Design principles of Charles Moore: Living in and speaking of places

Charles Moore’s Sea Ranch, California.

Charles Moore is generally credited as the instigator of post-modernism, the term coined by Charles Jencks for architecture which overtly and explicitly reflects symbolism and iconography, in simplified, abstract or reflected form, in a period that commences roughly with the mid-1960s. Postmodernism broke free of Modernism’s pure functionalist doctrine to embrace an ironic, overtly stylised symbolism.

This period in design history is interesting because of the intensity with which a generation of disaffected children raised under modernist roofs revolted. Their reflection on the experience and nature of habitation—what it means to the human spirit to occupy space—is both rich and personal. Late in his life, Moore, like others of his ilk (Christopher Alexander, W. H. Mayall, Robert Johnson) wrote down a personal design manifesto, his essential design philosophy, in the form of five principles. These principles are one of the most considered distillations of designing for habitation to be found. Revisiting these today gives the reader a sense that they could not have been written at any other time in design history. What is interesting now is to consider to what extent these principles have been assimilated into today’s design thinking.

Principle 1: If we are to devote our lives to making buildings, we have to believe that they are worth it, that they live and speak (of themselves, and the people who made them and thus inhabit them), and can receive investments of energy and care from their inhabitants, and can store those investments, and return them augmented, bread cast on water come back as club sandwiches.

Principle 1 speaks of living and speaking places, in which habitation supports interplay between occupant and structure that leads to a particular kind of relationship. Good buildings evoke thoughts, feelings and stories. They convey stories about their location, their construction, and about the people who made them, have lived in them and use them.

A ‘neutral’ building—Moore’s term for a modernist structure devoid of symbolism, decoration or expression–cannot consider the needs of people or of a complex environment. Modernism isolated, iconised monuments, devoid of symbol and connection with place, present or past. Buildings are not merely a play of forms in light, they are important as transmitters of memories, taking the things of everyday life as generally intelligible metaphors. The purpose of a building is not to celebrate itself or its designer’s ego, rather to overcome the distance between user and the space.

Principle 2: If buildings are to speak, they must have freedom of speech. It seems to me that one of the most serious dangers to architecture is that people may just lose interest in it… If architecture is to survive in the human consciousness, then the things buildings can say, be they wistful or wise or powerful or gently or heretical or silly, have to respond to the wide range of human feelings.

Postmodernists like Moore wrote passionately about architecture as communication, as a medium to reflect human experience. It follows that if buildings can ‘speak’ about how they were built and about the people who use them and who built them, then what they say must be unconstrained. This principle declares the right of freedom of speech for architecture and the architect. In reaction to the possible perception that modernism’s strict functionalist code stifled freedom of expression, architects must not have their voices dictated, Moore declares. When an architectural paradigm or period ends, it must be possible for the architect to express a new collective or personal voice, without the ‘censorship’ imposed by a dominant design theory, paradigm, movement or fashion.

Principle 3: Buildings must be inhabitable by the bodies, minds and memories of humankind. To urge to dwell, to inhabit, to enhance, and protect a piece of the world, to fashion an inside and to distinguish it from the outside, is one of the basic human drives, but it has by now been so thwarted that the act often requires help, and surrogates which can stand upright (like chimneys or columns) or grow and flourish (like plants) or move and dance (like light) can act as important allies of inhabitation.

Principle 3 declares that occupiers must be able to imprint their lives on a building. Architecture should celebrate the fact that the occupation inevitably brings enhancement—extension, modification or decoration. Moore notes that this is something modern man has become unaccustomed to, to the point where enhancement is often done by bringing in aids to personalise a space. A space can be enhanced, at small expense, through symbols—architectural decoupage brought from the occupier’s lives and means. Today, we do this with questionable effect using mass-produced furnishings and household goods from global retailers.

Sea Ranch upper floor.

Moore’s principles are espoused by his design for a condominium (multifamily housing) on a spectacular coastal site in southern California, in 1965. The building is modelled on a cluster of timber sheds, reminiscent of coastal rural farm buildings, with a common massed roof. The building combines a sense of Modern with local vernacular.


Sea Ranch lower floor.


‘Confronted with designing the condominium complex of Sea Ranch on a spectacular Pacific Ocean site north of San Francisco, Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker tightly grouped the units around a courtyard with traditional shed roofs and intersecting and tower-like wall planes, creating an overall commanding form but one of identifiably individual parts, at once casual and modest, open to views and sun yet sheltered and protected from the wind. It was a concept of cluster designed to preserve the openness of a rugged and beautiful site, the California wood tradition projected into a mid-sixties leaner sensibility and aesthetic, with a builder’s type awareness of economy.’

— from Paul Heyer. American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century.

Principle 4: For each of us to feel at the centre of our universe, we need to measure and describe points in space as people used to do—in terms of ourselves, not of the precise but meaningless relations of, for instance, Cartesian coordinates or ‘rational’ geometries. Soon after our birth we arrive at a sense of front and back, left and right, up, down, and centre, which are so strong that we can and do assign moral significance to them. Our architecture needs to remember them, too, so that we can feel with our whole bodies the significance of where we are, not just see it with our eyes or reason it out in our minds.

The body and mind perceives the significance of place. This ‘sense of place’ should not merely be visible with the eyes but perceived by all the senses. Memory demands more than the comprehension of geometric conditions, such as right and left, or top and bottom, but also requires characteristic forms and content, for the senses and the visual perception. To design a building in which occupants perceive each space differently and appropriately for the purpose of the room, is perhaps the greatest design challenge. Few buildings consistently achieve this quality.

Principle 5: The spaces we feel, the shapes we see, and the ways we move in buildings should assist the human memory in reconstructing connections through space and time. Half a century ago, those passages of the mind seemed oppressive, and full of cobwebs, and much effort went into cleaning them out and closing them up. It certainly must have seemed a useful effort to Le Corbusier and the others, more than adequately justified by their sense of the oppressive shadows of the past and their faith in a future that would sweep the past away.

By now, we have seen the past swept away often enough to speak with sense as well as sentiment when we demand to maintain our connections, or reinvest them. Then those of us—and that’s most of the world by now—who lead lives complicatedly divorced from a single place in which we can find our roots, can have, through the channels of our mind and our memories, a built environment that helps re-establish those roots.

Moore’s reference to the time before modernism, half a century earlier, when ‘passages of the mind seemed oppressive, and full of cobwebs’ is interesting. Here, Moore refers to the overbearing dominance of the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when the industrial revolution buried Britain, Europe and America in machine-produced stuff, burdened with Victorian-esque appliqué, decoration and ornament. In cities like London and Paris, the collective effect of small windows, gaslight, century-old sewage, water infrastructure and over-articulated design from building façades to cutlery must have been like living in a gothic nightmare.

With this setting in mind, the final principle is about that certain quality in a building that allows us to ‘find our roots’ through making connections with meaningful history and remembered past. Moore preaches again from the postmodern pulpit the lesson that modernism swept away — connection, heritage, lineage and story. His design principles rightly reinstate these. ‘The spaces which we perceive, the forms which we see, the way in which we move in our spatial environment, shall stimulate the human memory through its reconstruction of interrelations between space and time’.

Charles Moores Kresge College, 1965.

Moore’s design for a student dormitory at UC Santa Cruz (Kresege College) is described by Great Buildings Online as a long series of false-front loggias creating the sense of an Oxford or Cambridge collegial ‘street’, being of wood frame with stucco, situated in a redwood forested campus, rendered in an idiosyncratic modern style.

Paul Heyer again:

‘In the late sixties, the Moore group, designing Kresge college for the University of California at Santa Cruz, developed a totally theatrical-like painted stucco environment almost dancing in and through the landscape. For the college, Charles Moore and William Turnbull have designed a village street, one that is intimately defined by irregularly punctured false fronts of free-standing appearance and almost cardboard cut out feeling, of white painted stucco with accent planes of primary colors, where spaces are animated by social facilities and oriented to a sequence of plazas and gardens, all threaded, in what initially seems to be somewhat incongruously, through a redwood forest setting.

Patterns of human association, the notion of students as a strictly transient and social population, sensitivity to site as a form potential both innately of its own characteristics and philosophically of the architects’ intent to appropriately shape building in it in response to the traditional campus problem. The lined-up courtyards and sophistication of Oxford and Cambridge, are replaced by the crooked mixes and cruder, playful forms of Kresge. It is a collage in search of dialogue, an attempt through site and association to create a highly personal and involving sense of place.’

Moore’s principles express the objectives of postmodernism’s reaction to modernism’s amnesia and erasure of the past. Moore’s principles of design are human-centric in the extreme, such that the experience of occupation and habitation trump almost all other design considerations.

Charles Moore’s time in design history might explain his motivations, but do his postmodern principles help us today? Would they change our designs for buildings and houses? Have we forgotten the postmodernist’s passion for the relationship a man can have with his space?

Schirmbeck, Egon, 1987. Idea, Form, and Architecture.


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