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Erudite observer


You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W Moore MIT Press, 2001. 395pp. £30.95

Not many architects could fill nearly 400 pages with their selected essays, and even fewer would be readable. But this selection of the great Post-Modernist Charles Moore's writings between 1952 and 1993 (when he died) maintains its interest. It is both a testament to a highly individual, rich and varied intellectual path, and an insight into American architectural history in the second half of the 20th century.

These two themes are interwoven. Moore taught in Utah, moved to graduate study at Princeton, and then combined practice in various partnerships with more teaching at Berkeley, Yale, and Austin, Texas, where he died. Not surprisingly, he touched on an unusually wide part of the American architectural spectrum. And where these places take him from the particular to the general (a connection he often looked for in his own work), it is that 'general' in American architecture that disturbs opinion here.

The very title, taken from the perceptively argued essay 'You Have to Pay for the Public Life', will rattle opinion-formers in Portland Place and Camden. In an interview with Drexel Turner, Moore said: 'I'm especially fascinated by this business that many architectural critics - they seem mostly to be British - have developed: a passionate fear of kitsch.' If you happened to like it, he added, you were somehow 'guilty' or 'unclean'.

Moore's 'guilt'was to search for origins and inspirations beyond the narrowly prescriptive Modernist canon, and given the length of his pursuit, the centres where he conducted it and the range of people influenced by it, he deserves serious attention.

Moore was a student in Michigan in the 1940s, where Modernism was presumably less all-pervasive than at Mies' IIT or at Gropius' Harvard. In any case, he consciously sought out the remaining Bay Region and Beaux Arts practitioners who started to give America an authentic architecture early in the 20th century.

Real and neo-Hispanic architectural influence fascinated him, and is most fully treated in the 'Hispanic Lecture', one of the last in the book.He is also prepared to be less than adulatory of Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Testament he reviewed in 1958) and even his erstwhile tutor Louis Kahn. Indeed, his clear-eyed treatment of these stellar figures contrasts with the mystical nonsense put about by their groupies, and gives one confidence in his judgement of less well-known themes.

Early essays such as 'Plaster in Architecture' and 'The Architecture of Water' show a concern to incorporate materials and features that Modernism found, at best, awkward. The first, published in 1960, writes evocatively about Bavarian baroque and describes the potential of going beyond 'truth to materials'. In the second, he outlines how water can help to make 'place' - one of the strongest recurring themes in his work - as even the smallest stretch of it may evoke oceans, rivers or lakes; that is, open the portal from particular to general.

Another recurring theme comes from Harold Bloom's book The Anxiety of Influence. As Moore writes: 'His model is an arrangement wherein the young poet (read architect) seizes on the work of an older poet he extravagantly admires. He heads toward that body of work with his own, and then at the very last second, in a poetic game of chicken, swerves slightly to the side and hits some other target.' To an extent this describes Moore's relationship to Kahn, perhaps. It certainly gives an academic respectability to the host of ideas which he devoured.

However, for all his erudition and his position within elite academies, Moore was an observer rather than a scholar. His essay on Hadrian's Villa, for example, lies closer to travel writing than academic archaeology.

But it is this quality which allowed him to tie together influences from American landscape and history, to transcend the narrow confines of Modernism and, one would imagine, to be an inspiring teacher.

First and foremost, though, Moore was a designer, and his description of design in an essay called 'Eleven Agonies and One Euphoria' - 'that combination of research and understanding and intuition and improvisation which tries out solutions to problems in too many unknowns to be susceptible of solution by disciplines based on logic and words' - is as good as I have ever read.

Jeremy Melvin teaches at South Bank University

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