The other day, after I’d posted on an official Chinese edict against copycat architecture, “China bans novel archivirus,” I received an email from the great architect and theorist Leon Krier, a native of Luxembourg and master planner of Prince Charles’s town of Poundbury. Krier enclosed for my pleasure his foreword to the Beijing edition of his masterful Architecture of Community (2010). In it, he argues, among many other things, that good architecture is not good because it is traditional but because it respects the value of place (genius loci) rather than of time (Zeitgeist) in the design of livable communities. That reminded me of a motto that I occasionally see at the end of emails to the TradArch list, which goes: “It is not good because it is old, it is old because it is good.”
The Chinese should keep that in mind, or, really, bring back to mind a principle that Chinese architects once knew so well they didn’t need to remember it.
The cartoon atop this post is my favorite example of Krier’s talent for literally drawing the principles of good design, in this case the difference between real and fake pluralism. Which town would you rather live in?
(I dedicate the cartoon, or rather its use in this post, to Kristen Richards, the founder and editor of that priceless institution, ArchNewsNow, which offers a selection, thrice weekly, of news and views on architecture from around the world, for free. She is a good egg – and not just because she puts up with emails from me.)
So here is Krier’s excellent foreword:
Recently, a delegation of developers and planners from Shanghai and Singapore visited Poundbury, the new town I have been master-planning for HRH Prince Charles since 1988 in Dorset, England.
After my presentation, a representative from the Chinese delegation came to me, saying. “You must come to China. We want Poundbury in Shanghai.” I responded that for his country I would of course design a Chinese not an English town. “No, no,” he cut in, “we want English Poundbury. It will have much success.” When I replied that it would be as unsuitable as planting a palm tree in the Siberian tundra, the gentleman shook his head and walked away. After him the delegate of Singapore addressed me: “Mr. Krier,” he said, you must come to Singapore. We want Poundbury with skyscrapers.” When he understood that my skyscrapers would have no more than three to five floors, he too frowned in disbelief and turned on his heel.
This is to say that the present book is not about exoticism, not about the brief thrill of consuming imported alien products, not about promoting trendy European goods for globalized markets, cultures and climates.
The Architecture of Community is about something more fundamental. It is about re-establishing our own traditional forms and techniques of building and settling. The devastation of the traditional Chinese building heritage is causing headlines worldwide. Yet I am less alarmed by the loss of material than by the loss of the ideas which generated and perpetuated it for thousands of years. I am not merely talking about saving historic buildings and towns but saving the technology which created and sustained those forms, made them to be desirable and to be emulated for hundreds of generations. I am suggesting that architects and planners become primordially concerned, not with the historicity of traditional architecture and urbanism but with their technology, with the techniques of building settlements in a specific geographic location with its natural materials.
It is tragic that more and more intelligent minds should at once be spellbound by that undecipherable Spirit of the Age (Zeitgeist) and so indifferent to the Spirit of Place (Genius Loci), the conditions of nature, of local climate, topography, soil, customs, all of them phenomena objectively apprehensible in their physical and chemical qualities.
This book advocates not to respect, study and use traditional ideas because they are historical, but where and when they are relevant for us the living, essential for our well-being. They are repositories not merely of humanity, but of humaneness and ecology.
Human scale, as we now discover when too many of our built environs have lost it, is an unrenounceable attribute of civilization, not an obsolete luxury. We demonstrate here, by vision and example, how human scale can become again the yardstick of modern artifacts, adequate for our bodies and souls, for both our limited physiological capacities and our infinite desires, be they tools, buildings, cities or landscapes.