In February, the architect and urban theorist Léon Krier, famed for planning Prince Charles’s new town of Poundbury, sent me a video about his proposed academic village on a hillside at the island, off of North Africa, of Tenerife, long owned by Spain. Commissioned in the 1980s by the celebrated gallerists and art collectors Hans Jürgen and Helga Müller, Atlantis was to be an academic village designed according to Persian, Greek, Roman and Christian civic precedents, inviting, as Krier himself puts it, “meritorious individuals who excel in their fields of science, humanities, arts, ecology, crafts, philosophy, farming” to extend their studies and mix it up – that is, dialogue – with resident intellects.
Atlantis was never built; Krier’s wealthy clients were apparently rattled by criticism from hidebound modernist architects and critics, failed to raise the money, and ended up building something by the late 2015 Pritzker laureate Otto Frei, who specialized in tents (I kid you not!). Atlantis envisioned five hectares (12.3 acres) comprising some 100 buildings, 31 streets, 19 squares designed in Krier’s inimitable style, which is essentially classicist.
A lovely 22-minute video of the Atlantis proposal by Krier, who won the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, hosted by the Univeersity of Notre Dame, in 2003 (the program’s first laureate) is here. Assembled by video artist Patrice Elmer, it has text in English and French, paintings by Driehaus laureate Carl Laubin, drawings and models of Krier’s designs, and an enchanting score, on piano, by Ralph Zurmühle.
But first a couple of words about Krier’s “style.”
His brother, also an architect and urban theorist, like Léon raised in Luxembourg, was recently criticized in a comment to my post “Rob Krier wins his Driehaus.” An anonymous writer complained:
What on earth has [Rob] Krier built of note? Just as it was starting to look like the Driehaus jury was beginning to break away from its early, shameful love for mediocre postmodernists, we get a resurgence of this junk. Meanwhile, the Pritzker continues a splendid streak of acknowledging architects who actually know how to make beautiful, humane buildings.
FYI, “Anonymous,” the judicial complex in Luxembourg is better than all buildings designed by Pritzker laureates since its founding. Maybe recent Pritzker laureates design buildings that are more humane than those of earlier laureates, but that is a very, very, very low bar.
I am not exaggerating about Rob Krier’s judicial complex. The differences in the beauty, the humanity and the timelessness of these two opposing and embattled styles of architecture are extreme. In response to a question about whether Atlantis is valid today, Léon Krier asserts in a May 2021 interview that
[t]he project is valid and can be built anywhere in similar geographic and climate conditions now or in the future. Traditional architecture and urbanism are independent of fashions. They satisfy permanent human spiritual and material needs and most importantly, they transcend political, gender, race, income, class, language, religious and age barriers.
Krier’s “style” – he might object to the word – is generally a simplified version of classical precedents, mainly from ancient Greece and Rome.It has become de rigueur, and not just for modernists, to sniff at the idea of style, and assert that architects should exclude it from their designs and their vocabulary. That would simply be impossible. Every architectural design has a style, for better or worse. It may or may not reflect the culture or context of its setting, but it has a style, deny it or not, and its style is intrinsic to its quality and its appearance. (See this video of a panel on Rhode Island architect David Andreozzi’s “Architectural Delight.”)
You might say that Krier’s style draws from the common man’s image of his ideal home town, as expressed in Western culture from time immemorial, all the way down to the expression of civic ideals, of archetypal cities, that once sprang, say, from the mind of Walt Disney, reflected in Disneyland’s Main Street and his entire oeuvre. In a way, Krier’s architecture is cartoon architecture, without the irony and stupidity embraced by the postmodernism of the 1980s, which allowed classical elements to be tacked onto the usual modernist glass boxes, with a wink to those supposedly “in the know.” Krier’s designs hark back, instead, to his witty but serious “cartoons” that explain graphically why modern architecture is intrinsically inferior to classical architecture.
Watch the video and try to imagine any modernist, celebrated or obscure, designing anything as alluring as Krier’s Atlantis, or anywhere near it. It cannot be done. Enjoy the luxurious imagery of the video.