a firm foundation
Rowan Moore takes over as director of the Architecture Foundation this week looking forward to being a 'doer' again and determined to stimulate wider discussion about what constitutes good architecture The climate in which Rowan Moore takes over the Architecture Foundation is quite different from when it began in 1991.During its first 10 years, the AF had a job simply persuading government and business to take architecture seriously. And as a critic, Moore was fighting the same fight. 'You just had to beat the drum, and say, 'pay some attention to architecture', ' he recalls.
But persistence paid off. Government convened the Urban Task Force, established CABE and has now built architecture into policy. Broadly, attitudes have shifted, and the recent rash of public buildings has allowed a more in-depth discussion of architecture's 'subtleties and nuances'.
'Architecture has earned greater attention and now we have those public buildings, ' he says, 'so now we have the freedom to criticise.'
As the London Evening Standard's architecture critic, Moore has been at the forefront of those debates. No stranger to controversy, he caused a minor sensation this year with his attack on Lord Foster's office.
But how will it affect his new role that he has been so outspoken about his views in print?
'I don't expect it to make it easier. But I don't think it's a bad thing to say where you stand, ' he says. 'The foundation shouldn't only be a polite organisation. Yes, it should be positive, and not in the business of knocking people. But it should also stir things up. I hope I made it clear that Foster is a very great architect. But I don't think it did him or London or architecture a service that he was sometimes seen as being beyond criticism and as the right architect for every situation, ' he adds.
Nonetheless, Moore says one of the motivations behind his career shift is to move away from criticism. 'I didn't want to just be a critic, pointing out what's wrong with different buildings, I want to encourage new ideas about what buildings could be. So that I'm not just there at the end of the process saying, well, you didn't do that right.'
And he is looking forward to 'making things happen', which will be a return to what he enjoyed about his first career as an architect. A Cambridge graduate, he spent nine years in practice, first with Pollard Thomas & Edwards, and later with a friend as Zombory-Moldovan Moore. But he split his time with journalism - his brother is Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore - and when he was offered the editorship of Blueprint, chose to concentrate full time on his writing.
AtBlueprint, he also made things happen, curating the Vertigo exhibition in Glasgow in 1999 and another on Denys Lasdun at the RA, and bringing about the construction of Zaha Hadid's first structure in the UK - a pavilion for the magazine at Interbuild.Most recently, he was on the jury that chose Foreign Office Architects to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale.
His pieces for the Evening Standard echo the AF's mission to promote architecture to the public. They translate complex ideas to the tabloid-reading public and place architecture in its social context, exploring why buildings happen a certain way. He will continue to write for the paper once a fortnight.
Moore is reticent about discussing his detailed plans for the foundation 'until I've had a chance to test them out', but it is clear he has broad ambitions. He will continue with the activities in which the foundation has proved itself most effective - exhibitions, roadshows and debates. And while the foundation will also have a particular relationship to London, he will push its contribution to national culture and as a conduit for little-known international ideas.
The problems that have beset it recently are in the past, he assures. Belt-tightening and a donation from a 'private source' has resolved its funding crisis and a new home for the body - which left its exhibition space in London's Bury Street to share an office with Hawkins/Brown in Clerkenwell - should be resolved by the end of the year.
Crucial to success will be his relationship with Will Alsop - former director Lucy Musgrave's announcement of her departure was surrounded by speculation about a fall out with the chairman. Although Moore has not worked with Alsop before, he says he admires his work and likes him personally.
'We are both interested in architecture as a creative activity, ' he says. 'Although I have a greater appreciation for some of the quieter architects around.'
He is clear about his main objective at the AF - to stimulate a wider discussion about what good architecture is. In particular, he worries about the lack of diversity of public buildings in Britain, as compared with Europe and the US. Presently, aspirations see-saw between 'sleek and tasteful' and 'wonkyshaped, wannabe Bilbaos'. But that attitude ignores the true strength of Gehry's Guggenheim - that it is not just a complex shape but highly responsive to its environment.
And Britain's successful public buildings have all been incredibly hard-fought, he says, citing the battle by Walsall to bring about its Caruso St John-designed Art Gallery. 'It just shouldn't be that difficult.'
Another issue he is bound to pursue is the new, worrying trend of viewing architecture as a catch-all solution to the problem of regeneration. Increasingly, a town thinks it can turn its fortunes around with a new iconic cultural building. 'But a building can't do it on its own, ' he says.
He has reservations about plans to regenerate the area in which he grew up, Hastings in Sussex, though, characteristically considered, he refuses to make a premature pronouncement on Ushida Findlay's designs for a statement building in the town.
But central to his leadership will be a refocusing of the foundation's activities to put architecture, in all its guises, at the heart of its activities.
'It's time to move on. It's time to be braver about what architecture is.'