are still housed in beautiful classical palaces. They are the jewels in the urban crowns. Instead, the buildings of the post WWII international creations like the UN, the WHO, the UNESCO, NATO, IMF, ECB, the EU, stand out by their architectural muteness, their hostile anonymity, their massive size, their hollow monumentality, their shallow symbolism, above all by their sovereign disregard for their urban, cultural and geographic context. Those buildings and institutions, far from symbolizing democratic and aesthetic values, project to the public an image of faceless bureaucracy and dictatorial technocracy. For over 60 years the un-loved elephantine abstractions demonstrate that those responsible for their form ignored not only the feelings of the peoples but the ethics and aesthetics which power holders, independent of beliefs and ideologies, brought to bear throughout the ages to inspire respect, to sustain authority and in the end make it meaningful and legitimate.


There is no doubt that current parliamentary democracies are facing a widening distrust of the electorate. The promises which are trumpeted during elections are rarely honoured on the national or international levels. The question is whether democracy is at all capable of building a durable Common Good? We are witnessing the opposite tendency. The democratic Leviathan are in permanent overdrive under pressure from powerful partial-interests pressure groups. The beehive activities in parliamentary lobbies and offices singularly contrast with the gaping abandon of Parliamentary Hemicycles. Under the broad brush of progress, justice, equality, health, safety, parliamentary machineries multiply laws and edicts without a project articulating the limits not to be overstepped.


Never have existed so many building ordinances and planning by-laws. Baroque over-regulating runs parallel with aesthetically ever more deprived built environs. Within bureaucratic hierarchies, individual aesthetic judgment and responsibility are suspended. Common sense, artistic integrity and beauty are sacrificed to committee consensus. The metastasising building regulations, by-laws, prescriptions and interdictions need ever vaster bureaucracies to be administered. The Common Good in the form of public realm is no longer realized because of but despite legislations.


Democracy and open society are indeed famously vulnerable to subversion and corruption. After the marginalisation and cancellation of traditional architectural, artistic and urban design cultures it is now the turn of constitutionally guaranteed civic rights to be suspended and cancelled by parliaments and unelected plenipotentiary emergency commissions. The collective march into an ugly totalitarian control state seems for now unstoppable. The “experts” dictatorship which destroyed architecture, urbanism and what was left of artisan production and mixed scale local economies is now, under the cover of “Wars against terror, Covid 19 and Climate Change”, deconstructing what is left of democracy and Common Good worldwide.


A global Capitalism/Socialism critique without a global political, economic, technical, cultural counter-project amounts to a mere declaration of impotence, a submission to fate.


The New Traditional Urbanism and Architecture based on a craft-economy, backed by long-term, millennial experience, are the only coherent theory and practice of environmental action to this day. They are the only serious countermodel to suburbia and motopia. They are an essential part of a reconstruction project of a human scale democracy, economy and built environment. The many architects and craftsmen who practice them around the world despite their modernist architectural education, against overwhelming peer pressure, against bureaucratic and academic sabotage, are sustained by wide public support and market demand. Architects and planners are faced with an existential choice to either serve a totalitarian dystopia or to plan and build the Common Good.



*Leon Krier, Architecture: Choice or Fate, London 1997 and The Architecture of Community NY 2009.







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