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Why We Build, by Rowan Moore, Picador, RRP£20, 416 pages

This is a good book with a slightly misleading title: Why We Build is actually a paean to the way we inhabit. Rowan Moore, architecture critic of The Observer, suggests that architecture is not something that can ever be finished. Rather, it is a constantly evolving background to the messy reality of everyday life, power, politics and fashion.

He begins with Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, once trumpeted as an island paradise of azure seas lapping at beachfront villas and now a dense terrace of tract housing at the scummy edge of sewage-enriched stagnant inlets. From there he travels along New York’s pedestrianised High Line via Ground Zero, baroque churches in Munich and 18th-century Covent Garden brothels to the twin behemoths of contemporary Beijing, the triumphal arch of the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest stadium.

In each of these places, Moore attempts to understand how architecture is conceived, how it is compromised through its construction and how it is changed by use. Those buildings, he argues, that dictate too much tend to fail, while those that adapt survive. Moore encounters one architect who seems to embody everything he believes is good about the profession and, for once, it is not one of the familiar names of contemporary global chic but the less well-known figure of Lina Bo Bardi.

Bo Bardi (1914-92) was an Italian architect who moved to São Paulo in 1946. There she created two astonishingly original and enduring buildings, the São Paulo Museum of Art (where her husband was director) and the SESC Pompéia, a kind of vast concrete community centre inserted into an old factory. Moore relates how both these seemingly monumental buildings in fact left room to be inhabited and used as the people wanted.

The museum, for instance, departed radically from orthodoxy by displaying paintings not on the walls but sandwiched between free-standing plates of glass, creating unexpected juxtapositions and adjacencies and allowing the visitor to meander through them, around them and behind them. Beneath the building Bo Bardi left a huge plaza, creating a popular, sheltered place for festivals, fairs, protests, even a second-hand book market.

There is an inherent democracy in the way these spaces were designed, Moore suggests. This could usefully inform a contemporary architecture in which what is designated as public space is often only pseudo-public – as any attempt to photograph, film or protest will bring out security guards to move you on.

Moore explains how our houses and buildings express our values and politics more clearly than anything we might say. He is very good on the depressing story of the redevelopment of Ground Zero and the predictable outcome of a vast new office hub in a part of the city that has no need for it. He could also have mentioned New York architect and critic Michael Sorkin’s brilliant suggestion that the most dignified response to terror would have been to leave the site empty and recreate it as a space for free speech, gathering and protest.

Moore might never really answer the question of why we build but, on his circuitous route around the world, he makes a decent stab at explaining the complex web of negotiations and accommodations that lie behind even the simplest building with any ambitions beyond the purely utilitarian. He is also humble enough to relate his own experiences in trying to build a masterpiece by Zaha Hadid as the new London HQ for the Architecture Foundation, of which he was then in charge. Work never started and the awkward, triangular Southwark site still stands covered in grass and weeds. Building might be universal but architecture has never been easy.

The writer is the FT’s architecture critic

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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