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Rowan Moore offers fascinating insights in ‘Why We Build’

Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture

By Rowan Moore

Harper Collins

400 pages, $30

By Jack Quinan


In the introduction to “Why We Build,” Rowan Moore, architecture critic for the London Observer, explains that his book “is not a manual, it won’t tell you how to decorate your house nor will it tell urban planners how to make a wise decision. The idea is not to make a score sheet of good and vice versa, rather to see the many ways in which human impulses are played out in building.

The book tries not to instruct, prescribe or moralize. Its aim is to show, examine and reveal.”

Despite his claims to the contrary, Moore does moralize. The chapters concerned with truth, life and power coincide with three of the guideposts of “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” of John Ruskin, the great moralizing critic of the 19th century. If Moore is Ruskinian, however, he is Ruskin with a twist.

Free of the narrow formalism of 20th century modernist criticism, Moore’s critical method is heterogeneous and flexible. Equipped with a heightened sensory awareness and an antipathy toward the purely visual, he moves easily through cities and across continents and centuries in a quest for the human issues that make architecture important.

“Why We Build” presumes considerable familiarity with modern and contemporary architecture. Its 10 chapters are densely packed and often push a theme this way and that and sometimes turn it on its head. Moore is equally interested in great buildings and mediocre ones, and often plays one against the other. He is drawn to unpredictable results and hidden truths. Terrible tyrants sometimes commission wonderful buildings.

Moore uses the Parthenon, surely one of the greatest buildings in history, to write about the ravages of time. Sir John Soane’s home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, a must-see for students of architecture, bears witness to a deeply tragic personal story.

Moscow’s anachronistically Baroque subway system of the early 1950s is the last gasp of Josef Stalin’s fading power. In the polished marble walls of the houses designed by a sexually repressed Adolf Loos Moore finds veining patterns that “writhe with suppressed life.”

Highly successful architects are embodied in the personality of Stanford White, “a man of phenomenal force,” who was the toast of New York until a jealous husband shot him dead in his own Madison Square Garden. “Successful architects,” Moore writes, “have immense will… they combine force with charm: they have whatever it takes to get their way.”

“Why We Build” opens with an overview of Dubai, that astonishing display of architectural excess on the Persian Gulf where it seemed that anything was possible – the world’s tallest building, a palm-shaped artificial island (check it out on Google Earth), a ski slope in the desert – until the financing collapsed in 2008, the infrastructure proved inadequate, and residents began to realize that “there is no there there” (Gertrude Stein).

As promised in his introduction, Moore inquires, describes, lets the spectacle speak for itself and explains, “architecture is not a thing of pure reason or function, but is shaped by human emotions and desires...”

Moore’s critical position on Dubai becomes apparent as he turns to the work of Lena Bo Bardi, an outstanding Brazilian modernist architect who, as a woman, was completely ignored by the 20th century architectural establishment. Moore celebrates Bo Bardi because she designed buildings “to be inhabited rather than looked at,” and her principal works, a glass house, an art museum, and a social center in Sao Paolo, stand as models of integrity in this intriguing book.

Bo Bardi notwithstanding, “Why We Build” examines many of the high-profile architectural and planning subjects of the recent past. These include the nasty infighting around the redesign of Ground Zero and its tepid results and Brad Pitt’s well-meaning but isolated Ninth Ward housing project for post-Katrina New Orleans.

For Moore each of these projects is a story of power and desire. In the ironically titled “Eternity Is Overrated,” Moore explores architecture’s enduring preoccupation with the issue of time and its corollaries, permanence and monumentality. That architects and clients have long been preoccupied with these qualities is testified by the persistence of classicism, the ubiquity of the temple front, and the perpetual quest for the monumental. For Moore the overvaluation of monuments has inured us to the transient and the mobile in architecture.

As evidence, his description of the 17th century Katsura Palace in Kyoto, Japan, is one of the most captivating portions of the book.

Toward the end of” Why We Build” Moore focuses on Bo Bardi’s SESC (Social Service for Commerce) Pompeia in Sao Paolo, a decaying former metal-products factory that teemed with life.

Fascinated, she set up her office there and worked with contractors and the people who were already using the building to develop a loosely structured social center to which she added a miniature river, a boardwalk that became known as “the beach,” and several spectacular cylindrical and oblong concrete towers for sports activities interconnected with diagonal aerial walkways. The successes of the SESC Pompeia and Moore’s other most favored sites, the Katsura Palace in Kyoto and the High Line in New York City, reflect Moore’s admiration for buildings “to be inhabited rather than looked at” and resonate with recent architectural projects here in Buffalo: Silo City looks a lot like Bo Bardi’s SESC; the Darwin Martin House was inspired by Wright’s 1905 trip to the Katsura Palace in Japan; the High Line, which Moore describes as “a series of micro-environments such as wetlands, moss, or meadows ordered according to ‘agritecture,’ ” has parallels in the Urban Habitat Project at the Buffalo Central Terminal and in other land reclamation projects such as the urban farms popping up on the East Side. Buffalo may lack the high-profile confections of Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, but it is Rowan Moore’s kind of city.

Jack Quinan is the author of “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo Venture.”