April 15, 2013

Please Feel Guilty, Leon

UPDATE: I have read the comments by Leon Krier (however belatedly, I am not yet accustomed to keeping up with the comments in this blog after the recent repair) and I am impressed by his defense. I wrote Mr. Wise for his response to Mr. Krier's comments below and I will update this subject in a subsequent blogpost. The assumption of guilt hinged on an uncritical acceptance of Mr. Krier's critics and I was wrong to do this without reading Krier's "Albert Speer, Architecture" for myself. Therefore, I have struck the title for this post.


I've mentioned the architectural and urbanistic work of Leon Krier in earlier blog posts (here, for example). This morning, I read a book review by Michael Z. Wise of Krier's recent publication via Monacelli Press, "Albert Speer, Architecture". Here are the first two paragraphs:

In the darkened auditorium, the monumental image looked familiar. But the description was not. "Rather elegant," intoned the white-haired figure at the podium. He was speaking of Adolf Hitler's Reich Chancellery, designed in 1938 by Albert Speer. Up next on the screen was the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds where brown-shirted Nazis paraded en masse. "I think it is really great architecture," said the lecturer. "You take off the swastikas, and you can admire it without feeling guilty."
My stomach turned as I read those words.

(Continuing to the second paragraph:)
Audience members shifted awkwardly in their seats, and a few walked out to protest the remarks by Léon Krier, opening a conference on Berlin at the Yale School of Architecture in February. The Luxembourg-born architectural theorist and planner acknowledged the discomfort, saying of his admiration for Speer: "It drives people crazy because they think I am applauding Auschwitz." But he added: "These buildings are full of modern references. It's only the blind who think this is fascist architecture."
It's a heavy charge that Mr. Krier has to bear and defend against and from what I've read so far, I don't think he's doing himself enough justice in this regard. Indeed, if we can take Wise at his word, Krier had soiled himself by trying to recuperate Speer and therefore Hitler's ambition as well. According to Wise, Krier...
...argues that the Allies should have spared Speer from prosecution just as they allowed former Nazis, like scientist the Wernher von Braun, to work in the U.S. space program and on military projects. That way Speer could have embellished postwar Paris, Washington and Moscow. "Sometimes a blind eye is turned when the public interest is at stake," Mr. Krier writes wryly--though perfectly in earnest about the missed opportunity. After all, he concludes: "The Führer had cherished all things beautiful."


I have long admired Krier for his critique of modern urbanism, which is perhaps the only example that is succinct, vivid and accessible to the wider public. I had used his general ideas as a pattern to model pedestrian cities in the schema which I had fashioned as Parallel Cities, a design-argument for the peaceful coexistence of machine scaled and human scaled urbanism. In particular, I value his formulation of the urban quarter, that it should be no larger than a person can walk for 15 minutes, that it should contain all of the services, amenities and institutions that any city should offer (a place to live, a place to work, a place to learn, a place to get healthy, a place to stay healthy, a place to shop, a place to worship, a place to self govern, etc, etc...). I had assessed his prescriptive architectural formalism from a distance, I recognize the value of formal classism, of the beauty of proportion as it relates to the interrelation of the orders (the holism of bottom/middle/top as opposed to the modernist fascination for the creative strife of discontinuity and fragmentation) but I don't cherish classism to the degree that he does. I just don't feel his frozen music, but the design of his score is amazing.

From his polemic in "Houses, Palaces, Cities", the scale of Krier's architecture and urbanism was always human to my eye. This was for me, his saving grace against the charge of reactionary tendency... and then he took a turn and tried to recuperate Albert Speer's legacy.


Is Leon Krier a fascist, and can he eliminate this stain by simply removing the swastikas? What is fascism? Orwell said that the term is meaningless, another way to describe a bully. Wikipedia describes it as "a form of radical authoritarian nationalism.. Fascists seek to unify their nation through a totalitarian state that promotes the mass mobilization of the national community..." Deeper into their article they discuss one of the tenants of fascism, of palingenesis and modernism, the fusion of a deliberately reincarnated tradition (state or empire, specifically) and the revolutionary tumult of the new. Are all such fusions indicative of fascism, or only certain kinds and combinants? Is classism in itself a signifier of fascism? What about Giuseppe Terragni, who designed the Danteum for Benito Mussolini?

Giuseppe Terragni - Danteum Philippe Honore from AlICe lab on Vimeo.

I don't have the links on hand, but I've read that Le Corbusier is considered by some critics as a fascist for the legacy of his Ville Contemporaine that influenced the mass housing/ghetto-iszing of the urban poor in projects such as Pruitt-Igoe. Is he a fascist too?

No, and perhaps in a hyperbolic and therefore contestable way, yes.

It's important to tease away the differences between ideas that value tradition and institutional legacy, of the preservation of wisdom over time and the ideas that inflict an overt prescription of living standards by force of the state. If we can't make this distinction, we can't learn from history, we will be bereft of wisdom, we would be at the mercy of constant change., a prison of an eternal modernist NOW.

But simply scrubbing off the swastikas can't rehabilitate the architectural legacy of Albert Speer, and to suggest so is to stain oneself irredeemably. What is similar in the work of both Speer and Terragni that is distinct from the broad arc of the gentle humanity of architectural and urbanistic history? Scale and subject.

The agency of scale in fascist architecture is meant to dwarf the individual. People serve the state and to be made to feel small and powerless is the favorite instrument of totalitarianism. But big scale does not directly and simply imply oppression in and of itself. When do we go wrong when we use large scale? How is gigantic scale invoked without the spectre of totalitarianism? For example, is Superstudio's Continuous Monument a covert expression of fascism? Or how about the ambitions of Land Art? Did Joni Mitchell go off the rail when she wanted to be a cog in something turning? Is the fascination of the sublime in art a signal of danger? Questions loom. Throughout all of this, the measure of intent fades into the experience of scale in the built environment. We are never free of the need to continually reassess the civic boundary, of when we have gone over the edge.

Deeper in Wise's review, he touches on how fascism treats the subject of architecture:

In his own introduction to the original issue of "Albert Speer," Mr. Krier wrote: "Auschwitz-Birkenau and Los Angeles are children of the same parents." That offensive phrase has been dropped from his updated introduction but remains part of the facsimile edition included here. Diagrams on another page compare size and layouts of "artistic and industrial ensembles," setting the configuration of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp side by side with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a Volkswagen factory
And what we see here is how people are equated with the elements of architecture, people become cogs in the machine, the machinery of state. This should horrify all decent reader because this is a perversion of architecture. Architecture should serve the people, it provides the backdrop, the setting for life. It should never instrumentalize human beings to serve the state.

Posted by Dennis at April 15, 2013 9:07 AM


Riposte to Michael Z. Wise – Hitler’s Words into Stone- Wall Street Journal 12 April 2013

My introduction to the Architecture of Albert Speer contains a fable designed to lay bare the scandalously selective process of denazification, that led the US Army in 1945 to employ Wernher Von Braun, the Nazi rocket engineer and criminal slave master. Mr Wise quotes my sentences without explaining their fictional nature. His is a dishonest procedure, designed to confuse the reasons for debating the questions,“ Can a war-criminal be a great artist?” and “Why was Classicism banned since the allied victory and not Modernism, Science and Technology, Socialism and Engineering, all of which sustained the Nazi terror and war machine more ominously than Hitler’s mostly unbuilt classical architectural and urban projects.
The criminal involvement of Speer in clearing Jewish properties in Berlin in 1938 were first revealed, not by Susanne Willems in 1988, as Michael Wise erroneously states, but by Matthias Schmidt’s in “Albert Speer; The End of a Myth” in 1981. Mr Wise insinuates my ignorance of revelations that are fully credited in my book of 1985 and in the 2013 reprint. It is those revelations that, in my opinion, killed Albert Speer. His bluff had finally been called.
Mr Wise holds me to be “no crypto-fascist.” Thank him but neither do I hold a principled aversion to modernism as he states. I am merely allergic to bad design for which architectural and artistic modernism have become the unequalled world champions. Michael Wise quite simply cannot conceive of the possibility that a criminal can be a great artist, nor that a classical architect practicing today is part and parcel of modernity. Those all too common preconceptions are wrong. Classicism and modernity are not contradictory terms, suffice to consult a dictionary

Dear Mr Hollingworth,

Instead of commenting Mr Wise's manipulative comments, you should read the texts I wrote about Speer explaining also the reasons for dealing with the unsavoury subject.
Then I would be interested to respond to your comments and questions.

Best regards

Leon Krier

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