Rarely is "Shaping the City" devoted to the significance of a single architect, but Charles W. Moore, one of America's best known designers, is a suitable subject.
The American Institute of Architects recently bestowed upon Moore its 49th gold medal "in recognition of decades of unfailing pursuit of design excellence, education and professionalism." Moore thus joins the AIA's version of a hall of fame; past gold medalists include such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan.
Moore's life has been devoted entirely to the "shaping" of architecture and, equally important, as a teacher and author, to shaping architects and architectural thinking. His influence has been worldwide and long-lasting, and I am one of many who learned from and admired Moore's work.
I first met Charles Moore in a classroom at the University of Utah School of Architecture where I was in training as a Peace Corps volunteer architect, just out of school and on my way to Tunisia in North Africa. Moore had come to talk to us about Islamic architecture, but we knew him best as one of the architects of Sea Ranch, an aggregation of wood-clad, shed-roofed dwellings on the rocky coast of Northern California. Sea Ranch remains one of his most famous projects.
At the time Moore was a partner in the Berkeley-based firm of MLTW and taught at the University of California. In addition to being a teacher and practitioner of architecture, he was also a bona fide architectural historian, having earned a PhD in history at Princeton.
I recall his presentation to the Peace Corps trainees as a witty, stimulating blend of architectural and cultural description, visual and experiential rather than analytical or scholarly. This was history as design, not data, and it was indicative of things to come.
Seven years later, after Moore had left California to teach and serve as dean of architecture at Yale, I once again had the good fortune of listening to him. He came as a visiting professor to the University of Maryland where I helped him teach a design studio.
It was during these years -- the 1960s and early 1970s -- that Moore's approach to redefining and shaping modern architecture was felt most strongly in academia.
Moore's ideas about design were and are accessible and inviting, unlike those of many theoreticians, especially academics. They may not appeal to everyone's taste or beliefs, but few can help but find them artful, provocative and, often, amusing. Here's a sample:
Rejection of "less is more:" Along with Robert Venturi, author of the seminal book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," Moore could not subscribe to the pragmatic minimalism preached by so many of his contemporaries. He believed that architecture is at its best when enriched visually. His love of history and tradition, coupled with his keen sensitivity to form, yield buildings full of aesthetic "events" and applied, though not historically literal, ornamentation.
Use of transformed historical motifs: Like many postmodernists, Moore saw timeless qualities in historic structures and motifs -- arches being among his favorite -- and borrowed from them freely. But he always reinterpreted and transformed them, sometimes radically, to make them his own. When Moore weaves antique elements into a composition, they are usually subordinate to larger, abstract forms and invariably serve, like antique objects, as nostalgic reminders of the art and craft of previous times.
Finding the "genius loci," the specialness of a place: Moore understood the importance of site and cultural conditions, the specific context that can impart unique identity to buildings. This notion stood in stark contrast to 20th century universalism, the belief that modern technology could produce a standardized architecture readily adaptable for any purpose, location, client or culture. Thus Moore's projects always seem rooted in some identifiable way to the place they are built, to the vernacular architecture or natural landscape of the region, even while embodying his ever-present, personal design trademarks.
Design inspiration from wherever: Seemingly in contradiction to contextualism, Moore can embrace any design idea, whatever its source, if it can be made relevant to the project. In other words, architects can be metaphoric and poetic, creating imagery based on concepts or things which do not necessarily derive from conventional economic, programmatic or technical requirements associated with a project.
Architecture can be fun: Moore can take most of the credit for paving the way for humor, wit and indulgence that appeared in architecture during the 1970s and 1980s. Not being a single-minded ideologue, Moore the humanist knows that ultimately architecture is by and for people, that it can do more than just perform its functional duties with immobile seriousness.
Therefore, he always has delighted in injecting into his projects a few "follies" -- spatial oddities, irregular volumes, games of space and light, cut-out see-through shapes, exaggerated dimensions, unexpected proportions, vibrant colors -- that sometimes make you feel like you're in a giant doll's house layered with visual confections and surprises.
Picturesqueness: Perhaps the most pervasive quality of Moore's work, clearly related to what architecture writer Andrea Oppenheimer Dean has labeled "playful pluralism," is its wonderful picturesqueness. Moore loves to exploit unlikely juxtapositions of scale, contrasting geometries, symmetry and asymmetry. This quality is most evident in his residential work, but it also appears in his civic and educational buildings.
Listing Moore's projects here, even his most famous, may be somewhat futile, since he has built virtually nothing of a public nature in the nation's capital. Perhaps there is some fundamental incompatibility between Moore's sensibilities and the sensibilities of those who hire architects in the District.
How ironic if this is the case.
Notwithstanding his design originality, Charles Moore is an architect who really listens to his clients, heeds their aspirations, worries about their program, respects their budgets and responds to the urban and cultural context of their site.
Add his sense of humor, and you've got the kind of architect Washington needs more of.
Lewis is an architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.