Journalist, architect and client Rowan Moore takes a serious and studied look at the emotions we invest in the built environment
Halfway through Rowan Moore’s new book Why We Build, in a chapter called Power and Freedom, a passage reads: ‘Edith Farnsworth, the client of Mies van Der Rohe’s most famous house, and possibly his lover, bitterly raged against him when she found that the house was ultimately his, not hers. He was, she said, “simply colder and more cruel than anybody I have ever known. Perhaps it was never a friend and collaborator, so to speak, that he wanted, but a dupe and a victim.”’
There are many hundreds of precision-cut paragraphs like this in Moore’s long-time-coming treatise, which speak of the hope, folly, pride, and sexual tensions that infuse – and confuse – the process of building. But this one in particular also captures the essence of what Moore’s book is really all about and who it is really for: the client.
Moore is well placed to muse upon architecture from this gilded perspective because, as well as being a journalist (since the 90s) and a qualified practitioner (since the 80s), he has also been a client, and perhaps even a dupe and a victim too. It was Moore, during a stint directing the Architectural Foundation, who commissioned Zaha Hadid’s first London project, but failed to get it built. The debacle led to him quitting his post.
You can read all about it in his book, in a chapter called Form Follows Finance, which brings out the best in Moore’s writing; at turns, gossipy, lyrical, vicious and insightful (sometimes all four at once). Why We Build is clearly a personal statement on the emotions we invest in our built environment, with Moore taking the side of those who dare to make architecture, be it worthwhile or not.
But it is only one of many projects picked apart so that Moore can explore his nifty concept of architecture as ‘the mineral interval between multiple thoughts and actions’. So we get the inside deal on how many and varied buildings came about such as Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Centre in New York, John Soane’s house in Lincoln Fields, Norman Foster’s City Hall on the Thames and Lina Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo.
Some are hailed as successes, others slammed as failures, although Bo Bardi in particular fares well. Her Brazilian museum, says Moore, is ‘a frame for life, that of the city that swirls round it, of the artists whose gestures are held by the paint of their canvases, of the viewers of the art, of the vegetation and water in the building’s landscaping… a space in which things can happen.’ Furthermore, the best buildings, says Moore, can accommodate changes wrought by time with ease.
There is a lot of reading in this handsome 422-page hardback door-stopper, which has a wraparound cover by French illustrator Diane Berg, and which in a praiseworthy review by the Daily Mail’s Peter Lewis, is mistakenly presumed to be Moore’s warning against ‘a nightmare vision of a future city where tower blocks jostle one another savagely like monstrous Triffids fighting for the light.’ It needn’t be read in sequence however (the opening chapter, on Dubai, is the least rewarding) and I’d recommend jumping straight to chapter four: The Inconstant Horizon, or ‘notes on the erotic in architecture’, because its range of subjects – Adolf Loos, Leon Battista Alberti, the gay clubs of LA and mentions of swinging in a 1970s Sussex farmhouse – show Moore at his miscellaneous, but serious and studied, best.
However, Form Follows Finance, where Moore reflects on his disastrous tilt at building what was supposed to be Hadid’s first London icon, is the highlight. One passage, where he turns on his own kind – architectural journalists – is riveting. As costs spiralled and the builder threatened to walk, Moore remembers that like ‘weakened bodies, the project attracted parasites, in the form of reporters from weekly architectural magazines. These people, pallid and goggling like creatures of the lightless deep ocean, would call up with a catch of concern in their voice that failed to hide their delight at having a career-enhancing piece of bad news in their hands.’
Ouch! Five years ago when I worked for BD, I was one of those reporters asking the tricky questions. Moore’s honesty here is refreshing but defiantly hypocritical: the skewering his has given architects in his many, enjoyably cruel building reviews over the years are crucial to the reputation he now enjoys.
If you’re more familiar with the author’s pithy take-downs that usually stretch to around a thousand words or so, Why We Build’s holographic structure, where each paragraph reflects the greater whole, might seem overly dense and repetitive: I lost track of how many times Moore explained that buildings are both symbols and instruments. But there’s no harm in that if your aim is to persuade a constituency famous for not listening. In some ways Why We Build plugs the void left by CABE; it is a poetic version of the finished-off quango’s developer guideline documents. It seems Moore has written the world’s first client-friendly architectural manifesto. Now you know what to get yours for Christmas.
Why We Build, by Rowan Moore, is published by Picador, price £20