People and personalities

Rowan Moore puts the case for architecture as a setting for people with timely conviction, says Steve Parnell

On 21 May 1957,  John Summerson delivered a lecture at the RIBA entitled ‘The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture’ in which he called for a theory to underpin the rhetoric that had up until that point defined modern architecture. ‘The general character of all this writing is enthusiastic and propagandist,’ he claimed,  ‘The authors start with a belief in the new architecture and write around their beliefs, supporting them by picturesque and forceful analogies.’ Despite Summerson’s call, architecture has remained beholden to personality and propped up on propaganda. In Why We Build, Rowan Moore would agree, noting that ‘in the absence of well-defined rules, opinion counts for much’.

Moore’s underlying thesis is that people make architecture – that architecture is incomplete, or merely ‘building’, without them. Quoting Wittgenstein on the Dublin Georgian terrace having ‘the good taste to know that it has nothing very important to say,’ Moore argues that good architecture should politely sit in the background while people receive the attention in the foreground. In short, people are why we build.

To get his point across, Moore races through a number of themes that ostensibly motivate people, including power, sex and money, each backed up by anecdote and occasional gossip and conjecture. This kind of person-focussed architectural criticism/history mimics what he proposes to be good architecture, and makes for an enjoyable and easy read. But it is not frivolous. The blurb says the book is ‘a provocative and iconoclastic view of what makes architecture’ which only goes to demonstrate that what has become accepted as the norm for architectural writing tends to disregard what we are naturally interested in: people and their stories.

Moore gives no time to the lazy clichés that so easily become a substitute for architectural ‘theory’, set in a notebook, learned and conned by rote by students and architects desperate to justify the value of architecture to clients, the public, each other and themselves. By foregrounding the stories of the architects and clients as much as their buildings, Moore gets behind the picturesque and forceful rhetoric and pops the pompous balloons inflated with the hot air of generations of enthusiastic opinion on what architecture should be. Identifying ‘the mutability of truth in architecture’, he targets the greats: ‘It is not inevitable that architecture should be like this’, he writes of Alberti’s views, ‘They are not immutable or eternal, but made by certain attitudes by certain people at certain times and places.’ With equal elegance, he demolishes the theories that architecture is language, and that ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’.

Moore’s heroine is Lina Bo Bardi, the Italian modernist who went with her new, rich, Fascist-sympathising art critic of a husband after the war for a new life of art and architecture in Brazil. Moore holds up Bo Bardi’s underrated background architecture as exemplary in a world of iconic hubris which he opines as gauche and misguided. But while Bo Bardi’s style of modernism addresses some of Moore’s architectural criticisms, it isn’t an entirely convincing solution to them all and the danger of proposing an alternative approach is that it equally relies on opinion and ‘force of personality’, a characteristic he positively attributes to Bo Bardi. The other section that doesn’t work is the self-justifying chapter explaining why his attempt to build a Zaha Hadid design for the Architecture Foundation failed.

Architectural criticism can be most potent when aimed not at buildings, but at the underlying discourse from which design emerges – the sea in which architects swim. Herein lie the mores that architects imbue, that are instilled and passed on in education, and that can actually influence architectural thought and practice. Moore perhaps feels he should offer some solutions, hence the presence of Bo Bardi, but his strength is in asking questions and this is where Why We Build can be profitably employed to potentially devastating effect. It is a welcome spanner in the works  of the recent rather staged discussion on the alleged crisis in architectural criticism and proves that it is as alive and relevant as ever. n

Steve Parnell is an architect and critic and lecturer in architecture at the University of Nottingham


Why we build

Rowan Moore, Picador, £20