Architecture Misses Charles Moore
Charles Moore—architect, author, academic powerhouse—was born, perhaps fittingly, on Halloween in 1925. Moore was one of the first to receive a Ph.D. in architecture from Princeton, where he taught with Louis Kahn and became great friends with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. He co-wrote perhaps the best book on homes ever published, The Place of Houses, with Donlyn Lyndon and Gerald Allen, and changed the perception of architecture by co-authoring the book Body, Memory, and Architecture with the New Haven architect Kent Bloomer and Buzz Yudell (with whom he later created the California-based firm Moore Ruble Yudell).
Moore taught, and was occasionally dean, at numerous schools of architecture, including UCLA, Berkeley, University of Texas, and Yale. Over four decades of practice he created or partnered in almost a dozen firms across the U.S. His range and building prowess were extraordinary: among his notable residential designs are California’s Sea Ranch, in 1966 (with Lyndon, Allen, Turnbull, Whitaker, and Esherick); the Piazza d’Italia, in New Orleans, in 1975; and his own home in Austin, Texas.
Moore never turned away from controversy—even now, more than 25 years after his passing. When I wrote a piece on his birthday earlier this year, a Facebook commenter, classical architect John Adamson, noted, “Please keep your birthday felicitations. Despite his eclecticism and jokey use of kitsch, Moore could create dull and charmless buildings as much as any other ugliness-addicted Modernist.” Ironically, in the Modernist world that he is accused of abetting, Moore was often dismissed as Postmodern. Before his death in 1993, Moore said, “For years I have been told that there are ‘rational’ architects (good) and ‘irrational’ architects (including me, bad). I have come to suspect that there are imposters in the House of Reason, that the opposite of ‘rational’ is not ‘irrational’ but ‘real.’”
I don’t approach Moore as an architect who mastered the same trifecta that I aspire to—building, writing, and teaching—but as someone who touched my life at a tender time. This was not unusual. As Kevin Keim writes in An Architectural Life, a 1996 book about Moore’s career, “No one travelled as much as Charles Moore … he was an architectural monk, who always longed to escape and seldom stayed in one place longer than two weeks.”
One of those serial trips was to Cornell in 1977. Schools of architecture are small, and fifth-year BArch classes are even smaller. So when the school administrator called to ask me to escort Moore around campus on his visit, she knew that she had chosen well. I was not the typical representative of the school. Yes, I was the school’s Student Senator, but I had flunked a couple of classes on my way to graduating early. I was 22 years old and enjoyed all the overindulgences anyone could have hoped for (and feared).
“We think you and Charlie will get along very well,” the administrator said. That was enough for me. I spent a full day escorting him everywhere, laughing the whole time. Hugh Hardy, his classmate at Princeton, once said of him, “His irreverence was compelling.” After a great day, and his terrific talk, he took me aside. “I want you to contact Buzz Yudell in Los Angeles,” he said. “I am starting a firm there with him, and I want you to be a part of it.” I was thrilled.
I managed to graduate, by a hair, and looked for a job, which meant putting in the call to Yudell, who knew nothing of Charles’ suggestion. Bills mounted; I became a deep-sea fisherman off the coast of New Jersey. My cold calls ceased, but eventually I landed a job in Connecticut. That job, as a project captain for Louis Mackall and Breakfast Woodworks in Branford, meant we often worked for Moore’s Connecticut firm, Moore Grover Harper (today Centerbrook Architects). In 1980, Mark Simon designed a great bar in New Haven, and I ran the job, as it was almost all millwork. When it opened, Mark ran Charlie through the beautiful interior and noted that I had told him that we had met.
“Duo Dickinson!” Moore cried. “I tried to get a hold of him for six months!” Had he succeeded, my life would have been profoundly altered, but I used that reintroduction two years later and received the classically wonderful Moore grace note: he wrote the introduction to my first book, Adding On, in 1983. Unnecessary kindness was a gift that Charles Moore bestowed on any number of people who came into his orbit.
In that introduction for a book on renovations, Moore wrote, “It is really very strange, and not very satisfying to see a perfectly dignified house get tarted up like a middle-aged woman in a disco outfit. With age comes a set of qualities, and dignity is one of the nicer ones. I sometimes wonder with terror what people are going to think of our remodelings, whether they seem like enhancements or flat-out disfigurements.” He went on to praise the work of an unknown, who wrote even less well then than I do now.
“Moore’s innumerable collaborations, academic venues, writings, and buildings reflect this truth: Humanity was his greatest strength, and he saw that strength in others.”
“Charles forever insisted that joy and humor were among the most valuable properties of experience and intelligence,” writes Keim. In a Covid-19 world, humor is lost on everyone, and joy has been lost in architecture for several generations. Moore’s innumerable collaborations, academic venues, writings, and buildings reflect this truth: Humanity was his greatest strength, and he saw that strength in others.
In Moore’s world view, the openness to wider worlds, beyond any personal pedagogy or aesthetic, was the extension of what Keim calls “the benefits of ‘more’ as opposed to ‘less.’” The author calls this “pluralism,” but I know it to be an expression of what makes creativity human.
Architects can forget that making things goes beyond their own idiosyncrasies, that architecture is part of all of our culture. That was Moore’s greatest gift: He loved Soane, Schinkel, and Jefferson, but he created buildings, books, and evenings with hundreds of others. As Keim says, Moore “did not regard architecture as a solitary act; rather, he relied on the energy and participation of everyone involved in the building process.”
I would extend that to the writing and teaching worlds as well. The “both/and” approach to making things needs the confidence of an open mind and a sense of humor. Both are in shortening supply today. Since Moore’s passing, the architectural world has spiraled into a canon that is defined, defendable, even prescriptive in its aesthetic. Our future depends on the humor and irreverence that Moore lived, because the well-worn comforts of intellectual certainty have failed us in recent years.
Charlie Moore embodied the word peripatetic. He partnered with scores of architects, partied with more, and inspired dozens of his partners and hundreds of his students. Always moving, seldom alighting for long, his humor, his impish presence, and his instant creativity are alive today to everyone who knew him. That intensity of delight in exploration and creation found in his words and work is infinitely human, and with me every day.
Featured image courtesy of the Charles Moore Foundation.