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 organized it. “We promised you articles,” the publicist coolly told the architect, “not raves.”
The need for architecture writers to see in person the buildings they write about adds a further degree of potential corruption to the architect/client/critic triad. As the budgets of print outlets have shriveled in recent years, subsidy for travel by the subjects of articles is increasingly hard for publications to resist. Some news organizations still strictly prohibit such freebies, but anecdotal evidence indicates that all manner of end runs are used to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Many journalists get to their destinations by any means possible.
Moore’s helicopter ride was laid on to give him and his fellow journalists an impressive view of one of Dubai’s more ambitious undertakings, Palm Jumeirah island, a development of expensive private houses erected on an artificial coastal land formation in the stylized shape of a palm tree, with water inlets forming the spaces between the sandy “fronds.” (This marvel of environmental madness was executed by Dutch land reclamation engineers experienced in building up the North Sea polders of the Low Countries.)
But as Moore points out—and as is true of all diagrammatic architecture, from Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s unexecuted House of Pleasure (a brothel with a floor plan shaped like a penis and testicles, proposed for his French ideal city of Chaux in the eighteenth century) to, closer to our own day, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.—such graphic outlines may be clear on paper or from an overhead vantage point, but are hard to see when viewed head-on. In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:
The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.
Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:
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….
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.
Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.
In one of the most absorbing portions of Why We Build, Moore relates his complicated experiences with Hadid, not as a critic but as a patron, in his capacity as director, from 2002 to 2008, of the Architecture Foundation, which terms itself “a non-profit agency for contemporary architecture, urbanism and culture.” He clearly has a soft spot for the hard-hearted Hadid, and his forbearance seems all the more extraordinary in light of the low tolerance he displays elsewhere in this book for the games architects play.
Understandably—though in hindsight doubtless ill-advisedly—the Architecture Foundation felt it necessary to be housed not in the sort of recycled industrial building that has become standard for modern arts organizations around the world, but instead in a new structure created by an internationally recognized architect. Hadid’s having lost out on a remarkable series of unexecuted schemes in Britain was considered something of a national scandal by some. Thus she became an obvious choice for a group that wanted its headquarters to serve not just as an administrative base and exhibition center, but as a high-profile advertisement for its role as champion of advanced design.
Extraordinary hype has surrounded Hadid since the outset of her career. She leapt to international attention in 1983 with her competition-winning scheme for the Peak, a mixed-use private club and apartment development in Hong Kong that was never built. She presented this startlingly unconventional proposal, which looks like a random pile-up of angular glass shards, in a dramatic large-scale painting that resembled a Futurist composition but conveyed scant information about the project’s structure or function. This established the template for her subsequent work, in which, as one writer put it, all of her designs inevitably come to a point (a literal, if many times not an intelligible, one).
When she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, in 2004, Hadid had completed only five structures, by far the smallest number of any of the award’s recipients before or since (and in contradiction of the prior convention that candidates have at least ten finished buildings to their credit). Perhaps the Pritzker jury was swayed by the wildly excessive press coverage she attracted, none more so than Herbert Muschamp’s preposterous assertion, in a 2003 New York Times review of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, that this poorly conceived and questionably executed structure “is the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.” (This must have come as a surprise to Muschamp’s good friend Frank Gehry, whose widely acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles opened that same year.)
Profiles of Hadid routinely cite her imperious behavior, which she seems to exhibit with particular satisfaction when writers are around. Several articles begin with her keeping the interviewer waiting an annoyingly long time; move on to the architect throwing a tantrum, often at the expense of some hapless underling, in full sight of her visitor; and include a litany of Hadid’s complaints about how she is misperceived, insisting that no one would call her a “diva” if she were a man.
Moore’s portrait of the lady begins with an amusing twist, told in tones that bring to mind Tom Wolfe in his New Journalism heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. Seated in Hadid’s London office, the critic learns of her impending arrival when a flunky arrives with the architect’s large designer handbag—“white and gold and tsarist, Fabergé in its intensity of ornament, but also futurist”—shortly before his subject emerges from “a pearly Chrysler Voyager. She has just been driven from her airy, all-white rooftop flat, two hundred yards away.”
According to Moore, Hadid is also in the habit, like George W. Bush, of conferring rather unpleasant nicknames on associates. Though ostensibly jovial, this power play sounds demeaning. Instead of Bush’s “Turd Blossom” for Karl Rove (fitting though this appellation might seem to some), Moore reports that Hadid called him “Raw Man,” until—when she heard a Chinese assistant switch the r’s and l’s—she fine-tuned it to “Low Man.” She dubbed a well-connected if obsequious British architectural functionary “Licky,” and branded one of her employees “Clinton”—“for reasons that might be something to do with interns,” or so Moore surmises.
Hadid comes by her commanding manner honestly. Born in Baghdad in 1950, she is the only daughter of the wealthy Iraqi industrialist and politician Mohammed Hadid (1907–1999), who during her childhood headed the leftist opposition National Democratic Party, which had been formed in 1946 in emulation of Britain’s Labour Party. He became finance minister in the republican government that followed the assassination of King Faisal II in 1958, and according to his obituary in The Independent,
He was also controversial—accused by some of compromising his socialist ideals after the downfall of the monarchy in July 1958, defended by others as a pragmatist who could accept that Iraq’s quest for a liberal democracy must involve sacrifices to the grim realities of Iraqi public life…. People argued over his attempts to square the desirable with the possible.
Zaha Hadid was one of Rem Koolhaas’s star pupils at London’s Architectural Association in the 1970s, and apart from emulating his go-for-broke approach to design—though lacking his unparalleled inventiveness—she learned much from him, not least how to project an air of authority through personal presentation and professional demeanor. In 1988, she was the only woman among seven architects (among them Koolhaas) included in “Deconstructivist Architecture,” a highly anticipated Museum of Modern Art exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. In the twilight of Postmodern design, Johnson and Wigley posited Deconstructivism as the next big thing. The term is a word play that refers both to the fragmented-looking architecture of the Russian Constructivists and to deconstruction, the form of philosophical and literary analysis advanced by Jacques Derrida, whose ideas gained currency among architectural theorists.
One tenet of the Koolhaas/Hadid modus operandi is not to appear overeager for a job, even while angling to secure it. Studied insolence has been known to excite powerful patrons not otherwise accustomed to such behavior, a technique perfected by Johnson, an incomparable master of such psychological manipulation, and it has been exploited with scarcely less reward by both the former A.A. teacher and his most famous student.
Thus Moore quotes Hadid as telling him at the meeting in her office, “You need your building. They won’t let it happen with me. You should get somebody else.” In this case, however her demurral was no mere ploy to whet a client’s appetite. As Moore notes in this chapter, “Form Follows Finance,” the projected cost of the Architecture Foundation headquarters she had designed ballooned from nearly $4 million to almost $14 million and showed “no sure sign of stopping there.”
It must be said that $4 million seems almost laughably inadequate for an experimental showpiece of the sort Hadid specializes in. Furthermore, construction estimates for innovative designs are often inaccurate, as contractors eager to land a contract might not adequately calculate workmanship they are unfamiliar with. However, certain architects often exceed their clients’ budgets, especially Calatrava, whose frequent cost overruns were the subject of a damaging front-page New York Times article last year.1
If the initial imperative of the architect, as Daniel Burnham famously put it, is “Get the job,” then for an institutional patron without resources it must be “Get the site.” Moore
knew of a sliver of land on a large development planned near Tate Modern, designated for cultural use. I contacted the company behind the development [and]…we worked out a deal, whereby Land Secs (as [Land Securities] is known) would build the building, and the Foundation would lease it at a low rent.
Moore was delighted by Hadid’s being chosen over two hundred other competitors, though he does not explain the jury dynamics that led to that decision, or his part, if any, in it. But like countless other architects, the winner attempted to turn the commission into something the client had not intended. (Daniel Libeskind’s transformation of Berlin’s Jewish Museum from a tribute to the cultural contributions of that city’s Jews into a kind of Holocaust memorial is a prime example.) “We were now in the monument-building business,” Moore writes of the design Hadid presented in 2004, “pursuing something that would be effortful and demanding.”
As the enterprise proceeded, the initially accommodating property developer sensed approaching disaster and insisted on taking over control from Hadid’s office, which she reluctantly but pragmatically agreed to. It is here in Moore’s narrative that his switch from critic to client shows most tellingly:
Like weakened bodies, the project attracted parasites, in the form of reporters from weekly architectural magazines. These people, pallid and goggling like creatures of the lightless deep ocean, would call up with a catch of concern in their voice that failed to hide their delight at having a career-enhancing piece of bad news in their hands.
One can sympathize with Moore’s frustration as this idealistic quest spun out of control, but his animus against investigative coprofessionals seems wholly misplaced. In any event, Hadid was prevailed upon to come up with a second, presumably more economical scheme in 2006, yet somehow it would have cost scarcely less than her first version. (This is not uncommon in architecture, where delays of several years can increase estimates simply by general inflation.) Moore’s ameliorative maneuvers failed, and the financial crash of 2008 ended both the building project and his tenure at the Architecture Foundation.
In an attempt to justify this well- intentioned fiasco, Moore cites what he calls “the Price to be Paid for Art”—the validity of large sums spent on a masterpiece for the ages. He mentions such budget-breaking examples as Andrea Palladio’s Chiesa del Redentore in Venice, Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà in Barcelona, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, though his implication that Hadid’s Architecture Foundation design comes anywhere close to those canonical antecedents is ludicrous.
The trap Moore fell into is all too understandable to other architecture writers. The overwhelming awfulness of most construction in any period, not just our own, can lead one to err in one’s positive assessments. For rather than hating most of what is built—an easy enough recourse today—a critic’s credibility is bolstered by enthusing over something every once in a while. Looking back over the hundreds of buildings I have praised and panned over the past four decades, I now feel I should have been far more critical of many of them. But the ability to actually shape architecture rather than merely comment on it is an understandable temptation to a writer, particularly one schooled as an architect, as Moore has been.
The Hadid episode festers at the center of his otherwise lively and freewheeling survey of contemporary architecture like a wound that will not heal. Moore convincingly reserves his highest regard for the recently rediscovered twentieth-century Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, whose socially responsive, antimonumental architecture is the antithesis of the self-indulgent solipsism and crushing grandiosity that typify Hadid’s work.2
The surrounding chapters careen from one apparently far-fetched but nonetheless related theme to the next. In a section titled “The True Fake,” Moore examines the conundrum inherent in the fact that “it is possible for a building to look as if it is doing something when it is not, or is even obstructing its apparent aim.”
To make his point, he segues with exceptional finesse from the high-tech architecture of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (often showier about structural apparatus than necessary); to the grandiloquent bogusness of Stalinist Classicism in the Soviet Union (a retreat into decorative sham of the sort supposedly annulled by Modernism); then on to the eighteenth-century French visionaries Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Jean-Jacques Lequeu (masters of architecture parlante, which putatively “spoke” of its function but often did so rather comically, as with Lequeu’s cowshed in the shape of a gigantic bovine). He goes on to the theatrical Rococo churches of the Bavarian Asam brothers (who put Catholic religious devotion within the fanciful visual setting of the emergent medium of opera); finally ending up with John Ruskin’s “‘Lamp of Truth,’ which meant honestly revealing the materials and techniques with which a building was made, from which beauty would follow.” Throughout, Moore carries off these daring detours with revelatory panache and convincing argument.
In another chapter, “The Fixed and Wandering Home,” Moore stakes out architecture’s most psychically loaded terrain—the private interior. He begins, as in his Dubai takedown, with a hilarious though horrific account of Dean Gardens, a 32,000- square-foot Atlanta mansion completed in 1992 by a software entrepreneur named Larry Dean, who grew up in a hovel that lacked indoor plumbing. He blew some $43 million on his white trash palace, which he sold in 2010 for $7.6 million. Moore nicely categorizes this revolting stylistic hodgepodge as “clichés of opulence mingled with spasms of student surrealist angst. It was oysters in ketchup, double-fudge-caviar-and-Tabasco ice cream.”
Though such paroxysms of unbridled vulgarity are even more prevalent now than two decades ago, Moore turns to the finest example of high-style domestic escapism to illuminate mankind’s longstanding impulse to make an emotionally sheltering home for oneself in a threatening world. Between 1792 and 1824, John Soane—architect of the Bank of England headquarters (remodeled beyond recognition, starting in the 1920s) and the ever-glorious Dulwich Picture Gallery—combined and converted adjoining Georgian redbrick terrace houses in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields into a personal museum of Egyptian, Classical, and Medieval antiquities that remains an incomparable site of quirky architectural genius and breathtaking spatial invention. Their vast disparities in quality do not prevent Moore from seeing affinities between the two: “Like Dean Gardens [Soane’s] house is a personal cosmos, an image of a world he would have rather had, than the one in which he found himself.”
If the author never quite comes to a conclusion that justifies the title of his scintillating book—a catchy phrase that sounds like a publisher’s marketing department decision—that is of little consequence. What matters most is that Moore is unafraid to raise uncomfortable questions about the practice and ramifications of the building art in a world that seems less cognizant than ever that architecture has profound social effects on those who use it, and pitiless moral consequences for those who bring it into being.
To the Editors:
In my review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture [NYR, June 5], I quoted comments by the architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, when she was asked in London in February 2014 about revelations a week earlier in the Guardian that hundreds of migrant laborers had died while working on construction projects in Qatar. I wrote that an “estimated one thousand laborers…have perished while constructing her project thus far.”
However, work did not begin on the site for the Al Wakrah stadium until two months after Ms. Hadid made those comments; and construction is not scheduled to begin until 2015. There have been no worker deaths on the Al Wakrah project and Ms. Hadid’s comments about Qatar that I quoted in the review had nothing to do with the Al Wakrah site or any of her projects.
I regret the error.
New York City