Beyond Buildings

 

Leon Krier: Tor Bella Monaca

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Tor Bella Monaca. Courtesy: Leon Krier

 

This last week, Leon Krier sent me some images of a new neighborhood he has designed for the outskirts of Rome. Called Tor Bella Monaca, it is designed to replace 1970s-era social housing with housing blocks that will eventually house up to 40,000 inhabitants in blocks no more than four stories or 38 feet tall. These flats will be grouped around streets without cars, with parking lots around the perimeter. A diagonal main street will lead past a number of civic structures and squares, while the area between the perimeter and these open areas will be dense enough with housing to keep the development affordable. The images that Krier sent are stunning digital versions of the pencil drawings for which he became famous, and make you believe that you could walk through Tor Bella Monaca today, rather than after 2014, when the first blocks are to be finished.

 


Tor Bella Monaca. Courtesy: Leon Krier

 

As readers of this blog might be aware, I am not a fan of New Urbanism, the movement inspired by Krier, nor do I in general believe that the compact community such as Krier here imagines is the answer to the problems of sprawl. I am even less of a fan of the gimcrackety imitations of such theories in places such as Celebration, Florida, or even less of the more derivative—and the association with the financial instruments of disaster seems appropriate—developer specials rising all around the world that claim to follow this cult’s precepts.

 

 
Tor Bella Monaca. Courtesy: Leon Krier

 

I have, however, always found myself seduced by Krier’s work, from the pencil drawings he did for James Stirling, to his early visions for Luxemburg, Paris, and Tenerife, Spain. They promised a new Golden Age, where we would go wandering through geometric reductions that were the essence of Classical architecture, without all the confusions or contradictions of modern life. The places they promised were beautiful, with curtains blowing in the winds and always a bit of shade to admire the towers, gables, and pediments that drew your eye ever further through the urban whole. Vistas opened up, but only into places where you were once again surrounded not by total order, but by fragments that each evoked memories of other buildings, and that related human use to civic scale.

 


Tor Bella Monaca. Courtesy: Leon Krier

 

Krier never had a chance to build any of those visions. The closest he has come has been the planning of Poundbury, the exurban estate he created on Royal lands for Prince Charles. I have not been there, but it looks quaint, as if a postcard of pre-War England had come to life. You wonder what daily existence is like within an environment where everything is so composed and the reality of a technology-driven society is so repressed.


To his credit, Krier has built so little because he has not wanted to compromise. He once held the position that we should build as we did before the Industrial Revolution, and still believes that communities need to be small, walkable, and focused on civic institutions. In Tor Bella Monaca, he will, if plans progress, have his chance to create a community that exemplifies how he thinks we should live.

 

Tor Bella Monaca. Courtesy: Leon Krier

 

I love the way in which his forms are not literal references, but, as in the towers around the central piazza, evoke everything from the EUR to the churches in Rome. The brick arches and lintels set into stone façades, which in turn give way to stucco and brick in the actual housing blocks, are consistent enough to become a unifying rhythm, but flexible enough, true to Classicism, to adapt themselves to different conditions. What looks to be a brick market hall set in front of a grass square brings a roughness to the otherwise smooth forms. Turrets at corners and three-story columns set around openings give what are really collections of flats grandeur and identity.

 

I am not sure that Krier will be able to pull Tor Bella Monaca off the way it looks in these renderings. I certainly hope he will, because then we can have a real argument about whether this kind of Classical vernacular sheathing of a world of microwaves, computers, and nontraditional family units, let alone banning the umbilical cord that connects it to work, play, and shopping beyond this Krierian precinct, really ennobles our daily lives. The drawings are, in any case, inspiring.

 

 
 

Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Charles siegel | Time: 4:17 PM Wednesday, January 02, 2013

    I expect Krier to do much better, but Le Plessis-Robinson is an existing neighborhood that might help answer your question about "whether this kind of Classical vernacular sheathing of a world of microwaves, computers, and nontraditional family units... really ennobles our daily lives" For pictures, see my article at http://www.planetizen.com/node/57600 and blog post at http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2012/07/le-plessis-robinson.html I myself don't see that it is odd to have a microwave oven in a traditional house. It seems much odder to design a building coated with titanium to match the style of your kitchen appliances. Are you aware that you are taking a very conservative position when you argue against car-free neighborhoods by talking about "banning the umbilical cord that connects it to work, play, and shopping"? Environmentalists generally support car-free or car-light neighborhoods, and less polluting umbilical cords to connect them with the rest of the world.

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  • Posted by: LEON KRIER | Time: 10:10 AM Saturday, September 17, 2011

    Thank you Mr Betzky for airing the ideas. So far in Italy not a single architecture magazine has published any of the picture since February when they were made available. The Mayor has promised the inhabitants that the external walls of the new palazzine will be constructed authentically in brick and stone. We have demonstrated that this is possible within the cost of public housing. It should not be forgotten that the sales of over half the new building fabric has to pay for the relocation of 28000 inhabitants and the demolition of their 300000m2 of decaying, 30 year old mass-housing. LEON KRIER, CRISTIANO ROSPONI, JAMSHID SEPEHRI

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  • Posted by: LEON KRIER | Time: 10:08 AM Saturday, September 17, 2011

    Thank you Mr Betzky for airing the ideas. So far in Italy not a single architecture magazine has published any of the picture since February when they were made available. The Mayor has promised the inhabitants that the external walls of the new palazzine will be constructed authentically in brick and stone. We have demonstrated that this is possible within the cost of public housing. It should not be forgotten that the sales of over half the new building fabric has to pay for the relocation of 28000 inhabitants and the demolition of their 300000m2 of decaying, 30 year old mass-housing. LEON KRIER, CRISTIANO ROSPONI, JAMSHID SEPEHRI

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:53 PM Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Aaron, as always you are perceptive and to the point. Yes indeed... given the mess of the current Italian situation it will be a miracle if this project ever gets built. However, you are right to say that if it does get built "then we can have a real argument about this kind of Classical vernacular sheathing..." I can't wait....Giancarlo Alhadeff

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.