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A Search for Sanctuary : From L.A. to Cairo, Architect Charles Moore Sees a Need for Human-Scale Urban Design

As the jumbo jet from Cairo descended through the smog toward Los Angeles International Airport, architect Charles Moore looked down on the smudgy urban sprawl of Los Angeles with mixed feelings.

Delight and despair battled in his mind as the memory of past pleasures were clouded by the prospect of future disasters. His bird’s-eye view of one of his favorite urban landscapes was further darkened by the disturbing images haunting him from his Egyptian visit--images of a city drowning in its own population.

How, he wondered, can anyone make sense of the shapeless, regional metropolises spawned worldwide in the past few decades? Is there any way an individual can create a personal identity in the midst of such vast, shapeless mega-cities? Can architecture--the conscious act of designing individual buildings--have any meaning in the face of overwhelming urban proliferation?

“I don’t have the sense that we’re winning,” Moore said, on a brief stopover in Los Angeles during an unrelenting travel schedule that constantly wafts him around the globe.

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“Both metropolises are on the edge of incoherence,” he said of Cairo and Los Angeles.

Cairo’s situation is more obviously desperate. But Moore said he fears that “in both cities, each of which have around 15 million inhabitants, the individual’s sense of being sunk by the sheer weight of crowds is frighteningly similar.”

Architects have done little to stop the decline, Moore said sadly. They have failed to create environments that give people a sense of place, of belonging in enormous cities like Cairo or Los Angeles.

Twenty years ago, in his role as the “Godfather of Post-Modernism,” Moore sounded the warning.

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“If architects are to continue to do useful work on this planet, then surely their proper concern must be the creation of place,” he wrote in a 1967 essay, “Plug It in Ramses, and See if It Lights Up: Because We Aren’t Going to Keep It Unless It Works.”

“To make a place is to make a domain that helps people know where they are, and by extension, know who they are,” he said.

In an earlier essay, Moore had singled out Disneyland for praise as “the greatest urban project of the past decades” at a time when the ruling ideology of architectural Modernism considered it an abominable fake.

“Disneyland is the real heart of Los Angeles (which) . . . is really a collection of theme parks,” he wrote in his introduction to an architectural guide, “Los Angeles: The City Observed.”

Provocative utterances characterize the 63-year-old Post-Modernist guru’s quick, eccentric mind. His freedom from received ideas made him one of the first architects to challenge Modernism at the height of its stylistic dominance in the 1960s. Cherubic and twinkly, Moore has been variously described as a “bright-eyed Pan” and a “paunchy Lord of Misrule” by equal legions of admirers and detractors.

“Charles Moore’s buildings seem to me to be filled with instructive parodies,” said Gerald Allen, who wrote a monograph on Moore. “Comedy, misrule, release and clarification characterize his work. It offers the shocking, the rowdy, the funny and the eccentric as paths toward some larger comprehension of the world. It also offers the revitalizing proposition that the language of architecture is rich enough to describe the world fully.”

But Moore’s optimism about the power of the language of architecture seems less bouncy since he survived a triple heart bypass operation last fall.

“My lease on life was reviewed; my contract with mortality was renewed,” he quipped.

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His traumatic experience has not lessened his workload. He still teaches two semesters at the University of Austin at Texas, and is very involved with his four architectural offices in Santa Monica; Westwood; Essex, Conn.; and Austin, Tex. He lectures worldwide.

But the balding putto --the little boy cherub, as one wit dubbed him--smiles less freely these days. The old irony is undercut with a creeping cynicism.

Moore, for example, did not go to Chicago earlier this month to accept the prestigious 1989 Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. The Topaz citation stated that Moore has been “a brilliant and inspiring force who has transformed the character of architectural education in this country.”

“In each school where Charles has taught, his mark on the place is indelible,” a former student said at the Topaz presentation. “It is the mark not of style but of courage--the courage to care, to listen, to challenge, to experiment and to build. The courage to be, genuinely, an architect.”

Moore replied: “Such encomiums are nice, and I still enjoy teaching, but I couldn’t be bothered to fly to Chicago. Such public events are too exhausting for me now and too predictable.”

Moore has taught at major architectural schools over the past four decades, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA. He was dean of Yale architecture in the 1960s but retired when the student upheavals of the time disrupted the intellectual life of the schools.

At Austin, where he founded the architecture school, he was allowed to write his own ticket. He set up a team studio system emphasizing architecture’s collaborative nature over expression of individual egos.

“My favorite way of teaching is to work and travel with a small group of students, talking and arguing all the way, to simulate real-life situations as closely as possible,” he said. “Designers must learn to look at things, to listen to people, to learn by observation. Too many architects are too individual, they simply don’t hear what the society is saying about itself.”

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Yet few contemporary architects are as individual as Moore. His designs include: a 2,300-foot Wonderwall for the 1984 New Orleans Louisiana World Exposition, made up of corrugated sheet metal painted with rainbow colors; the 1978 Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans--a mock-Classical composition with Corinthian columns capped by stainless steel; a Post-Modernist master plan and housing project for West Berlin’s Tegel Harbor redevelopment--a riot of iconoclastic shapes and colors; and a series of houses in the form of gazebos, toy shops, pavilions, mini-villages and micro-temples.

In Southern California, his major projects are the Beverly Hills and Oceanside civic centers, now under construction; the 1983 St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades; the 1969 University of California, Santa Barbara, faculty club; and the 1985 University of California, Irvine, alumni center.

In the late 1970s, Moore was one of the architectural “all stars” who devised the rejected--and much-lamented--Grand Avenue master plan for California Plaza.

He made his mark as an architectural iconoclast in the early 1960s with his Sea Ranch Condominium. On a wild stretch of grassy coast near the mouth of the Russian River north of San Francisco, Sea Ranch “became the most written about, most influential American building of its decade,” wrote David Littlejohn in “Architect: The Life and Work of Charles Moore.”

“A strong case could be made that the writings and teachings of Charles Willard Moore, and the design projects in which he has been involved, have formed the single most important positive influence in shaping new attitudes in architectural design in this country in the last 20 years,” Littlejohn said.

Moore, a Michigan-born architect who has lived most of his life in California, is a restless bachelor. He has built himself residences in many places, including Pebble Beach, Westwood, Essex and Austin. But the condominium he owns in Sea Ranch is the place he considers home.

Despite his peripatetic life style and quirky individuality, Moore seeks a collaborative design ambiance, based on the teachings of his Princeton mentor Louis Kahn, who called it “the area of human agreement.”

The UC Irvine Alumni Center’s design “not only alludes vaguely to the Spanish Colonial architecture characteristic of California but also adapts the facades of three 16th-Century chapels by Flaminio Ponzo on the Celian Hill in Rome,” said architectural historian Robert Stern. “Moore provides a human-scaled public space of a kind almost absent from the rest of the Irvine campus.”

Moore observed: “I like to devise ways to include as many people as possible in the process of design. When we did St. Matthew’s, for example, we functioned in a series of open workshops to help the rector and his parishioners arrive at the images they had about the church--images which turned out to be very strong.”

John Davis, vice chairman of the St. Matthew’s parish building committee, said: “Charles Moore is a master. He listens. The genius part is his ability to see the infinite number of solutions proposed and still be creative.”

But not everyone who collaborates with him finds Moore so likable. Clients often complain he is seldom present long enough to give their projects the attention they need.

“We hired Charles but we haven’t seen him,” Davis once griped during the design of St. Matthew’s. “He should care more, instead of leaving so much to his younger associates.”

Associate Tina Beebe said in a 1985 interview: “Charles will take up a young man and give him his head.” Beebe is a graphic artist in the Santa Monica office of Moore Ruble Yudell, where her husband, Robert (Buzz) Yudell, is a partner.

“He brought Buzz from Yale and gave him big jobs to run,” Tina Beebe said. “Buzz is tough. He stood up to this challenge and to Charles’ often ruthless demands.”

But another one of Moore’s associates, she said, ended up sweeping the floors in one of his offices. “He’s a broken boy.”

Marilyn Zuber, Moore’s private secretary who works out of the Westwood-based Urban Innovations Group that he helped found with the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said: “The trouble with Charles is that he can’t say no to anything. The phone starts ringing beside his bed at 7 a.m., and just never stops till midnight, when he leaves it off the hook. His heart operation hasn’t slowed him down any, so far as I can see.”

With a shy smile spiced with self-mockery, Moore observed of himself: “I’m very quick at doing things. My mind spins too fast for many people--which is often awkward for my clients, partners and students. I like to have others to argue with, though I seldom find minds to match me.”

His vision may be darkening but his abiding belief remains fixed on the view that architecture ought to help people get a grasp on places where they live, work and play to counter the alienation inherent in the increasingly abstract urban culture.

“If architecture fails to find that ‘area of human agreement,’ it’s truly doomed,” he said. “But, as Cairo and Los Angeles illustrate in their separate yet similar ways, agreement is getting muffled under the rising roar of millions of voices crying out to be heard.”


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