You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W. Moore

You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W. Moore



The Pequod Review:

Charles W. Moore (1925-1993) was an accomplished mid-century architect and teacher, and You Have to Pay for the Public Life is a collection of book reviews, lectures, interviews, and analyses drawn from across his forty-plus year career. His pieces have a curious and open-minded approach to modern architecture:

[B]y almost any conceivable method of evaluation that does not exclude the public, Disneyland must be regarded as the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades. The assumption inevitably made by people who have not yet been there — that it is some sort of physical extension of Mickey Mouse — is wildly inaccurate. Instead, singlehanded, it is engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California, whose only edge is the ocean and whose center is otherwise undiscoverable (unless by our revolution test it turns out to be on Manhattan Island). Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost someone a great deal of money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life.

Disneyland, it appears, is enormously important and successful just because it recreates all the chances to respond to a public environment, which Los Angeles particularly no longer has. It allows play-acting, both to be watched and to be participated in, in a public sphere. In as unlikely a place as could be conceived, just off the Santa Ana Freeway, a little over an hour from the Los Angeles City Hall, in an unchartable sea of suburbia, Disney has created a place, indeed a whole public world, full of sequential occurrences, of big and little drama, full of hierarchies of importance and excitement, with opportunities to respond at the speed of rocketing bobsleds (or rocketing rockets, for all that) or of horse-drawn streetcars. An American Main Street of about 1910 is the principal theme, against which play fairy-tale fantasies, frontier adventure situations, jungles, and the world of tomorrow. And all this diversity, with unerring sensitivity, is keyed to the kind of participation without embarrassment which apparently at this point in our history we crave. (This is not the point, nor am I the appropriate critic, to analyze our society’s notions of entertainment, but certainly a civilization whose clearest recent image of feminine desirability involves scantily dressed and extravagantly formed young ladies — occasionally with fur ears — who disport themselves with wild abandon in gaudily make-believe bordellos, while they perforce maintain the deportment of vestal virgins — certainly a civilization which seeks this sort of image is in need of pretty special entertainment.) No raw edges spoil the picture at Disneyland; everything is as immaculate as in the musical comedy villages that Hollywood has provided for our viewing pleasure for the last three generations. Nice-looking, handsomely costumed young people sweep away the gum wrappers almost before they fall to the spotless pavement. Everything works, the way it doesn’t seem to any more in the world outside. As I write this, Berkeley, which was the proud recipient not long ago of a set of fountains in the middle of its main street, where interurbans once had run and cars since had parked, has announced that the fountains are soon being turned off for good, since the chief public use developed for them so far has been to put detergent in them, and the city cannot afford constantly to clean the pipes. Life is not like that in Disneyland; it is much more real: fountains play, waterfalls splash, tiny bulbs light the trees at night, and everything is clean.

The skill demonstrated here in recalling with thrilling accuracy all sorts of other times and places is of course one which has been developing in Hollywood through this century. Disney’s experts are breathtakingly precise when they recall the gingerbread of a turn-of-the-century Main Street or a side-wheeler Mississippi River steamboat, even while they remove the grime and mess, and reduce the scale to the tricky zone between delicacy and make-believe. Curiously, the Mickey Mouse–Snow White sort of thing, which is most memorably Disney’s and which figures heavily in an area called Fantasyland, is not nearly so successful as the rest, since it perforce drops all the way over into the world of make-believe. Other occurrences stretch credulity, but somehow avoid snapping it. The single most exciting experience in the place, surely, is that which involves taking a cable car (as above a ski slope) in Fantasyland, soaring above its make-believe castles, then ducking through a large papier-maché mountain called the Matterhorn, which turns out to be hollow and full of bobsleds darting about in astonishingly vertical directions. Thence one swings out above Tomorrowland. Now nobody thinks that that mountain is the Matterhorn or even a mountain, or that those bobsleds are loose upon its slopes — slopes being on the outsides of mountains. Yet the experience of being in that space is a real one, and an immensely exciting one, like looking at a Piranesi prison or escalating in the London Underground.


Out of this public act came one of the most extraordinary buildings in the United States, probably the most richly complex and extensively rewarding stew of spatial and sculptural excitements west of Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts: the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. It was completed in 1929. William Mooser was the architect, and the inspiration, say the guidebooks, was Spanish. But nothing in Spain was ever like this. Instead of setting itself off against the landscape, in Mediterranean fashion, this assemblage of huge white forms opens itself up to it. The landscape is a big and dramatic one in Santa Barbara, where the coastal plain is narrow, the ocean close at hand, and the mountains behind unusually high and startlingly near. The Courthouse takes it all in: it piles around one end of a large open park, whose major forms are sunk into the ground, thus allowing the giant arch, the main feature among the dozens of features visible from the street side, to lead not into the building but through it and immediately out the other side, so that the building minimizes its enclosure function and asserts itself as backdrop — a stage set, if you will — with the power to transform the giant landscape. It is almost too easy to make a comparison with Le Corbusier’s new Harvard building, similarly pierced (in Cambridge, in 1963, by a make-believe freeway ramp) and similarly composed of an immensely rich but strongly ordered concatenation of sculptural forms. At Harvard they are twisted enough and powerful enough to dislocate all the polite Georgian buildings around, to wrench them loose and set them whirling. Fewer structures are set whirling by the Courthouse, but a full complement of phantoms is raised up out of the lush landscape.

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse did so much about sweeping the whole landscape up and in that one might expect the really large-scale projects of the sixties to catch even more of the grandeur of the place. Whole new college campuses, for instance, which are springing magically out of fields across the state, surely present unparalleled chances to order a public realm, to invest a place of public importance with the physical attributes of that importance. Yet, by any standards, the clearest and strongest campus to be found in the state is still the old campus at Stanford, designed in Boston by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge and built in the years just after 1887. The buildings in the old campus are H. H. Richardson warmed over (and cooled off again in the long passage from the architects’ Boston kitchens); the gaudy mosaic facade of the chapel, the centerpiece of the composition, is an affront to the soft yellow stone surfaces around. But the play of the fabled local sunshine with the long arcades, the endlessly surprising development of interior spaces from big to small to big again, the excitement of a sensible framework that is strong and supple enough to include the most disparate of academic activities — all combine to make this a complete and memorable place. Even though the surrounding countryside is not swept into the picture, as at Santa Barbara, at least there is an orchestration of spaces varied and complete enough to evoke a complex public use. It is a place, however, that dates from the previous century, and this is a survey of our own times, times that have multiplied opportunities for spatial and functional orchestrations like the ones at Stanford and Santa Barbara. What, then, do we have?