As I thought back to the memorial service that was held for Charles in Los Angeles last Sunday, and looked ahead to the one that will take place in Austin, I realized there was one terrible mistake in the planning. Nearly a week has passed since the L.A. service, and another week will elapse between this gathering in New Haven and the next one in Austin. This is never how Charles himself would have done it. How unthinkable to have six days of down time between Los Angeles and New Haven. If this had been organized as he ran his life, these three events would probably have been within 24 hours of each other, or at least within a couple of days, and those who felt compelled to attend more than one would have rushed from airport to airport, crossing time zone after time zone, feigning utter indifference to jet lag.
Indeed, now that I think of it, probably the right way to have memorialized Charles Moore would have been to have chartered a 747, and loaded it up with all of his friends, colleagues, clients and students, and kept us all together on board as the 747 spent a few days leaping from city to city, from airport to airport, letting all of us live for a day or two as Charles did for so much of his life — out of a suitcase, and stopping wherever there was some wonderful architecture to see. Now, that really would have been Charles’s revenge. The jet would have had to have been perpetually late, of course, and it would have had to have missed a few scheduled stops and made a few impulsive ones that were not part of its original plan. There would be not a movie on board but a slide lecture; it would all have felt vaguely disheveled — but that plane would have known precisely where it was going, and every one of us on board would have had a wonderful time.
I was never a colleague of Charles’s, but I was something all of his partners, clients and friends were, which was his student. I took not a studio course but a seminar from Charles, and it was an extraordinary experience, not because he was brilliantly prepared and dazzling in the classroom — he was not — but because it was an occasion to listen to him to what he did better than anyone, which was ramble on for two hours, in a kind of wonderful stream of consciousness. The subject of the course was the Bauhaus, which I remember mainly because I can still picture him walking into the room each week with that huge black and white book published back in the late 60’s under his arm.
But I remember that class for another reason, too, which is that it is where, in a sense, I began my career. I wrote a paper for that class that struck Charles in some unexpectedly positive way, and his reaction led me to believe for the first time that I might have some ideas about architecture worth taking seriously. Not for Charles Moore the paucity of compliments intended to distance students from the master; his enthusiasm was all there, and he liked nothing better than to share it with his students. This translated, for me, into kind of support like none other: the support that gives you the courage to get started.
When Jewish rabbis speak of life as a journey — "birth is the beginning, and death the inevitable destination” — they mean to make the point, I suppose, that life is not a journey to someplace else, but that it is itself a voyage — that getting there is not only half the fun, but all of the fun, the only point there really is. For no one was life more literally a journey than for Charles. He was constantly on the move, so much so that one is forced to take note of the paradox of a man who had so much love of the idea of home and house, and who had so much to say about these ideas in our culture, nonetheless having such trouble staying home himself. But I’m thinking not only of the minor journeys to and fro with which Charles filled his days and weeks and years, but of the larger journey that his life represented. It was in every sense a journey toward civilization, a journey toward an idea of what architecture could mean for individuals, for society, for a culture as a whole.
One risks sounding corny and sentimental when one speaks of journeys toward wisdom, but that really is the case here. Indeed, not the least part of Charles’s gift was his ability to take ideas that in other hands would have been the ultimate in trite, tiresome cliche, and breathe into them freshness and energy. His belief that architecture could embody the essence of life, that it could be a pursuit of joy; his insistence that buildings were sensual objects as much as cerebral ones; his view of cities as representing, at least potentially, an uplifting, energizing communal life; his determination to teach us all to respond to buildings in terms of feeling — all of these could have been the views of a mindless architectural Candide, not of a great intellect.
What is it that made Charles not that mindless Candide, but the extraordinary presence that he was? His manner was surely part of it — easy, comforting, full of love for the architecture you were looking at together but also for the act of looking itself, and the act of conversation. Who could ever forget tooling about southern California with Charles, going with him to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse or to Disneyland, an excursion I thought of as roughly like being taken through the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. He was himself as easy to be with as his own buildings, at their best, aspired to be; he invited you in, and operated on the premise that in life as well as in architecture, the pursuit of comfort is no vice.
But his ease, both in personal manner and in architectural style, does not fully explain why those of us who seek challenge were not left unsatisfied by Charles and his work. Indeed, in some ways it only compounds the mystery. Why is it that this man who believed so utterly in the power of architecture to reflect and enhance joy could mean so much to people who are so often skeptical of joy on its own terms, whose view of the world is far darker than the one Charles seemed to embody?
I think much of the answer lies in the sheer quality of Charles’s work — in the quality of his architecture, which was consistently inventive and vastly richer than the work of so many of his contemporaries; and also in the quality of his writing, which was one of the most notable outputs of prose of any architect of modern times. Few architects can put together a coherent English sentence; Charles wrote with an eloquence and a grace that leaves almost all of his contemporaries in the dust, and what he had to say was not simple at all, but provided the basis for a tremendous amount of thinking that, in the last decade, has become the common wisdom.
I’m fond of quoting his wonderful essay, "You Have to Pay for the Public Life” from Perspecta 9/10, published here at Yale by Bob Stern in 1965, that essay that marked the beginning of the modern academic discipline of Disneyland Studies. Within that wonderful title was an essential point that no one else was seeing in 1965: there is a certain kind of public, communal, urban life that once took place in the streets and squares of great cities but now exists only in private places, in places like Disneyland.
In Charles’s own words, which have to have some presence at this service, "By almost any conceivable method of evaluation, 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 that have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California, whose only edge is the ocean and whose center is otherwise undiscoverable. Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost somebody a lot of money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life.”
But quality alone — the quality of his architecture, the quality of his writing — does not solve the mystery, either. I think the real answer to why Charles was not the Candide of architecture, to why he spoke so powerfully to so many with a different worldview, is that he himself was far darker than he liked to let on. He had no illusions that the struggle was easy, that life really was like Disneyland, that it was all a matter of pretty pastels on painted stucco. Indeed, while he never sought to reflect irony in his work in the literal manner that, say, Bob Venturi did, not a single perception of Charles was without its ironic component. He knew how hard this business was, he knew how absurd civilization was, he knew how mad the whole game was, now as ever. He saw it all, with as sharp a pair of eyes as anyone, and every line he drew and every word he wrote reflected that knowledge.
We feel that in his work — we feel his knowledge, and it is to that, I think, that we respond. There is the joy that comes from ignorance and there is the joy that comes from knowledge, and Charles’s was always of the second kind. He had been around the track, he knew what was up, and he still believed, somehow, in the power architecture has to make life a little better. Maybe a better way to describe his way of seeing the world is to say that it emerged from the certainty that passion and irony did not have to be mutually exclusive. Charles spread his gospel of architectural joy not with the simplistic belief of the evangelist, but with the knowing irony of the truly wise.