On the Page: Rowan Moore’s ‘Why We Build’

whywebuild On the Page: Rowan Moores Why We BuildWhy We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture

Rowan Moore

(Harper Design, 400 pp., $30)

Though the ponderous and vaguely didactic title might suggest otherwise, Rowan Moore’s new book is a delight to read. Mr. Moore, the architecture critic at The Observer in London, writes about architecture as he would have liked to see it made: suggesting, showing, revealing and playing rather than prescribing or proscribing.

Mr. Moore’s book is a collection of musings based around a set of themes—the fixed and wandering home, the erotic in architecture, power and freedom—but after all his perambulations, he returns to a single, persistent one: Buildings are a collaboration between their designers and their users. A successful building is one that embodies and accommodates, through its openness and pliability, the knowledge that “their desires make it and our desires inhabit it.”

“Buildings will never exist independently of the stuff around them, and the events and thoughts that occur inside them and out,” he writes.

Mr. Moore shows how structures succeed or fail to varying degrees but how they all, unmistakably, bear the imprint of their creators’ complicated desires and how we ignore this at our peril. Architecture is an amazingly alluring medium, particularly for those who yearn to realize their (almost always unrealizable) concepts and ideals; buildings, in their “weight, heft, calculation, the fact and substance,” are uniquely capable of rendering fantasy into reality.