When Louis Sullivan rang in the era of the skyscraper at the turn of the 20th century, the vertically soaring building—with its views and elevators—was unthinkably cutting edge. By the fifties, the dense downtown had experienced its moment in the sun and endless suburban sprawl began to surround the city. As early as the eighties, both the suburbs and the skyscraper felt oppressive in their own ways.
Enter “New Urbanism.” Propagated vigorously by architect Léon Krier, the ideology entailed a return to the traditional European city, in turn conjuring images of romantically dense, small-scale architecture and walkable streets. The fruits of the New Urbanists’ efforts are visible at a number of neo-traditionalist planned communities around the world, most notably, Truman Show-esque Seaside, Florida in the U.S. and Poundbury, Dorset in England, designed with the help of Prince Charles.
The above description is, of course, a criminal reduction of the past century of urban history. What about the racism that drove many white Americans to the suburbs? Or the overcrowding that necessitated we build higher? Leaving out messy politics and bureaucratic zoning restrictions, this account of the life of the city is an oversimplification. But as a result, this version of 20th-century urbanism is much easier to understand than the difficult reality of the city. In many ways, this is what Léon Krier’s drawings do, too.
Simple depictions in black and white take dense volumes of urban history and architectural theory and make them swiftly comprehensible. Usually, Krier’s drawings appear in his books, elucidating visually what words fail to articulate. As James Howard Kunstler notes, Krier’s drawings are “particularly thorough and eloquent on the discipline of typology.” That is, they do the work of categorizing a sometimes overwhelming body of architectural knowledge. Despite its utilitarianism, architecture is hard to explain; Krier’s drawings help simplify things, lucidly laying on paper the dichotomies and musings that inhabit many an architectural mind (or notebook margin).
Other times, though, his drawings mimic the reductionist threads of New Urbanism, stripping the realities of the city down to a utopian vision. The pages seem to shout: “Skyscrapers are inhumane! Zoning is absurd! Starchitects only care about fame!”
If Krier’s drawings are difficult to generalize, it’s because the architect is, too. He’s adamant that cities be walkable—a trope we might type as progressive—but his New Urbanist developments have often been criticized as exclusionary. Cayala, a community that Krier designed in Guatemala, self-advertises as a place “where the rich can escape crime.” Perhaps most egregiously, Krier has continually defended the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer.
Correction: an earlier version of this article called Cayala, Guatemala a gated community. It is not gated. ArchDaily regrets the error.