Rowan Moore is the outspoken architectural critic of The Observer, one of the last serious newspapers in Britain—a market increasingly dominated by tawdry tabloids. His commentaries on new buildings can be found on the Web site of The Guardian, a liberal daily owned by the same non-profit trust. In Why We Build, he has stepped back to reflect on a broad swathe of architecture and the forces that shape it.
These 10 essays are written in a deceptively quiet tone. In contrast to Ian Nairn and Reyner Banham—earlier British critics who took a holistic view of architecture—Moore rarely expresses an opinion, which makes his deadpan descriptions of the construction frenzy in Dubai, the vulgarity of a mega-mansion in Atlanta, and a decaying park of Soviet achievement in Moscow all the more damning. He analyses a baroque church in Munich and the Pompidou’s exposed ducts as exercises in set design. He punctures inflated reputations and gently mocks the shameless bragging of dictators and developers. But he recognizes merit in unlikely places: the underrated Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil, the speculative development of West London in the mid-19th century, and Bijlmer, a planned community in Amsterdam, which was widely derided but is now making a comeback. I’ve had the good fortune to see many of the places Moore describes, and I am dazzled by his insights.
What makes Why We Build so engaging is the way Moore leaps from one example to another, finding common threads that link seemingly unrelated projects. And he’s a master of description, as in this recollected encounter: “A handbag is placed on the table in front of me, white and gold and tsarist, Fabergé in its intensity of ornament, but also futurist. By this I know that Zaha Hadid, possibly the most famous living architect, is arriving. The bag-carrying assistant melts away, and as I look out of the first-floor window of the Victorian schoolhouse where she has her office, I see the architect emerge into spring sunshine out of a pearly Chrysler Voyager. She has just been driven from her airy, all white rooftop flat, two hundred yards away.” Moore segues into a self-deprecating account of his unsuccessful effort to realize Hadid’s first building in Britain, an ambitious home for the Architectural Foundation, which he then headed. That provokes a discussion of other costly overruns—from the Casa Mila to a Palladio church in Venice, and how often these are justified by the chance of creating an enduring masterpiece. The chapter is titled “Form Follows Finance” and it embraces a dozen other instances of extravagance, frugality and short-sighted economies.
The breadth and depth of Moore’s commentary are inspiring. Though it’s cheaply produced, the book is well-illustrated and a bargain at the price. One should be grateful that at least one commercial American publisher is still commissioning intelligent books on architecture. It will make be a welcome gift for any thoughtful architect or a friend who wants to understand how the profession works.