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why we build

13 may 2014

Rowan Moore's Why We Build is a theoretical study of architecture, with examples from many historical periods and cultures. It's wide-ranging in terms of topics, and also highly diverse in the way it treats them, from historical exposition to personal narrative. And even its most theoretical sections are highly accessible to the general reader. It would be quite a brief even to attempt a few of those things, but Why We Build is successful at all of them.

Moore's subtitle is "power and desire in architecture." Much of academic cultural studies seems to consist of locating power and desire in fields where we never thought we've find them – to the point where we now expect to see them everywhere. Building really large structures does seem an obvious place to encounter power and desire, however. Yet Moore's insights are not the obvious ones. He looks at temples, tombs, and skyscrapers, sure, but also at private houses, apartment buildings, and community centers. Moore's book starts in the half-imaginary hubris of Dubai and ends in the low-key urban fabric of São Paulo. He prefers the execution of the latter, but he finds the same motives and dynamics at work in both.

One of Moore's guiding themes is that buildings are not just art objects, and not just visual statements. They change as people live in and use them. They engage touch and smell and hearing (though he admits it's difficult to taste a building). Yet lay people and professional architects alike tend to perceive important works of architecture as if they were fixed works in visual media.

In fact, architects often think of an initial conceptual drawing as equivalent to an completed concrete achievement, or possibly better. A central chapter in Why We Build looks at a project Moore was involved in, Zaha Hadid's design for a London center for the Architecture Foundation. Hadid had become "possibly the most famous living architect" (191) on the strength of her "unrealized" designs, some of which verged on the unrealizable. Her dazzlingly angular design for the Architecture Foundation won the competition and then of course was never built. In no other artform does a preliminary conception in a parallel medium count for so much relative to finished work. It's as if humming a few bars of your unwritten symphony or telling your bar buddies about your idea for a novel were enough to make you famous.

Again, that's because we think of buildings as things to look at. Moore reminds us that after they're actually built, they become places to live and work in, to move into and through, to hold lives that spill into adjoining structures and spaces. Buildings make an initial impact, then change: they weather, grow, shrink, are repurposed. The most visionary architecture never stops at the visual. The key projects in Moore's analysis are Lina Bo Bardi's Museu de Arte de São Paulo and her SESC Pompéia, a multipurpose development, also in São Paulo. Both incorporate lots of open, potential space. They blend not just with inanimate surroundings (both architectural and natural) but also with the flow of life through their city. Bo Bardi's work is modernist and functional, but at the same time intensely conscious of how people will inhabit it: or better still, of the many ways an inhabitable potential might be fulfilled.

It's deceptively hard to plan for how people might freely choose to use planned spaces. I work in an awful brick oblong built by the lowest bidder back in 1964. It's hideous, but the individual offices are just empty boxes, and we all personalize them in more-or-less cozy ways. Meanwhile, my university keeps trying to make the concrete-paved areas around the base of the building inviting. They've assembled benches and built a fountain and created a nice expansive sitting area. Unfortunately they forgot to provide any shade, so nobody has ever sat on any of the benches, because it's typically 90° F by the time anybody gets to campus. Instead, people crowd into a shaded, forbidding little box of brick and concrete because (a) it's cool and (b) nobody can see them smoking. I'd call this an unintended consequence if the consequences of design were ever highly intentional. Bo Bardi seems to have made her spaces as open to possibility as possible, realizing that people were going to perversely use them against whatever intentions she expressed.

Moore's governing trope is irony. The organic spaces of Kyoto's Katsura villa and gardens, all mud, wood, and paper, inspired US Secretary of War Henry Stimson to order the city spared from the bombings of the Second World War. The aesthetic of Kyoto later inspired Minoru Yamasaki to design the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. Initially decried as the soulless opposite of something like Katsura, the towers grew on people as they aged and became ubiquitous on the skyline – only to be destroyed from the air by enemies envious of the hubris that was all they could see in them.

Ironies infest architectural intentions, in Moore's analysis. The openness of London's new City Hall, built for the people by unprecedented public/private partnership, has resulted in a squat, opaque structure atop a useless plaza. The insolence of Stalin's monumental metro stations, which look like the most decadent of Tsarist fantasies but were built by the most abject of gulag slaves, are now mellow, homey spaces beloved by Muscovites. The most anti-organic and non-functional of buildings, like Munich's Asamkirche, can turn narrow urban lots into inspiring idealistic interiors.

The most megalomaniac architecture in my vicinity, the home of the Dallas Cowboys that is now known as AT&T Stadium, would seem to reside at the corner of capitalist freeloading and autocratic narcissism. But weirdly enough, once you get inside for an activity, it's a seductively slap-happy place to enjoy yourself. Despite its warrens of tinted-glass pleasure boxes for the obscenely rich and its staggering energy footprint, it's a big public place where fun stuff goes on, with great sightlines, a sense of community and energy despite its capacity of over 100,000, and a fascinating collection of offbeat art on vast scales appreciable only in a venue its size. I've been there for tours and I've been there for football; I've been there for a wacky simulcast of The Barber of Seville from the Dallas Opera, complete with kids crying and opera fans wandering away from their seats to get bratwurst and cheese fries. You just do not know what a building will bring to a community, even when all the signs point in a given direction. Once people get the run of a place, it will surprise you.

Moore, Rowan. Why We Build: Power and desire in architecture. New York: Harper Design [HarperCollins], 2013.