Rowan Moore Asks Why We Build?
Nigel Coates finds the author full of insights into love hotels and gay bars, but somewhat lacking in new conclusions to the question posed in his book’s title
I read Rowan Moore’s new book while staying at the Casa Fornasetti in Milan, a house where famously every surface speaks. Staring faces, suns, butterflies, colonnades, and air balloons conspire to make a monochromatic sensurround of images trouvées. With its black and white cover drawing, Moore’s book lay on my bed as if camouflaged by the print on the duvet cover, the Rubik maze of Piero Fornasetti’s Jerusalem design. On closer examination, the jacket features a layered landscape of generic tower blocks that could be London, or Tokyo or São Paulo; Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan in the foreground affirms the latter.
The illustration must be a teaser for the thesis in the book, a point of entry to the title: Why We Build. And why, indeed, do we build? Is it for perfunctory reasons − because people need roofs over their heads − or to fulfil a desire to make special buildings, ones that stand out from the norm? Against the backdrop of the usual urban jungle, thankfully some buildings do assert themselves as landmarks. But as Walter Benjamin said, architecture is rarely experienced as anything more than background.
Moore’s idea of building hovers somewhere between favela (without architect) and icon (with architect). He loves architecture but not always architects. Although wanting to get under the skin of the subject, in reality he talks more about the ethics of architecture than the raw urge to build. But the book eloquently unravels architecture as politics − interweaving who designs it, who pays for it, who makes it and what role it plays in city life. We learn there are no hard and fast rules for making a good building − to do so, Moore says, you need to walk a tightrope between all the factors that make up the city.
Rather than critique individual buildings, he uses examples dialectically, sometimes to expose their contradictions. Very much the journalist, he is painting the bigger picture of architecture to his regular readers, and with occasional risk of delivering coals to Newcastle. I fear he looks too readily for new theoretical containers into which to locate the classics. Somewhat predictably you’ll find Place des Vosges, the Piazza in Covent Garden, the John Soane Museum, the Pompidou, even the Pyramids, under the spotlight.
But there are moments of genuine insight: in the chapter on eroticism in architecture he juxtaposes the clichéd ’80s overt kitsch-ery of Japanese love hotels with the secretive blankness adopted by gay bars of the same period all around the world. An illustration of one such bar in LA shows a very ordinary building that has been converted to its current use by painting over the entire exterior regardless of the details, windows and all. ‘Often the role of architecture is to suggest one thing, such as propriety, in order that the opposite − passion, danger, transgression − can happen.’
Apparently architecture sometimes needs to be subdued to fulfil its subversive function as told by his elaborate exposé of Adolf Loos’s libidinous undercurrent in his striving to eradicate ornament. ‘The relationship of sexuality and space shows another truth about architecture, that it is usually made by one, quite specialised group of people, on behalf of another, more general one. Their desires make it, and our desires inhabit it.’In the greater quest for a balance between modernity and humanity, Moore moves deftly on to matters of power and freedom.
Those of us who work in the field of architecture often find it hard to reconcile our hopes for a project with those of a client. Moore knows that compromise is the name of the game and architects are frequently willing to sell themselves at any price. There follows a roll call of big names that have offered themselves up to the worst kind of opportunism, and flirted with power however corrupt or totalitarian. Baron Haussmann drove his boulevards through Paris on behalf of the Emperor Napoleon III.
Moore reports that, turned down in an attempt to work for the Viennese architect Otto Wagner, Hitler went on to design the Third Reich. Le Corbusier courted the collaborationist Vichy regime.Many contemporary architects are trapped in a cycle of power and money, and subjected to his twist on the old adage, ‘Form follows Finance’, achieve undeniably mixed results.
When Moore was director of the Architecture Foundation, the Zaha Hadid design for its permanent home was eventually killed off by the overbearing commercial logic of the developer. Then the ongoing saga of the World Trade Center in New York reveals a trail of grandiose aspirations that could never successfully combat the economic interests of the site’s landowners. The hopes of architect, developer and public alike are rarely fulfilled simultaneously. Architecture, he argues, is not just the product of economics or the dreams of the architect, but the result of a collusion of forces that directly contradict any real sense of quality.
From another angle on ‘form’, all architects come under the cosh. ‘The importance of the look and shape of buildings is usually exaggerated. Architects expect magic to come from form, but form alone does not mean much if separated from light, scale, making, context and time.’ Most architects, I think, would sign up to pretty much the same spread. He continues − and let’s not forget he trained as an architect − ‘Form is an implement among several. It isn’t wholly unlike the forms of language, of sentences, words, and verse, in that it is significant, but not on its own. It requires interaction with, for example, sense, sensuality, and use. With life, that is, and architecture obsessed with form tends to deny life.’
In a sense I agree − architecture should be (but often isn’t) like writing, in its mix of clarity and evocation, and the need to mesh these imperceptibly into one coherent voice. Antidotes to these sins − examples of freedom that are not purely based on form − are captured in the loosely defined, non-designed Place Jamaa el Fna in Marrakesh, and locally-led initiatives like the High Line park in New York or the Cineroleum pop-up cinema in Clerkenwell, London. In this vein he highlights the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi as though she has only recently been discovered. On her Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) he eulogises: ‘If architecture is the mineral interval between multiple thoughts and actions, MASP is an outstanding example. It is a frame for life.’ Perhaps he identifies with her fusion of Modernist gesture and humane understatement.
Surprisingly there is no comparison here to the London collective Muf, whose work in public spaces in London is often so sensitive as to be almost invisible; rather his quintessential example turns out to be another one of Bo Bardi’s projects, the multiple arts and sports community complex, SESC Pompéia, to which he justifiably dedicates virtually an entire chapter. Success lies in its programme having been derived from listening to the ideas of ordinary people; its deep sense of humanity is present in every stone.
It may be no coincidence that several of his positive examples are transformations of existing structures. Appropriation of the defunct is a well-worn architectural trope (and an enduring strategy of my own). The Cineroleum (ex-filling station), SESC (ex-factory) and the High Line (ex-railway line) all derive considerable meaning from reconfiguring stereotypes. The strategy gives narrative depth to a new permutation, and emphasises the fact that the urban landscape constantly evolves.
Summarising, he asserts ‘Architecture does not act alone, but in combination with whatever is around it.’ This epiphany could have been an editorial in Wallpaper magazine (‘the stuff that surrounds you’). The fact that he reaches these conclusions as a result of years of critiquing architecture as a journalist I find surprising (I recall similar realisations in my first term at the AA). Which poses the question as to who this book is really for; students and professionals are likely to read it as a stream of anecdotal musings, whereas to the interested layperson it may sound as though it’s written in archi-speak.
A glaring omission is the more avant-garde line of enquiry into ‘why we build’. There is no mention of the likes of Archigram and Archizoom, two among a parade of radical groups who held the subject up to artistic, anthropological and semiotic examination as well as to its politics. They had much to say on the subject precisely because they kept building at arm’s length despite considering themselves architects.
This thread of architectural discourse may not be relevant to this writer because it crops up rarely in the review pages of ‘quality’ newspapers, which largely stick to the latest buildings. Throughout history, architects have attempted to overturn all that went before them, and express their ideas in endless treatises and manifestoes, from Vitruvius to Koolhaas, purporting to speak the truth. Perhaps the artist whose drawing wraps around this book detects an almost suicidal tendency in all attempts to vocalise the urge to build; if you zoom in closely, tiny ant-sized people are walking on a promenade high on the roof of Edifício Copan. Some are safely strolling behind a balustrade, but others are perilously standing on the ledge that sweeps around the top of the building nearly 40 storeys up. A step too far and they will plummet towards the banality of the lesser buildings below them. Or end up as decoration on a Fornasetti teacup.
Why We Build
Author: Rowan Moore