Agata Pyzik on Rowan Moore’s study of the relationships between emotion, desire and building.

Why We Build
Rowan Moore
Picador, 422pp, £20

Rowan Moore’s book begins with an image that is hard to beat: in his role as architecture critic of the Observer, he is taken by the satraps of Dubai for a helicopter flight over this thrilling yet deeply unsettling city. The excess that Dubai has come to represent – £13m was spent on the opening party alone of the Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah island – has probably been matched only by the Roman Empire. And like the Romans, the Emiratis seemed decadently unaware of what was just round the corner – in their case a 70 per cent collapse in the stock market.

Moore sees a greater meaning in this and, as if responding to those who’d like to see architecture as something purely functional, makes a quasi-antimodernist argument: architecture was, is and will be built partly as a result of our madness, as a folly responding to our desires to change the world according to our visions. The motive may be to demonstrate love for beauty, for money or for power – and all these are reflected in the madness of Dubai, just as Moore shows them reflected in much less spectacular projects elsewhere.

Palm Jumeira and Atlantis Hotel, Dubai (ph: Alamy)

Moore has a particular fascination with the fantastic, and he takes delight in the architecture of human folly. The most inspiring chapters consider fakery in architecture (or the fake that becomes real), spaces for love and lovemaking (or simply the sex trade) and spaces as expressions of power. His survey embraces Piano & Rogers’ Centre Pompidou in Paris, Rogers’ Lloyd’s building in London, Stalinist Moscow’s metro and the remarkable VDNKh All-Russia Exhibition Centre, John Soane’s uncanny house-museum, software billionaire Larry Dean’s 32,000 square foot house Dean Gardens, and a phallic-shaped brothel by Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Moore’s interest is in how buildings can change the city, acknowledging our fascination with power, and how we seem to ‘like the presence of force in a building, as long as we feel it’s not directed at us’.

In chapter four, ‘The inconstant horizon, or notes on the erotic in architecture’, Moore assumes the role of an interested observer, confirming London’s status as a city of vice that surpasses anywhere French. He gently mocks Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, both erotomaniacs in love with dancer Josephine Baker, for their fantasies about women’s sensuality. If Moore’s delicious passages about French neoclassical architecture bathed in eroticism have any predecessors, it is in Anthony Vidler’s Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely or Robert Harbison’s unique Eccentric Spaces and Reflections on Baroque.

Peacock Room, Dean Gardens (ph: Larry Dean)

The great merit of Why We Build is at the same time a problem: Moore doesn’t want to focus on the mediocre. When he does, its only on the larger-than-life relative mediocrity of Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s China Central Television Headquarters, or the 2008 Olympic Stadium, both in Beijing. Despite pointing out the cynicism of the Chinese authorities, who publicly aim at ‘openness’ and internationalism, it’s hard to resist the impression that Moore is sparing us the final word. He wisely resists any over-arching argument that would have turned his book into a diatribe, claiming his purpose is to ‘explain this universal drive to build’. Are we entitled to expect more?

This book is not a manual, it’s rather a formidable investigation, written with grace and charm, into how we build and how we used to build. But there’s little about how we might build in the future. For anyone with an interest in architecture, Moore takes us on a fascinating journey which, in the end, encourages us to read between the lines of his judgement and our own.

Agata Pyzik blogs at Nuits Sans Nuit and is author of a forthcoming book on post-communism from Zero Books.

First published in AT232, October 2012

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