This thoughtful study of what constitutes good architecture doesn't so much explain why we build structures but it does look at how buildings interact with the world around them, with some constructive criticism for Dubai.
Why We Build: the story of storeys, getting ever taller
The past few years have seen the development of a certain sport among western writers in gently mocking Dubai. Astronomical construction figures are laughed at, outrageous designs ridiculed and architecture intellectuals pretend to be vexed about what Dubai might represent as a model for the cities of the future. Readers are invited to shake their heads at the state of affairs at the Burj Khalifa, a building that boasts an Armani Hotel and the world's highest restaurant but needs sewage trucks parked at its base to take away the waste.
On the very first page of Rowan Moore's Why We Build, a comprehensive look at what makes good architecture, why it matters and how it shapes our lives, those same trucks hove into few.
The trained architect and architecture critic for The Observer - without doubt one of the western world's best writers on buildings - saw this "turgid caravan" for himself and concluded that the combination of celestial fantasy that was the Burj Khalifa and the reality of its waste management revealed a city on the cusp. He notes, with some glee, the sense that the opening of the US$1.5 billion (Dh3.7bn) Atlantis Hotel on the tip of the Palm Jumeirah in 2008 was "an end-of-empire party, the last excess before the fall".
Last time we looked, Dubai had yet to collapse into complete disarray - although, as with any city, there are naturally monuments to failed ambition and broken dreams. But though Moore is an entertaining polemicist, there is a certain unpalatable truth to some of his arguments in this thoughtful book. He casts Dubai's ability and desire to achieve size and spectacle against the work of his favourite architect, the Italian-born Brazilian Lina Bo Bardi. He champions her as a designer who understands that buildings should be adaptable, should have a poetry with the outside world, should act with the people around them. Buildings shouldn't exist as spectacle, he says, because in simply looking at them from below, the "eye is engaged but not the body".
It's not just Dubai that comes under his critical gaze, either. There's a scathing chapter on the designs for the New York World Trade Center replacement, which he calls "grand gestures of dubious logic". "In all the myriad visions of Ground Zero," he writes, "there was almost nothing that bothered to show what a street, at ground level, with people living their lives, might look like."
Why We Build is, then, more of a personal journey through the world's built environment than about one city. And whether you agree or not with Moore's views about Dubai, his argument about the importance of human interaction with the structures we create is reasonable. In fact, the book is less about why we build and more about what we do with a structure once it's completed.
He cites Bo Bardi's SESC Pompeia in São Paulo; it was commissioned to regenerate the site of an old factory into a social and cultural centre but Bo Bardi found that it was already being used by some for just that purpose. So she refused to knock the structure down and made interior changes instead. There's also New York's High Line, the redundant freight railway made into an elevated urban park in 2009, and the terraces of London's Kensington. Designed from scratch in the 1840s, they have enjoyed countless incarnations as homes for wealthy Victorians, slum tenements, student homes and now, once again, the property of the rich.
Will Dubai's buildings and districts adapt and evolve in similar style? Moore worries that the insistence on zoning the areas of Dubai into "cities" and gated residential developments means the friction necessary for life and social movement is absent. "There are two versions of the city, the visible and the invisible," he writes (an idea echoed, interestingly, in G Willow Wilson's recent Emirates-based novel Alif The Unseen). He may have a point.
And the reason that Moore can be taken more seriously than most architecture writers pontificating from afar is that he has himself got his hands dirty with the business of building things. The chronicle of his own, abortive move into the construction of a new gallery for The Architecture Foundation in London (of which he is a former director) is eye-opening stuff. He did all the right things: finding the finance, launching a competition to find an elegant design befitting the organisation and, finally, choosing Zaha Hadid, one of the most famous architects in the world.
Exceptbuilding is never so simple as hiring star architects, budgeting carefully and waiting for completion. Times change. Stock markets rise and fall.
The commission went the same way as Hadid's Dubai Opera House, her so-called Dancing Towers in Business Bay, and the Dubai Financial Exchange - it was not (and may neverbe) built. Moore asks a question that must have discomfited him, as a fully signed up fan of her work: Sheikh Zayed Bridge aside, is Hadid and her architecture too difficult, too impractical, too expensive, too user-unfriendly?
Actually, Why We Build isn't a book of many answers. It's far more subtle than that, preferring to make the reader think about what it is that breathes life into buildings. Moore talks about them as statements of power, of finance, of eternity. His book understands architects but also explains what they do - making it far more than a fashionable but unread coffee-table tome. But in Hadid's case, Moore does come to a conclusion. "There is an unspoken understanding with contemporary architects of celebrity: by choosing them you should not expect an easy ride but the finished building (if you get there) will be a new fragment of the world that might be extraordinary, revelatory, beautiful, perception-altering. You could call it," he jokes, "the Masterpiece Defence."
Note the words "might be". Celebrity architects lined up to bring culture to Saadiyat Island: Frank Gehry's Guggenheim, Zayed National Museum by Foster + Partners, the Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel and a Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid but the story has, until recently, been one of delays. Moore is sceptical that the idea of the iconic building designed by a starchitect actually entices tourism and investment (as in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) - if all cities have such a building, he argues, then surely "each is as interesting, or as boring, as each other".
Perhaps sitting countless iconic buildings right next to each other does diminish their individual power. It makes for a kind of Truman Show-style unreality.
But the sail shape of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai became a cipher for the kind of place Dubai wanted to be; modern yet with a nod to the past, bigger, better, talked-about. The brand was created, and the Palm Jumeirah was next. The world was not just intrigued to see whether Dubai could pull it off; it bought up large chunks of the fronds off-plan.
It won't be the last big project of its ilk - building in such grand gestures will always occur. It's how these structures work in their environments, how they might be used and by whom, which is a definition of their success. As Moore rightly says, a building makes a proposition about the future that will never exactly match what actually happens. Making them open to change, rather than gated off and gawked at, is the real challenge for the architects.
Ben East is a regular contributor to The National's arts and life section.