June 10, 2008

They make a desert and call it Poundbury

Even if you don’t know the name Leon Krier, you may already know his work.  He had a hand in planning Seaside, FL, the town that inspired The Truman Show; most of the movie was filmed there.  More recently, he was tapped by Prince Charles to design Poundbury, a town meant to be a living reincarnation of the ideal British village.

Krier?s motto is ?Forward comrades, we must go back!?  How far?  At least a couple of centuries: according to him, “we must begin by rediscovering the forgotten language of the city, which achieved formal perfection in the eighteenth century,” and “recognize the absolute value of the pre-industrial cities, of the cities of stone.? 

It is no surprise that Krier?s reactionary attitude would appeal to Roger Scruton, who wrote a very warm tribute to Krier for the latest City Journal.  To hear Scruton tell it, Krier was one of a handful of architects willing to preach tradition when modernism was having its soulless heyday.  This is essentially true.  On the other hand, if the Right is serious about jettisoning its anti-urbanism?and, in a world where public transport and toll roads are gaining popularity, we have to be?we need to ask whether Krier has anything to recommend him besides the fact that he is not Le Corbusier.

His opponents have accused Krier of being motivated by nothing more than sentimental longing for a romanticized past?I don?t imagine that having the Prince of Wales for a patron has helped much?but I am willing to leave off psychologizing and grant that he understands what he means when he says he wants to undo the Industrial Revolution.  The problem is not that Krier promotes craftsmanship and human-scale living, but that he does so badly.

The changes that would move America towards the kind of human-scale economy that Krier envisions?not pouring so much money into the highway system, removing burdensome regulations that favor the big businesses that can afford to comply with them, keeping a better eye on corrupt municipal governments that court large companies at the expense of their constituents?are outside the purview of a city planner.  There is no reason to expect Krier to hold off planning another city until the revolution comes.  However, papering over these problems by giving towns like Seaside the veneer of self-sufficiency doesn?t just sap these reforms of their urgency; it undermines the very communitarianism that Krier wants to promote.  If the producer is a hundred miles away, what does it matter that I know the local vendor?s name?

In the battle over dense and anonymous downtowns, I am not in Krier?s foxhole.  Having a community of strangers strikes me as theatrical, anarchic, and unusually friendly to self-reinvention; it does not strike me as an oxymoron.  That being said, I am not sure that genuine passion for that small town feel should imply an endorsement of New Urbanism.  Barring a revolution, industrialism is here to stay; given a revolution, the resulting economy will have to be post-, not pre-industrial.  There is nothing wrong with recognizing a demand for small-scale paradises like Seaside and Poundbury.  Krier’s only mistake is in making an ideology of it.

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