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Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture

Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture

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by Rowan Moore

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In an era of brash, expensive, provocative new buildings, a prominent critic argues that emotions—such as hope, power, sex, and our changing relationship to the idea of home—are the most powerful force behind architecture, yesterday and (especially) today.

We are living in the most dramatic period in architectural history in more than half a


In an era of brash, expensive, provocative new buildings, a prominent critic argues that emotions—such as hope, power, sex, and our changing relationship to the idea of home—are the most powerful force behind architecture, yesterday and (especially) today.

We are living in the most dramatic period in architectural history in more than half a century: a time when cityscapes are being redrawn on a yearly basis, architects are testing the very idea of what a building is, and whole cities are being invented overnight in exotic locales or here in the United States.

Now, in a bold and wide-ranging new work, Rowan Moore—former director of the Architecture Foundation, now the architecture critic for The Observer—explores the reasons behind these changes in our built environment, and how they in turn are changing the way we live in the world. Taking as his starting point dramatic examples such as the High Line in New York City and the outrageous island experiment of Dubai, Moore then reaches far and wide: back in time to explore the Covent Garden brothels of eighteenth-century London and the fetishistic minimalism of Adolf Loos; across the world to assess a software magnate’s grandiose mansion in Atlanta and Daniel Libeskind’s failed design for the World Trade Center site; and finally to the deeply naturalistic work of Lina Bo Bardi, whom he celebrates as the most underrated architect of the modern era.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Most recently the architecture critic for the Observer (London), Moore (Building Tate Modern: Herzog & De Meuron) leads the reader on an eclectic and far-ranging tour of the history of architecture. Along the way, he demonstrates a keen understanding of architecture and history by interweaving contemplations of design, form, and function—from ancient Rome to cathedrals of the European Middle Ages to the Louvre, and Soviet-era buildings. Moore even compares the functionality of two unique Massachusetts Institution of Technology buildings built 40 years apart and with significantly different impacts upon the users of these structures. A trained architect, the author explores the relationship between the act of building and the human condition over many centuries, infusing architectural design and construction with the wide variety of emotions resident in those who have designed lasting edifices. Through Moore's eyes, one sees that buildings survive beyond the days of their designers, builders, and residents and that architecture is not simply a synthesis of reason and function but an expression of human desire. VERDICT An excellent in-depth study of the connection between human feeling and desire in the design of magnificent buildings that affect entire societies and civilizations, this title will appeal most to academic readers and to serious students of architectural history.—John Creech, Central Washington Univ. Lib., Ellensburg
Publishers Weekly
Architecture is about activated emotion and desire, argues Observer architecture critic Moore in this wide-ranging, informative, and impassioned narrative of why architecture is fascinating, unstable, and a necessary poetry of the everyday. The book’s aim, he argues, is not to “instruct” but to reveal the actual intent behind building so as to correct what Moore defines as the central failure of development and architecture: disguising emotional choices as practical ones. Structuring his narrative thematically, Moore begins his lively account with the subject of desire, taking contemporary architectural forms in Dubai as his central example, a city whose mythology, he suggests, was created before the city itself came into existence, where buildings’ functionalities are subservient to illusion and speculation. Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi’s Glass House also exemplifies the dreamlike and poetic qualities that Dubai developers insist their buildings embody. Moore’s other themes are equally grand: architecture as persuasion, propaganda, and power; building as a sometimes deceptive and hopeful vision of the future; the relationship between building, financial value, and social values; architecture, death, and the eternal. Moore’s deftly chosen and analyzed examples range from Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano and Jamaa el Fna “square” in Marrakesh to Manhattan’s High Line. This is a highly engaging if at times overbroad vision of architecture’s emotive and pragmatic powers. B&w photos throughout. (Sept.)
Wall Street Journal
“A vivid account. . . Stimulat[es] the reader.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Rowan Moore. . . can build: He is trained in the craft himself. He also knows how to write descriptively and deliciously. . . An engaging, joyous read. . . Moore’s writing is lithe and sensual. . . His delight in the subject is everywhere and infectious.”
The Spectator
“Thoughtful and elegantly written, Why We Build will appeal to anyone with an interest in architecture, and the egos, power struggles and human relationships behind the creation of our surroundings.”
The Independent
“Intelligent and cultured... Astringent and subtle.”
Sunday Telegraph
“With unfailingly fresh insight. Moore decrypts the ideological narratives of buildings with the same fluency he brings to bear on materials, forms and spaces: today’s architectural criticism rarely seems so humane or intelligent.”
Literary Review
“A fascinating work of love, intellectual curiosity and endurance…Suggest[s] the possibility of a more grown-up and subtle way of thinking about our architecture.
Building Design
“Supremely ambitious…[Moore] writes with economy, clarity and wit. The prospect of 400 pages in his presence is not an unhappy one.”
Frank Gehry
“Studious and serious, with meaningful insights on where we are going in the future. . . . In today’s world of flip journalism, Rowan Moore is refreshing.”
New York Review of Books
“[A] lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking new book . . . . Devastatingly funny if deeply disturbing. . . . No other newspaper architecture critic [is] as sharp an assessor of the built environment as Moore.”
Kirkus Reviews
A voracious exploration of emotion as part of the creation and evolution of architecture. There are times in reading this book when Observer architecture critic Moore seems breathless, so unstoppable is his hunger to get at the soul of the building process. Architecture is desire, he writes; it "is not a thing of pure reason or function, but is shaped by human emotions...and shapes them." Buildings, said the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, "act not alone, but reciprocally with the people and things around them, that they have to be open to chance, time, and life." Moore gracefully draws out when architecture enables other events and experiences to happen, and he explains how a city can contain multiple versions of itself. The "collective marvel" of a city is not, ultimately, the work of great architects, but the creation of "property developers in pursuit of their self-interest, real or perceived." The author also shows readers the flamboyance and sheer brilliance of Zaha Hadid and a worshipful company of celebrity architects--heart-stopping in their vision one second, then indulging in the post-9/11 "carnival of bitch-slapping and back-stabbing, of name-calling, pretention, manipulation, and posturing." Still, Moore supplies many exhilarating examples of architecture, from the wild exuberancy of Dubai to Prague's Muller House by Adolf Loos, from the Moscow Metro to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, and how they--and many more--all have shaped lives in profound ways as both symbol and instrument. The dozens of included photos are also helpful. Form, light, scale, context, time--architecture, Moore ably shows, has the power to represent deep, abiding hope.

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Read an Excerpt

Why We Build


HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 LOUISE AMOORE
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-227753-4

A helicopter flew through the desert air, evoking, as such machines
do, attack: marines, Desert Storm, Francis Ford Coppola, ‘The
Ride of the Valkyries’, the smell of napalm in the morning. Here it
had a more pacific purpose. Hung from its muttering blades was a
capsule of journalists, imported to admire the works of His High-
ness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
Below were the Sheikh’s achievements. There was the famous
Palm Jumeirah island, where Dutch engineers had been imported
to create 110 kilometres of new beach, carrying eight thousand
valuable homes and over thirty hotels. Using skills earned in their
country’s centuries-long resistance to the sea, the Sheikh had
invited them to go on the offensive, carving out of the ancestral
adversary a giant inhabitable logo of trunk and fronds that would
become world-famous before it was built. There were scatterings
and bunchings of towers. There was the biggest shopping mall in
the Middle East, and a newer one about to surpass it. There was
the Burj Dubai, the tallest structure in the world and still rising,
slipping on its sheath of stainless steel like a snake reversing into
its skin. The flying journalists were being taken to see the site
of the Harbour Tower, which would be yet bigger than the Burj

Dubai, as was dutifully reported in Western newspapers in the fol-
lowing days.
What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the
drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks,
whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the
road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not
kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some
painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in
the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload. (And I, though
unable to take up the invitation I was offered on the helicopter
ride, did get to see this turgid caravan.)
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo
at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged
straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his
business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the
bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings
and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling
the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties
for miscreant drivers.
Both helicopter ride and sewage crisis occurred in October
2008, and the combination of celestial fantasy and chthonic reality
revealed a city on a cusp. Before that month journalists and trendy
architects had been lining up to feed on the flow of amazing-but-
true tales of construction that the Emirate released at a steady
rate, interrupted only by mutterings from the liberal press about
the conditions of migrant workers. Afterwards equally juicy but
less welcome headlines were generated: abandoned building proj-
ects; Donald Trump pulling out; and out-of-work expats leaving
their Ferraris in the airport car park, keys in the ignition, fleeing
Dubai for ever because they could not keep up the payments on the
loan. Nakheel, developers of the Palm and the proposed Harbour
Tower, laid off hundreds of staff.
In November a party was held to celebrate the opening of
the Atlantis Hotel, at the tip of the Palm, a $1.5 billion work of
tree-trunk columns and writhing chandeliers, a Blofeltian phan-
tasmagoria of giant aquaria and rooms with views of sharks,


Excerpted from Why We Build by LOUISE AMOORE. Copyright © 2013 LOUISE AMOORE. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rowan Moore is the architecture critic for The Observer (London); he previously held the same post for The Evening Standard. From 2002 to 2008 he was the director of the Architecture Foundation. In 2013, he was named Critic of the Year by the Society of Editors (UK). A trained architect himself, he lives in London.

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Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago