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Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture
Rowan Moore
Harper Design, 2014
Reviewed by William S. Saunders

When, in Why We Build, we read the sentence “Dictators and architects alike are driven by the desire to dominate and shape the world, and they like this quality in each other,” we know that the critic writing this has uncommon independence from the architects whose work he studies. So many other critics, to ensure that they have access to the architects and works they write about, cultivate friendships and positive evaluations that restrict their critical freedom. Not so Rowan Moore, architecture critic for The Observer in London and author of this audaciously muckraking book.

Moore thinks of architecture’s highest calling as facilitating the best possible quality of life in and around it, “a [flexible] instrument that enables other events and experiences to happen.” Buildings that disturb Moore are those at extremes: either trying to control and dominate experience or offering no stimulation and support for it. For Moore, overly prescriptive buildings include many of architecture’s sacred cows — including Farnsworth House and Fallingwater —  works that impose the architect’s values and are too indifferent to users’ needs and comfort. Or personal fantasies that try but inevitably fail to create some idealized life within them, such as John Soane’s house in London: Gesamtkunstwerks. For Moore, architecture is not art, responsible only to its creator.

Moore’s architectural hero is Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi because she created open, unrestrictive spaces that foster freedom, such as the São Paulo Art Museum. This position is too extreme; it demotes most of the discipline’s masterpieces, undervaluing the aesthetic and neglecting the fact that their users might embrace the kind of life these works encourage. His revered Bo Bardi art museum is, to my eyes, blank, impersonal, nondescript.

But Moore’s bugaboos include many more in this wide-ranging book. He sees the spectacular, dramatic-shaped buildings of recent decades — from the kitsch of Dubai to the shape-centered work of Frank Gehry — as capitulating to our culture’s enslavement to image. He hates architecture whose main role is marketing, branding, or creating glamour. He bemoans architects’ willingness to compromise their values to get commissions — he cites Richard Rogers’ push for the hollow-souled Millennium Dome. He sees starchitects’ ego-assertion as often inflicting financial crisis on clients and reduced functionality on users (think Zaha Hadid). He will not accept the idea that “geniuses” need not be held to standards of conventional morality. Always starting from specific instances, he bemoans the insincere, status-seeking patronage of art by the super-rich; buildings that are primarily propaganda; large housing projects that strangle residents’ individuality; and stage-set architecture pretending to be more than it is.

“Form Follows Finance,” the book’s strongest chapter, is an unblinking look at how most of what gets built is driven by developers’ greed, sanctioned by politicians’ idealization of free market forces. He sees London’s recent towers, such as Renzo Piano’s “Shard,” as paying lip service to green ideas of compact living while really existing to increase profits. Dubai is his exemplar of the hideous contemporary rule of the super-rich, indifferent to the suffering of the have-nots, including the immigrant workers banished to Dubai’s fringe slums.

Like Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz, Moore is profoundly disturbed by the pervasive evils of the contemporary world. Unlike Davis, he is not completely cynical and tries to offer balanced judgments. He will not, for instance, rank manly Albertian classicism higher than an atmospheric architecture of “illusion, shadow, [and] transience.” Overall, he wants readers to be unflinchingly realistic, particularly by deflating any overestimations of the power, virtue, and importance of architecture conceived apart from living. He is lucky that he has Lina Bo Bardi’s work to admire.

William S. Saunders is the retired founding editor of Harvard Design Magazine and book review editor of Landscape Architecture magazine. He has authored or edited 16 books.

Arts & Crafts Architecture: History and Heritage in New England
Maureen Meister
University Press of New England, 2014
Reviewed by Beverly K. Brandt

In her portrait of a group of architects who practiced in Boston while promoting the English Arts and Crafts movement a century ago, Maureen Meister weaves sensitive descriptions of construction details and materials that convey her intimate familiarity with the subject.

In part an architectural history, this book is more a story of ideas: Meister demonstrates that the movement’s ideals and turn-of-the-century Boston’s intellectual climate — more so than a specific style — shaped the architecture produced by this group.

She explains how and why a majority of building types — town halls, libraries, churches, houses, schools — reflect the influence of the Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, or Old English styles, in contrast to a more progressive approach. It must have been an organizational challenge to cover the architects’ varied backgrounds and their preservation of existing monuments, development of new building typologies, predilection for historicism, and fascination with new materials. Meister has met it with clarity and logic.

The book is surprisingly comprehensive for its length. Meister begins with biographical sketches of 12 individuals who are her focus: Robert Day Andrew; George Edward Barton; Ralph Adams Cram; Lois Lilley Howe; Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr.; Charles Donagh Maginnis; Louis Chapell Newhall; William Edward Putnam, Jr.; George Russell Shaw; Richard Clipston Sturgis; Charles Howard Walker; and Herbert Langford Warren (subject of Meister’s excellent 2003 monograph). They constituted, she argues, the “architect-leaders” of Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts between 1897 and 1917. Only these 12 (out of 40 architect members) achieved “Master” status in the organization.

Arts and Crafts architecture in Boston, Meister asserts, was the product of practitioners who promoted the movement’s ideals. The resultant work may look historicist in comparison to the proto-Modernist work of Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Greene and Greene. But it epitomizes such “salient concepts and concerns” as fitness, beauty, joyful labor, the vernacular, simplicity, sincerity, proportion, and harmony, even as it struggles to balance historicism with originality. These ideas, she points out, reflected the influence of English thought leaders as well as that of Boston’s intelligentsia: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Eliot Norton, and Louis Brandeis. A shared ideal links the work of these 12 — not a homogeneous appearance.

Meister competently summarizes the English Arts and Crafts movement’s origins and its representative architecture, and how both influenced New England. She discusses Boston architects who predated the founding of the Society —  H.H. Richardson, Robert Swain Peabody, and Charles Follen McKim — yet laid groundwork for the emerging movement. She touches on the founding of architecture schools and professional organizations, the architectural press, and the preservation movement, all of which provided context for the Society’s founding and subsequent blossoming of reformist architecture in New England.

The last three chapters examine structures that reflect an Anglophile influence, the Colonial Revival and Shingle styles, as well as the use of stucco, reinforced concrete, and steel. The chapters demonstrate that these “architect-leaders” incorporated innovative ideas regarding kitchen design and tackled new typologies: apartment buildings, gymnasiums, auto sales-rooms, subway stations, and hospitals.

Meister’s epilogue questions the long-term impact of this group locally and nationally. This minority of architects controlled the Society, which attracted nearly a thousand craft workers. Although their words and deeds resonated across the United States, their reticence at embracing Modernism ensured that their influence declined after the Art Deco era.

They did leave a lasting legacy of built architecture, with many structures being preserved or repurposed. But because many were educators, theorists, and critics who left behind a cache of articles, books, lectures, and correspondence, their words may have a greater impact than their works.

Beverly K. Brant is professor emerita of The Design School at Arizona State University.

The World’s Greenest Buildings: Promise Versus Performance in Sustainable Design
Jerry Yudelson and Ulf Meyer
Routledge, 2013

The New Net Zero: Leading-Edge Design and Construction of Homes and Buildings for a Renewable Energy Future
William Maclay
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014
Reviewed by Charlotte Kahn

Buildings account for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, so the idea that a building could be responsible for no emissions at all or generate more energy than it consumes may seem fanciful. Yet that is precisely the direction in which architecture is headed. The Architecture 2030 Challenge, adopted by the AIA in 2005, commits the field to net-zero fossil-fuel emissions in all new buildings by 2030. Two new books show the way.

In The World’s Greenest Buildings, architects Jerry Yudelson and Ulf Meyer set out to demonstrate that “uber-green building, low energy use, and great architecture are not incompatible.” Their intercontinental tour of the highest-rated commercial and institutional buildings across green rating systems offers an inspirational but finally cautionary tale.

In detailed case studies, the authors discover, to their surprise, a dearth of independently verified postoccupancy data. While some buildings transparently live up to their green billing, many owners are unwilling to share performance data once a Platinum plaque or Green Star is affixed to the entrance. And no wonder. When data are available, many buildings come up short.

Through interviews with architects and engineers, we learn that managers and occupants need help to become competent stakeholders of ultra-green buildings lest they undermine innovative, complex systems. But few post-occupancy plans include the necessary training, feedback, and monitoring.

That insight underscores the authors’ conviction that truly successful green buildings reflect a tightly integrated design process engaging architects, landscape architects, systems engineers, owners, occupants, and contractors from initial goal setting through post-occupancy fine-tuning. Finally, they find the world’s green rating systems to be “neither consistent nor comparable.” For example, they note, a building achieving all the energy-efficiency points under the US Green Building Council’s 2009 leed standard uses far more energy than a state-of-the-art European building.

With the world’s population slated to rise from seven to 10 billion this century and climate change upon us, the authors have little patience for lax measures and wishful thinking: “Mother Nature doesn’t care about relative improvements; she only cares about absolute CO2 levels in the atmosphere.” Without integrated design teams, data transparency and irreducible measures such as per-square-foot energy and water usage, green building performance cannot be achieved, rating systems harmonized, or valuable lessons learned and shared.

Their conclusions are mirrored in Vermont architect William Maclay’s almost encyclopedic The New Net Zero, which grounds the field’s ambitious goal for 2030 in current practice.

Equal parts philosopher, designer, and shop teacher, Maclay culls 40 years of experience to lay out detailed and well-illustrated options for setting and achieving net-zero goals in energy and water usage, heating and cooling, lighting, and air circulation in US climate zones 4 to 7.

In case studies, many from New England and including a number of Living Buildings, he shows how long-proven technologies and intriguing new techniques such as biomimicry and interior and exterior bio-filters are creating buildings and communities in which “all flows and cycles are in balance . . . a new way of thinking about our trade.” This book belongs on every “green” designer’s shelf.

Charlotte Kahn, retired director of the Boston Indicators Project at the Boston Foundation, now works on responses to climate change.