Design and the desire to dream up the world

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

ARCHITECTURE:Why We Build, By Rowan Moore, Picador 2012, 304pp. £20

YOU HAVE TO cut your way through quite a number of entertainingly unequal comparisons to get to the core of Rowan Moore’s rhetorical questioning of the moral purposes of architecture. Most of the chapters of Why We Build seem to start out with sceptical irony. Is this an effort to cover his tracks, so as not to show the slip of his sincerity? He follows with many cautionary stories of folly, of silly swagger leading to humiliating fall, of vanity and vulgar excess. We are reminded that Moore is not only an architect by training but also a seasoned journalist.

Architecture, as it is sympathetically defined in this book, is not merely the design of buildings; it is also the making of spaces. Space is shaped by human experience. It includes landscape, interiors and stage sets. It can be found in fiction and cinema, in images as well as in reality. Architecture, writes Moore, starts with the desire to dream up the world.

The recurring heroine of the story is Lina Bo Bardi, an exotic figure who released a libertine variation of Italian modernism into South America after the second World War. Moore admires how she built poetically personal and polemically public projects in the new political landscape of postwar Brazil. Her life reads as an adventurous exploration of the reciprocal relationship of human culture with the activity of architectural design.

Moore is rightly cynical about the so-called icon building, of the use of building “as PR, as boosterism”, of the abuse of architecture as shallow symbol of state or private propaganda. With these distractions smartly dismissed, he moves on to more subtle musings on the constant need for architecture to be completed by something outside itself. He develops a fluently rolling definition of the fluctuating role of works of architecture in the world. Made with real materials, built with human effort, inhabited over time and accepting of changes in use, “buildings seemingly so fixed” are always in motion.

Architecture is completed only by existential negotiation between people and time, until the building becomes part of the background of our lives. “Buildings can change the physical and social experience of things they serve.” And sometimes they can do this discreetly and, so to speak, silently. Wittgenstein is quoted on how the plain brick architecture of Merrion Square in Dublin “has the good taste to know that it has nothing to say”.

“The Inconstant Horizon, or Notes on the Erotic in Architecture” is a strangely extended chapter essay on space and sexuality. Moore suggests that masculine potency anxieties are to be found reflected in the compositional principles of classical and modernist architecture. At the centre of this dubious detour we find the following startling sentence: “Most of the celebrated architects I have met, at least those of them who are men, have a conquistadorial sexuality.” Well, I must have been moving too long in the wrong circles.

There is also the sorry story of a Great Work gone wrong, Zaha Hadid’s unbuilt design for the Architectural Foundation in London, with the author as the keen but powerless client who is brought to grief by market forces and the unreliable advice of cost consultants. One day, when the building budget is once again in crisis, a white-and-gold handbag is delivered by hand to Moore’s office, shortly followed by the chauffeured arrival of Hadid herself, “rejoining her handbag”. She is offering to withdraw, to fall on her sword to save the project. “They don’t want me,” she says in her gravelly voice.

At the end of this saga, Moore resigns from his position as director of the foundation and all well-intentioned hope for the project goes up in smoke. He reflects regretfully that perhaps he too fell victim to the distractions of icon-making fashion.

The book gets into its stride with a sustained critique by the writer as witness to the boomtown economics of London’s recent developments. He shows how the building activities of well-known architects have sometimes contradicted their stated social aspirations, how a radical look has become more important than any substantial change in reality. He challenges the complacency of current school-building policy, the false promises of the “compact city”, the hollow platitudes of “conversation pits” and empty piazzas.

He chastises architects for fighting like bantam cocks over who is to get in earliest with their uniformly unready replacements for the World Trade Center, too soon after 9/11.

He moves on to praise the successful strategy of provocative conservation, landscape ecology and civic activism that led to the beautiful urban strolling ground of the High Line in New York. Between his commentary on topical issues of urbanism and complex questions of architectural expression, the book comes back time and again to Bo Bardi and Brazil. Her career culminates in the cultural and social centre known as Sesc Pompéia, completed in 1986. An apparently impromptu assemblage of found and novel components, including a theatre, a sports arena, a library and a downtown boardwalk, this is an amazing work that seems to effortlessly embody the rhythms of São Paolo street life.

Open-ended projects, such as the New York High Line and Bo Bardi’s buildings in Brazil, best exemplify what Moore means to say about architecture being completed by life. He intends his book to have some useful effect. We build because we have to. Society, he writes, needs some kind of armature for existence. One worthwhile moral of this elegantly written meditation on why we build is that when we build, even though we must make space for the specific requirements of functional brief and available budget, we should be sure to leave room for chance, for change, for habitation to happen.


Riba Stirling Prize 2012

About the reviewerJohn Tuomey is professor of architectural design at University College Dublin and director of O’Donnell + Tuomey, whose design for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast (below) is shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. The winner will be announced this evening

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