A house should have eyes and ears and arms and a heart, and it should talk to you when you're in it. It should say simple things, naturally - like, ''You're home,'' ''Sit down and read here,'' or ''Gather over here.'' But it should also tell a cheerful joke now and then, and be erudite enough to quote the classics.

This is the ambitious notion of Charles Moore, a leading postmodernist architect, and this is the kind of house he has been trying to build for more than 20 years - not sleek modern planes with cold shoulders, but houses that speak to their inhabitants about who they are, where they are, and what their dreams are. He wants buildings to engage people.

With the field of architecture at a dynamic but fumbling stage, groping its way into a new era, Dr. Moore best represents one key thrust among postmodernists: The importance of a building's design lies in what it means to the people who inhabit it, and it should give them a fresh sense of place and tradition made new.

Charles Moore at work is a child at play (''The aspects of play are fascinating, and I still haven't figured out all the rules or the boundaries''), and his playground is the memory, his own memory and the shared memories of history. His work draws liberally from images of Italian hill towns, California bungalows, New England cottages, Colorado mining sheds, and even Disneyland.

He is a ragman among architects, collecting bits of architecture - neon lights from the modern commercial strip, Doric columns from the classical past - and sewing them together for new life.

If he was once a lone voice in the icy, steel-and-glass wilderness of highbrow architecture, now he is caught up in a whirlpool of a movement stirring and unsettling his entire field.

Dr. Moore is a gentle, diffident man who wears the corduroy jacket and madras tie of a New England academic. Once dean of architecture at Yale, and later at the University of California at Berkeley, he is now a professor at UCLA and engaged in three architectural practices - Urban Innovations Group and Moore Ruble Yudell in Los Angeles, and Moore Grover Harper in Essex, Conn.

In the mid-1970s, when architects were thriving, Moore nearly faced bankruptcy. Now, when a rising number of architects are on the verge of bankruptcy, Moore is so busy that he recently had to drop his studio teaching altogether.

His reasons for doing what he does differ from many other architects of his caliber.

His driving interest is in the people who will use his buildings - live in them, work in them, walk by them on the street - and how the building will make them feel.

''I'd like to turn around this whole Mies van der Rohe thing,'' he says in his car after a UCLA lecture. ''I don't vahnt to be interesting, I vahnt to be good,'' he says, mimicking the great German modernist. ''I want to be good, and I'm also very interested in being interesting.''

Moore has not become a household name in the past 20 years, although Richard Harris, dean of the architecture school at the University of Southern California , places him at the head of a major architectural trend toward people-centered buildings and a ''delightful connection with the past.''

''Moore has never played the conventional game that one gets famous by,'' says William Hubbard, a New York-based architect and architectural theorist. Rather than build the big buildings in big cities that draw attention, Moore has built mostly houses. As a result, Moore's legacy may well be his ideas more than any given building, his houses serving more as teaching tools than milestones, Mr. Hubbard says.

However, the scale of the latest Moore commission, the Beverly Hills Civic Center, could change that. ''Once people experience three blocks of Moore, rather than 110 feet of Moore, that will be a revelation,'' Hubbard surmises.

In the new civic center, he adds, Moore may have resolved some of the flaws critics found in his most controversial work to date, the Piazza d'Italia fountain in New Orleans. Designed with the local Italian community in mind, this outdoor gathering place is bright and stagy, with colored neon lights outlining classical Roman facades enlivened with chrome and hundreds of tiny water jets. It has become a favorite illustration for books and articles on postmodern-ism, pro or con.

This playful work has brought in letters, Moore says, that blame him for everything from ''the Shah of Iran to the fall of the Shah of Iran.''

''It's just a fountain with water splashing around,'' he shrugs, defending the fun of seeing familiar architecture done in jets of water.

''I think one of the drags of contemporary architecture is a sort of pseudo-seriousness that may be appropriate in mortuaries and savings and loan offices, but not in other walks of life,'' he says.

So where is this lighthearted architect heading? What is Moore's ambition - new cities, social utopias, dream houses, lasting monuments?

When the 19th-century American architect H. H. Richardson was asked that question, Moore notes, he gave a ''deep, trivial answer.'' Richardson said he aspired to design a Mississippi steamer and a grain elevator.

Moore said he could fairly give the same answer. To him, presumably, this means creating buildings that tap the symbolic power of these basic American images. ''To take an image that I'm fond of and pull it into the present comes as close to my dreams of glory as anything.''

What this does not mean, to Moore, is making ''dead copies'' of the past. For people to really care about their buildings, there has to be a memory of the past and also ''some sort of transformation that will make it our own.''

For this reason he doesn't like the work of fellow postmodernists Allan Greenberg and Robert Stern, who, he fears, are getting more and more conventional in their use of historical elements.

He seeks rather a ''choreography of the familiar and the surprising.'' The familiar is what makes buildings meaningful to us, while the surprising elements should give us a fresh view of the familiar, Moore says: the new gives fresh life to the old, and makes it apply more particularly to us.

''It's like seasoning in food,'' he explains. ''The right combination of the surprising brings out the best in the familiar.''

Moore also objects to architecture that pulls quotations from the past and present just to ''crack one-liners.'' A prominent example, in Moore's view, is Philip Johnson's ornamental pediment atop the new American Telephone & Telegraph Building in New York. Movies are a better medium for the one-liner, he says. ''Buildings are around too long.''

In the case of the AT&T pediment, the question is academic by Moore's standards, since the ornament can't be seen from Manhattan sidewalks. The part of the building that is important, the part that people use, is the street-level arcade, and this Moore finds humane and delightful.

The question he asks in such cases is: How people will react to a design when they encounter it for the 20th time and beyond? For a house, the significance is , ''what it's like to wake up in it, the way the sun shines in the window.''

''But to get on the cover of Time,'' he says, as Johnson did by virtue of the AT&T Building, ''it takes a one-liner.''

What all the postmodernists have in common, whether they are cracking one-liners or making richly layered architectural poetry of someone's house, is that they see architecture as a language.

For mainstream modernists, who have dominated architecture in this century, form is function: A design should serve its rational purpose as purely and cleanly as possible. To postmodernists, form is both function and metaphor, expressing human values and traditions.

According to Hubbard, Moore is a modern pioneer in architectural quotation, the use of design to refer to other kinds of buildings.In the 1961 Sea Ranch condominium development on the California coast near Mendocino, Moore used industrial lamps, exposed conduit, the timber structure and siding of a nearby barn, and the roof shape of a mountain mining shed.

This, says Hubbard, helped ''open the possibility for all of us of taking conscious quotations from elsewhere.''

Still, the postmodernists are a scattered and divergent group. Moore sees them divided in many ways: There are humanists aiming at more meaningful, livable buildings, and stylists aiming at developing a new look. Moore is a humanist. There are those who want to reconstruct the past and those want to use the past for a new architecture. Moore favors a new architecture. There are populists who draw their images from the people who will use a building and historicists who draw more from historical research. Moore is a populist. There are universalists trying to transcend their locale and regionalists searching for a sense of place. Moore is a regionalist.

''A sense of place is what architecture should be all about. Looking for similarities and universalities doesn't seem to be what we need.''

The place that most fires Moore's imagination is California. He considers himself basically a California architect ''in spite of everything, though most of my work is elsewhere, in places like Houston and Hanover (N.H.).''

In the course of teaching and designing he has visited, he says, virtually every small town in Texas in search of Texas vernacular architecture. But his understanding of the California style is more personal and intuitive.

The key to California, he declares, is the ''bougainvillea-covered, tear-stained Ramona image.'' Ramona is a character in a 19th-century romantic novel about two tragic Indian lovers oppressed by the Spanish patriarchal system. The tear-stained Ramona is seen as summing up the whole romantic ambiance of that aspect of California history.

California also has the stucco bungalow in its repertory of images. ''It's romantic and cheap,'' says Moore, who has always liked the sense of noble poverty conveyed by the American shack.

Moore was brought up like a good modernistic architect. ''It was naughty to like anything in the past well enough to do anything like it.'' The modernists were about overturning the cobweb-covered past to assert their own style. Moore had no quarrel with this in its time, he says, but came to believe that it was the diametrical opposite of what we need now.

It also, of course, ran counter to his own inspiration.''

The enthusiasms of my childhood that have been squelched by my training as a modern architect are beginning to come out again.''

Moore's sensibilities began forming in his boyhood in Marshall, Mich., then the best Greek Revival town in the country. His great-grandfather had built a Greek Revival house across the street, and the well-rooted Moore family was very conscious and proud of its local ancestry.

The family also lived in Los Angeles when he was young. ''I had visions of bougainvillea and the shadows of palm trees and the whole romantic idea,'' an idea that encompasses southern California from San Diego through Santa Barbara.

His childhood dream was to live in Sunset Towers, a classic art-deco period piece on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The new Beverly Hills Civic Center he just designed is full of recollections of art deco.

But much of Moore's growing up was spent in the San Francisco Bay Area, and here he began his architectural practice in the heyday of the redwood cabin movement. He designed in that style, and he felt part of a movement then. It was in the very early 1960s that he broke loose with early versions of the Moore style in a series of houses that got national attention.

His sea-ranch designs, with the firm Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker, established what was widely adopted as the sea-ranch style. His design of Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, based on an Italian hill town, is considered by many to be a milestone in the development of humane architecture.

''The older I get, the more interested I am in the familiar,'' Moore says. ''It takes a long time for an architect to do mature work.'' There are no Mozarts in the field, he says. ''You can't be an architect when you're 8.''

As an architect matures, Moore says, he strains less for the ''knockout innovative.'' Rather, he will ''do something well, with a bit of panache.''

Because Moore draws ideas for a building from the people who will use it, he is an avid believer in the committee process.

He recently finished St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, west of Los Angeles, where the parishioners were extensively consulted in four all-day workshops before Moore put the ideas together in a design.

People, he says, are full of life and ideas when they are in creative roles. It's only when they turn to the critical role that committees become full of backbiting and politics.

''I really get as much creative excitement out of helping people create what they want as in doing my own work,'' he confesses.

Moore and his partners have even done TV versions of this workshop system - opening storefront offices and a bank of six telephone operators - for public projects in Dayton, Ohio, and Roanoke, Va.

''We act like architectural short-order cooks.''

The TV show in Roanoke, which was to decide what to do with a condemned urban-renewal project, fetched a high local rating, and generated enough local interest and confidence in the project that all related bond issues passed, the first ones to succeed there in years.

People know things architects don't. ''We had all kinds of building plans for the park,'' Moore recalls. ''People said, 'No, that's the park; leave it alone.' ''

''It's just astonishing to me,'' he says. ''You'd think this would promote all sorts of acrimony, and it doesn't. It's amazing how everyone really wants similar things.''

All this listening to people, however, consumes time and effort. ''A nasty but very important problem,'' Moore admits, ''is how to make money on the fee.''

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