You only need a theory if you don’t know how to do something.


Leon Krier


What we call the New Urbanism originated in the conversion of Leon Krier, architect and urban planner, from modernism to classicism. A blunt critic of vertical sprawl, he once declared “modernist architecture and town planning is inimical to human beings . . . based on the Darwinian concept that evolution is open ended, that there must always be something new and better.”

 

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City plan of Canberra, Australia, 1913.

 

Nikos Salingaros, architect and urban theorist, writes in sympathy with Krier’s appraisal of the ravages of modernist architecture. His article ” Toward Resilient Architectures 3: How Modernism Got Square
,” published in the current issue of Metropolis Magazine , is a studied contribution to the discussion of why the modernist ethos has given us so many barren structures together with overwrought expressionist ones—our urban smear. The article is the third in a series. The previous ones are: Biology Lessons
, an adroit argument from the complexities of biological systems, and—my favorite—a measured remedy for green fever: Why Green Often Isn’t
.

 

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Benedict O’Looney. Free-hand drawing of the main street in Bern, Switzerland (2006)

 

The pith of Salingaros’ argument:

Science forces us to conclude that the Modernist view of environmental structure itself appears unmodern—and, moreover, unsustainable. It rests upon now largely discredited theories of culture, technology, environmental geometry, and building form—theories that have never been properly reassessed by their proponents.

For far from being an inevitable product of inexorable historical forces, the evidence reveals 20th Century design to be highly contingent historically, developed as a series of rather peculiar choices by a few influential individuals. The story goes back to a small group of German, Swiss, and Austrian architect-theorists, and . . . the particular ideas of one of them regarding ornament—which, as we shall see, turns out to have far-reaching implications.


Whether science forces an anti-modernist conclusion or simply escorts it is arguable. What is not arguable is that theory is the enemy of sensibility. No matter how idealistic or optimistic the claims of theory, they are doctrinaire by nature and, consequently, substitutes for sensibility. Abstraction fuels ambition, not discernment. Salvation through architecture, the dogmatic heart of the modernist dream, is messianic hubris fixed in steel and concrete. But grandiose theorizing is not easily checked. When Theory is king, it takes yet another postulate to tilt at the reigning one. Salingaros offers his own in recognition of the fragile truth that modernism—its brands and its works—is not destiny.

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