The Insolence of Architecture

A letter from Martin Filler, published August 25, 2014, appears at this end of this article. The text has also been altered.
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Jumanah el-Heloueh/Reuters
Palm Jumeirah island, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008

Rarely do architecture writers convey a sense of place with the observational acuity, physical immediacy, and (on occasion) moral outrage of the British journalist Rowan Moore. Since the turn of the millennium, Moore—a Cambridge University—trained architect and younger brother of Charles Moore, the newspaper and Spectator editor and Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biographer—has been the architecture correspondent for The Evening Standard, then the director of the London-based Architecture Foundation, and is now the architecture critic of The Observer. Michael Sorkin burned up the pages of New York’s Village Voice in the 1980s with his tirades against Philip Johnson, Paul Goldberger, and other voices of the architecture establishment. Since then no other newspaper architecture critic has been as sharp an assessor of the built environment as Moore and as rueful an evaluator of the ever-increasing commercialism and pointless exhibitionism that dominate contemporary construction.

Moore begins his lively, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking new book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, with a devastatingly funny if deeply disturbing set piece that finds him in a helicopter hovering over the architectural theme park that is Dubai, the oil-poor Arab emirate determined to use flamboyant urban development to “brand” itself as a desirable destination for investors and tourists, and thereby to become a global economic powerhouse on the order of Singapore. Although Moore invokes Francis Ford Coppola’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Apocalypse Now, his eye for the grotesque detail reminds me more of the opening of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Christ suspended from a chopper hovers over the Vatican, with arms outstretched in seeming benediction.

The aerial sortie Moore describes so vividly was part of a press trip held in October 2008 (a month after the international market meltdown) to celebrate the opening of Dubai’s $1.5 billion Atlantis Hotel, a promotional event that Moore says cost nearly $22 million, or almost $11,000 for each of the two thousand guests. Profligate though that may seem, I’d wager that at least as much was spent per person for Moore and me on the two occasions when our paths have crossed: first, on a jaunt in 2000 paid for by Santiago Calatrava to see his work in three European cities, and, nine years later, the Greek government’s weeklong extravaganza to mark the opening of Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum in Athens. The latter boondoggle was so lavish that some attendees later joked that following the ruinously expensive 2004 Athens Olympics, our blowout was what propelled Greece’s already shaky economy into the abyss.

Neither Moore nor I have any compunction about biting the hands that feed us, as his corrosive documentation of the Dubai bacchanal corroborates. In my case, I wrote a less-than-appreciative assessment of Calatrava after that otherwise enjoyable journey, which caused the chagrined architect to complain to the New York public relations firm that …

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