Why Charles Moore (Still) Matters

The controversial architect continues to inspire former colleagues and collaborators.

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A portrait of Moore, who was always more interested in how people moved through spaces­—and the resulting fragmentary views—­than a single beauty shot.

Courtesy Charles Moore Foundation

“Stop work. It looks like a prison.” That was the telegram from the developers in response to Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker’s (MLTW) first design for the Sea Ranch, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Architects Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker, working with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, had used sugar cubes to model the 24-foot module for each of the condominium’s original ten units. And that boxy choice, combined with the simplest of windows and vertical redwood siding, produced something more penitentiary than vacation (it’s sited on a choice stretch of Sonoma coast). 

After a pause, the team scrambled to add texture: bay windows to break up the flat facades, private courtyards to differentiate a few units, and adjustments to the tower. Halprin imported a redwood stump to punctuate the main courtyard and, when MLTW’s “wooden rock” was completed, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon painted supergraphics on the monochrome interiors: numbers, stripes, dots, and arrows, adding a layer of pop iconography within the still-sober weathered form. The combination of timelessness and whimsy, landscape form and antic decoration, made the Sea Ranch highly photogenic and instantly influential. It was identified with a new Bay Region aesthetic, winning the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award in 1991, and ensuring (one might speculate) Moore would never straitjacket his work again.

Sea Ranch Condominium 1 (1965), also by MLTW, shelters ten idiosyncratic units under a variety of roofs. Lawrence Halprin and Associates designed the landscape at the Sea Ranch; Joseph Esherick designed another contemporary set of houses and the general store. The complex was recently spotlighted in the book, The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place, and Community on the Northern California Coast (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Courtesy Jim Alinder/Princeton Architectural Press

In the Sea Ranch—designed as a team with what would be the first of Moore’s four collaborative practices—one can see the origins of the rhetoric that Moore would explore for the rest of his career, in scenographic architecture and dilatory, deceptively casual prose. From the inward intensity of his own houses—scattered from Orinda, California, to Austin, Texas, to New Haven, Connecticut—to the outward urban exuberance of the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans and the Lovejoy Fountain in Portland, Oregon, Moore was working out ideas about how architecture should relate to history; how interiors could be stimulating stage sets for human interaction; and how public life needed to be framed for our car-centric, technological age. All themes as relevant now as they were 50 years ago.

Today, Moore can seem like something of a maverick. But in his lifetime, he was deeply connected within American design culture. As dean of the Yale School of Architecture, he hired Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to teach, and supported their Las Vegas studio. While working on the remote Sea Ranch, he wrote his most influential essay, “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” about why California’s major contribution to cities was Disneyland. He established the Yale Building Project—a precursor to Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, which initially sent graduate students to Kentucky to build the New Zion Community Center. For a design charrette in Dayton, Ohio, Moore and his partners hired a violinist to perform along the Miami River to draw attention to the site, set up shop in a storefront to collect suggestions, and appeared on local TV, drawing call-in ideas like a set of architectural short-order cooks. Moore was Billie Tsien’s thesis advisor at UCLA, and her firm, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, is now working on an expansion and renovation of Moore’s Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. “I can’t remember him ever saying a single word about my work,” Tsien says. “But what I do remember are the crazy field trips he would lead. A single day might include the Neutra House on Catalina, a ride on the 360-degree roller coaster at Magic Mountain, the world’s largest miniature golf course, and a glass of wine at the Del Coronado. He was funny and shy and generous and he taught me that inspiration comes from many places. Making a wonderful place for people drove his work.”

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May 27, 2014 01:34 pm
 Posted by  robertknight

This is an EXCELLENT article on Charles Moore. I was a student of his at Yale and worked with him at the Sea Ranch and on other projects. I have never read any appreciation of CWM that got this close to getting the essence of this wonderful and important man. Kudos to Alexandra Lange--spectacularly good work!

Aug 12, 2014 02:16 pm
 Posted by  JonathanParks

I had the privilege of working for Charles Moore right out of my graduate studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Most students coming straight out of school never really get to meet or work with the head of the firm but Charles Moore was not like that – he insisted on working directly with the younger staff members. If you knew him at all, you knew this was just one of the things that he enjoyed. On the most elegant level, he was an academic inside and outside the office – and had a love and gift for teaching.

At most offices, it was expected you would come out of college, get a job, and then move on after one or two years. Charles Moore had a way of communicating to you what was important about design, people, regionalism, cities, and landscape – a truly endless list. I stayed with him and his firm for a decade and only left after he left us. Charles Moore passed away late 1993 yet the architectural dialogue he stared with me has yet to stop.

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