WEST PALM BEACH, FLA–Leon Krier, one of the world’s leading neo-traditional architects and urban planners, finds a lot to be unhappy about what planners, architects and developers are building these days. He dislikes high-rises and skyscrapers, which he views as affronts to human scale. He detests modernist architecture, which, by sacrificing traditional forms and proportions, fills the landscape with kitsch. He loathes the use of synthetic materials, which replace natural materials rooted in local environments and cultural traditions. Vast swaths of the built environment are not only ugly and inhuman but they are built upon a foundation of the fossil-fuel economy that will collapse sooner or later.
“We have created problems for which there is no human resolution,” said Krier this morning in a keynote address to the Congress for the New Urbanism. “There is a love story and religious respect for hyper-scale. … These things are unstoppable and unreformable.”
Krier provided a pessimistic note in an otherwise forward-looking and up-beat conference. Many of his comments presupposed the audience’s familiarity with ongoing debates and schisms in the architecture/planning field and, for rustics such as myself, called out for more context. Much of his address was unbloggable.
However, one theme did emerge that I find worth illuminating. It is Krier dogma that buildings should be built to a human scale. “If I were dictator,” he said, “I would dictate that no building be more than three floors high.” Invariably, people would figure out how to get around the dictator’s rules and maybe build to four or five stories, which would be fine.
He views skyscrapers and high-rises as “vertical cul de sacs,” as egregious as the horizontal dead ends of suburbia. Skyscrapers isolate people in their buildings and limit human interaction. People arrive in cars, park in underground parking lots and ride elevators to their offices. Then they leave the same way. The streets at ground level are often empty of people.
The genius of the development style in traditional European cities — he didn’t say this, but I’m extrapolating here and drawing upon Richard Florida (see previous post) — is that they achieved a density and design that optimized human interaction. Humans are social creatures and they crave interaction, so Krier’s optimal density satisfies basic human needs. Also, the often-random encounters that occur on city streets spark new ideas that lead to innovation. Finally (borrowing from urbanist Jane Jacobs) Krier’s optimal density puts more “eyes on the street,” which reduces crime and other anti-social behavior.
Thus, if I am reading Krier correctly based on his remarks, there is an optimal level of density somewhere between what we see in American suburbs and what we find in Manhattan. To maximize peoples’ satisfaction with their surroundings and spur creativity and innovation, we should strive to build communities that achieve that optimal level of density.