Why We Build by Rowan Moore
Why We Build
Picador, 416pp, £20
Rowan Moore’s analysis of building through the ages delivers best when it comes to recent office gossip
The “we” in the title of Why We Build is the big We — all of us, all of humanity, unbounded by place, culture or time. Rowan Moore’s book has scope all right, hopping nimbly from the Soane Museum to Surinamese immigrants in a Dutch suburb in the space of a few pages, looking in on Inuits along the way. It runs through the canon from the Parthenon to OMA.
Moore’s theme is also supremely ambitious: a study of the motives for architecture. This is a book of vignettes, full of the tales of some remarkable buildings, and the men and women who ordered and designed them. Moore is the architecture critic at the Observer, and writes with economy, clarity and wit. The prospect of 400 pages in his presence is not an unhappy one.
At first, though, Why We Build struggles to be distinctive. It kicks off, with glittering cliché, in Dubai. We reach the familiar salons of the Soane about 40 pages in. At this stage, the book looks a bit like a bag salad. There’s nothing wrong with bag salads. They’re rinsed and cut and packaged for bulk sale. The stuff in the bag is tasty and good for you. But they are all much alike.
With its interest in the emotions behind architecture, Why We Build is on similar ground to Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. Dealing with powerful clients and the architects who indulge them, it sometimes resembles Deyan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex. As a writer, Moore can hold his head up high in that company, but the book has to work hard to stand out among other pop-arch offerings.
So why do we build? The answers are multifaceted and kinked. Each chapter deals very loosely with a different area of motivation, such as making a home or making a mark on time.
Moore is amusing and learned in his historical sketches, which cover everything from the laying out of Covent Garden to Bruno Taut’s 1917 scheme to fill the Alps with glass palaces. Even treading the well-worn routes around the Soane and the Farnsworth, he lets in some fresh air.
Moore’s pen noticeably quickens, and so does the reader’s pulse, when dealing with recent projects in nearby places. Why We Build is full of gossip, discussing at one point the “conquistadorial sexuality” of celebrated architects. And he is at his best describing the tortured manner in which some recent buildings came about. The chapter on the World Trade Center, “a chronicle of the uses and misuses of hope”, is the best bit of sustained polemic in the book.
For drama, nothing tops his account of his personal brush with landmark architecture: the doomed effort to build Zaha Hadid’s home for the Architecture Foundation while he was its director. We learn the nicknames for juniors in the Hadid office.
Reporters from weekly architectural magazines are “Parasites… pallid and goggling like creatures of the lightless deep ocean”.
Even as a client (although not, fatally, the one paying the bill), Moore claims to have been powerless as contractors, architects and funders squabbled: “Nothing made sense. What plots, what politics were going on? I was waking in the small hours, baffled and paranoid.”
Where the book succeeds is in passages like those: descriptions of how we build, not why. The why is a bit baggy. It’s the how, when the desire meets reality, that is the best story.
Why We Build is full of those stories, and Moore tells them with sparkle and panache.