|LSDesign: Charles W. Moore and the Delirious Interior
by Jorge Otero-Pailos
In December 1979, Progressive Architecture asked American architects to nominate the most influential architects from among their peers. Charles Moore (1925–1993) made the top ten. He also came in first in terms of number of pages devoted to a single architect by the magazine. His influence was not confined to the profession but extended deep into academia as well. In 1989 the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, in partnership with the American Institute of Architects, awarded him the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. The board conferring the award described him as 'a brilliant and inspiring force who has transformed the character of architectural education in this country'.1 The remark was not an exaggeration. Moore trained many of the teachers who came to dominate architectural education in the 1980s. The biographies and collections of his essays attest to his intellectual range.2 Exhibitions of his work have underscored his pivotal influence on the student protests at Yale in the late 1960s.3 But some of Moore’s most significant academic achievements have not received scholarly attention. Partly this is because his defense of fantasy as the poetic source of design has been misinterpreted as the mark of an intellectual lightweight not worthy of serious study. It is also partly because Moore’s career involved groping toward goals that were not transparent to him and therefore never overtly stated. Some of his contributions can be appreciated only retroactively in light of their historical unfolding.
Moore was deeply concerned with clarifying the nature of the architect’s intellectual work. As a student, he became frustrated by the fact that the standard of architectural scholarship had been established by art historians, who restricted the definition of intellectual work to textual historical analysis. Moore would help legitimize a notion of intellectuality based on different standards of competency, including visual proficiency and the ability to grasp the historical essence of buildings experientially. Moore’s interest in experience led him early on to the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard, whom he interpreted for architectural audiences. Although later in life Moore de-emphasized phenomenology as too theoretical, his work was central to the formation of architectural phenomenology.
Moore’s major contribution to architectural discourse has been interpreted by authors like Charles Jencks as turning the attention of architects toward decoration and playful superficiality, instead of the structure of the building.4 This is not incorrect, but it is only part of the story. Moore’s interest in decoration was a function of his fascination with interiors and ultimately with the inner world of human experience. His 'superficiality' was rooted in an obsession with achieving profound experiences. To properly situate Moore in the intellectual history of postmodern architecture, we must distinguish between his intellectual work and his architectural aesthetics, even if Moore himself insisted on conflating the two.
While teaching at Berkeley [between 1959 and 1965], Moore regained contact with his Princeton classmates Donlyn Lyndon (b. 1936) and William Turnbull (1935–1997). Together with Richard Whitaker (b. 1929), they founded the firm MLTW as a moonlighting operation, while each of them held full-time jobs elsewhere. Their first major commission was the Sea Ranch Condominium (1965), located about one hundred miles north of San Francisco on a steeply sloping site perched above a rocky bluff on the Pacific Ocean. The design clustered together nine residences on a twenty-four-foot module around a courtyard, with a common parking lot at the top of the hill. What attracted the attention of critics at the time was principally the compact siting and massing of the complex, the use of shed roofs, and the cladding of the exterior walls with rough vertical wood siding left to weather.6 These expressive choices were in the tradition of the Bay region style, which had been popularized by architects William Wurster (1895–1973) and Joseph Esherick (1914–1998), who cofounded University of California Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design in 1959. The American architectural historian and critic Lewis Mumford coined the term Bay region style in 1947 to describe their attempt to replace the narrow orthodoxy of the international style with a more inclusive modernism capable of assimilating the vernacular aesthetics of local building traditions.7 Opposing the modernist establishment seemed congruent with the education Moore had received at Princeton. 'I started out thinking of myself as a “Bay Region architect”', he recalled.8
The design of the Sea Ranch Condominium was a collaborative effort that included exceptional emerging talents outside of MLTW, such as Lawrence Halprin, who worked as landscape designer on the project. The partners divided up the work among themselves, and Moore gravitated toward the design of the interiors. While the exteriors made reference to local building traditions, Moore’s interiors were totally unconventional. He subdivided the large, double-story space of each unit into two aedicules. Moore used the aedicule to anchor and arouse the material imagination. The principal aedicule covered the fireplace, making the association of the aedicule with the poetic image of fire more obvious than in his own house in Orinda, California. Above the aedicule, Moore placed the bedrooms as open loft spaces. The aedicule was meant as the restricted place of reverie, whether awake in front of the fire or in a half-slumber in bed. It was an architectural translation of Bachelard’s claim that bodily confinement forced people to experience 'concentrated wandering', to feel as though they were 'elsewhere'.9
The clients were not impressed. The directors of the real estate development firm Castle and Cook feared that the units would not sell with such an unconventional loft interior. Moore and his partners eased their clients’ anxiety with the argument that the aedicule would be a familiar experience to everyone. It was, they claimed, a small house within a house, like 'a child’s play space under a card table after you throw a sheet over the top'.10 The aedicule was meant to help inhabitants rediscover the joyful innocence of their inner child. The argument was simple and persuasive enough to turn the clients’ opinion around.
Joy was a central concept of Bachelard’s philosophy. He associated joy with the immediate experience of the onset of a poetic image in one’s consciousness. Bachelard regarded poetic images as 'inner visions', in which inner consciousness and outer world came together. As such, they constituted, in the words of philosopher Edward Casey, 'the interiorization of the world'.11 For Moore, the aedicule came to stand in for this interiorization, miniaturization, and privatization of outer reality into intimate personal experiences. The aedicule became for him the emblematic poetic architectural space, in the sense that its function was to induce poesis, or creativity, by blending inner and outer world. It was a pedagogical crutch to help inhabitants 'assimilate and forget' outer reality and create something new.
The aedicule, as the site of authentic experiences, was also conceived as a step toward a more ambitious redefinition of what made American homes genuine. Architectural historians have failed to note this ambition in the interiors of Sea Ranch. Instead, historians like Leland Roth have indexed the building’s 'authenticity' as a function of its exterior resemblance to the vernacular farm structures of the Bay region.12 Roth is emblematic of the trend to treat vernacular buildings as the standard of authenticity, which became common among historians in the 1970s, as vernacular architecture studies gained momentum in the United States in the wake of pioneering studies such as Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) and Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas (1977). Moore is also rightly considered to be a pioneer in the study of vernacular architecture, as his 1962 article 'Toward Making Places' attests.13 But to focus on vernacular styles is to miss the central point of Moore’s theory of authenticity. Moore’s esteem of vernacular architecture did not lead him to conclude that new buildings in a vernacular style were more authentic than others. For Moore, what made new buildings authentic was not their shape, but rather the type of experience they offered. In particular, he thought the most authentic buildings were those that immediately induced the experience of familiar poetic images in the visitor’s mind. This was a subtle but significant shift in the discourse of architectural authenticity. It moved the locus of authenticity from the object to the subject. The mark of authenticity was the onset of a poetic image in the subject – not the style, materials, or other physical givens of the building.
The shift to the subject did not mean that one could do away with the building entirely. The building remained a means to an experiential end. But Moore’s experiential theory of authenticity effectively relieved the modernist pressure to produce finely crafted buildings and to restrict expression to the modernist vocabulary. Moore saw the use of historic architectural styles familiar to visitors as a basic way to encourage them to project their own memories onto the new building, to begin to turn inward and choose their reality within reality. Moore was interested in discovering more sophisticated means, besides style, to turn visitors’ attention inward toward their immediate experiences of poetic images. For Moore, the highest level of architectural sophistication in organizing the visitor’s attention was only achievable in the building’s interiors, where the architect was in full control of the environment. This is why during the design of Sea Ranch he gravitated toward interior design. In the interiors, Moore began to mark his differences from the Bay region style, de-emphasizing stylistic form and emphasizing experiential poetic content.
Working with a tight budget as construction neared completion in 1965, Moore decided on modest means to emphasize the importance of the aedicule within the larger spaces of the Sea Ranch units. He designed bold primary-color paint schemes to make the aedicules stand out against the natural wood interiors.14 Essentially, Moore turned the aedicules into large painted signs to direct visitors toward them. He had learned to paint large abstract graphics while serving in the Korean War, where he designed wayfaring signs for his regiment. At Princeton, he developed that early work into a more sophisticated understanding of the effect of movement on the perception of signs. [Professor Jean] Labatut’s studio courses required students to establish the scale and appearance of their designs as a function of the speed of the observer’s movement. Many of Labatut’s advisees in the 1940s and 1950s produced theses exploring movement-generated designs. For instance, Frederick C. McNulty (MFA, 1949) did 'A study of the effect of modes of travel at various speeds and its effect on architectural scale as preparation to the design of a motor hotel'.15 Moore’s own dissertation included visual analyses of how his fountains would be perceived by drivers and was described in the school’s exhibition catalogue as a 'design of roadside water choreography'.16 Labatut recalled: 'All these projects that the students were doing, are strongly related to the sequencing, the experience of creating these sequences.'17 Of all his students, Venturi was the one who most literally (and shamelessly) appropriated Labatut’s ideas as the basis for his own teaching and research, publishing them as Learning from Las Vegas without a single reference to Labatut.
Sometimes Moore sinned as well by denying Labatut’s influence: 'I never got as excited about him as Don [Lyndon] and Bill [Turnbull].'18 But he redeemed himself later in life, recognizing that 'in the five years that I had [at Princeton], certainly Labby [Labatut] was the key figure; the subtlety and breadth of his vision made it all work'.19 Labatut, the ex-camoufleur, taught his students that the viewer’s movement was a perceptual variable that changed the appearance of a building’s form, making it seem larger than it really was, or smaller, or even disappear altogether.20 Camoufleurs used paint to deobjectify buildings and make them vanish in the eyes of enemy observers. Labatut taught paint camouflage to his architecture students as an aesthetic technique equivalent to the mental process of 'forgetting' historical architectural precedents. This deobjectification technique, overlaid with phenomenological arguments so that immediate experience was a condition of possibility for authentic creativity, were the aesthetic and intellectual sources of Moore’s interior painting schemes at Sea Ranch.
At first, critics did not know what to make of 'Moore’s preoccupation with interior architecture'.21 But two years after the completion of Sea Ranch, Moore’s paint scheme design was identified by Progressive Architecture as the origin of a new movement in architectural design: supergraphics.22 By then, Moore had moved from Berkeley to become chairman of the Department of Architecture at Yale University (1965–67), where he would remain for a decade, becoming dean in 1969 and then serving as professor from 1970 until 1975. The move to Yale was, as his partner William Turnbull remembered, a calculated gamble to 'roll the dice for the Big Time' and 'get your name known by the New York crowd'.23 With Yale as his platform, Moore became one of the most influential professors in America. As biographer David Littlejohn noted, 'Once at Yale, Moore was a certified celebrity. Virtually everything he did got into print.'24 The pedagogy that he promoted had a lasting influence on the school as well as on American architectural education in general.
Moore taught Yale students the art of supergraphics as a technique to tap the creativity of the material imagination, instead of the rational mind. While the emphasis on fantasy was attractive to students, Moore’s demotion of rationality caused tensions in the MLTW office. Donlyn Lyndon recalled arguing that design decisions had to be rationally justifiable, something Moore disagreed with. 'My perception', said Lyndon, 'is that Chuck’s work after we worked together went crazier'.25 Moore surrounded himself at Yale with trusted like-minded colleagues, like Barbara Stauffacher, a rising figure of the supergraphics movement, who had painted the interiors of the Sea Ranch athletic club in 1965.26 With Moore’s blessing, Stauffacher asked students to 'destroy' the interiors of the much-maligned Yale Art and Architecture Building with 'experience expanding' supergraphics.27 The act of painting directly on buildings achieved important pedagogical and symbolic objectives: it made students experience architectural design as something immediate by removing the intermediary step of technical drawing. It also linked architectural design to painting, a high cultural paradigm of self-expression. Moore’s active demotion of technical drawing was meant to promote intuitive design instead of reasoned analysis. 'Students came to mistrust drawing as a biased representation of architecture, incapable of showing how one would really experience a building,' recalled one of his students. 'It was an anti-intellectual approach to architecture, a no-nonsense seat of the pants attitude.'28 Moore told students that 'the opposite of rational is real' and that reality was perception.29 Authentic design, as Moore instructed it, required that students first discover their inner feelings and then exteriorize them directly without the mediation of thought. 'It was both an act of learning, and a process of deprogramming—erasing the preconceptions.'30 Supergraphics entailed a twofold erasing. It was a technique meant to operate both on the subject, suspending the rational mind, and on the object, undermining the spatial order of the building from the inside. Supergraphics was an aesthetic performance of the act of forgetting, which Moore held to be the precondition for authentic creativity.
Progressive Architecture emphasized that the supergraphics movement was not simply a decorative style but rather a new architectural form of 'spatial experimentation'. Ada Louise Huxtable (b. 1921), then architecture critic for The New York Times, labeled Moore an 'architecture-destroyer', whose supergraphics exploded the orthogonal orthodoxy of modernism’s interiors. Supergraphics, she argued, was 'wildly sense awakening'.31 Huxtable hailed Moore’s unabashed bright-colored interiors as 'a rebellious attempt to expand experience by breaking down the traditions of the Establishment' and an astonishing disclosure of how 'experientially repressive' corporate modernist interiors were.32 Moore was typecast as the enfant terrible of architecture, who pressed forth a 'genuinely revelatory expansion of visual and sensuous experience.'33 The 'destruction' of the modernist interior was justified in the name of achieving more authentic subjective experience. In an indirect way, supergraphics also helped Moore more openly embrace his own sexuality and liberate himself from the homophobic profession. Journalists such as Rosemary Kent in 'Is Decorator a Dirty Word?' did not fail to note the connection of supergraphics with interior design, a traditionally female practice. Using language that recalled Moore’s own dissertation (which proclaimed to be 'moistening' the aridness of modernism), Kent portrayed him as refreshing the 'austere international style interior' in order to 'break down the Monumentality' from the inside out with 'bold colors, supergraphics, and unusual juxtapositions of space and furnishings'.34 Supergraphics was not without critics. 'At its worst', wrote Huxtable, 'the style is superficial, tricky, repetitive, and shallowly ornamental'.35 Its expressions were at first tolerable only as long as they were safely contained within the interiors of buildings. But by 1968, supergraphics began appearing on facades across the country. Progressive Architecture noted: 'You may not be ready, again, for more Supergraphics, much less for learning that they are spreading to the outside.'36
Nearly ten years after finishing his dissertation, Moore had succeeded in bringing his interest in immediate experience to the center of architectural culture, where it was eagerly received as the liberating promise of a new horizon beyond modernism. Moore de-emphasized the phenomenological sources of his thinking, perhaps intuiting that bookishness was incongruous with his new persona as architectural spokesman of youth counterculture. His interest in immediate experience earned his work the label of 'LSDesign', for its capacity to induce 'groovy' and 'mind-warping experiences'.37 Doug Michels (1944–2003), Moore’s Yale student and later cofounder of Ant Farm, who did much of the actual painting for him, described supergraphics best: 'These are space trips.'38 Moore’s work came to denote illicit experiences, as free from the right-angle 'laws' of modernism as acid trips were from the conventions of 'square' postwar society.
The precise techniques Moore used to awaken the senses are best understood in relationship to his built projects, particularly his residence in New Haven. Upon accepting his appointment at Yale, Moore bought a two-story suburban Victorian house and began a renovation project that was substantially complete by 1966. He left the exterior essentially untouched, focusing his intervention exclusively on the interiors. As in his prior residential projects, he populated the house with aedicules. Three of them were large, double-height rectangular voids cut out from the existing floorboards. The two aedicules in the front and back of the house linked the first floor to the basement, while the central aedicule spanned the first and the second floors. The fourth aedicule was a small cabinet-like enclosure for his bed.
Each aedicule was wrapped in thin sheetrock walls from which sections of oversized circles and other geometric supergraphics were cut out (instead of painted on). The intention of the cutouts was to create immediate experiences that, as Moore understood them, involved as much sensual reception as mental projection. The mark of an immediate experience was the conflation of outer and inner worlds. Moore hoped that visitors would project their familiar inner images of circles onto the existing aedicules and complete the cutout figures in their minds.
The aedicules seemed like playful and simple exercises in Gestalt perception. But they were the result of what was then cutting-edge research. Moore’s theoretical grasp of supergraphics was informed by a wider academic interest in how environments affected human emotion. The epicenter of applied research on the subject was the West Coast. From 1966 to 1968, Moore worked with Bill Turnbull on the design and construction of the new faculty club for the University of California at Santa Barbara. The university was renowned as a pioneering center of sensitivity training and encounter groups (now known as group therapy). Kathleen Plummer, who was a graduate student in architecture at Santa Barbara while the faculty club was being built, recalled how Moore was drawn to the faculty’s research on the influence of environments on self-awareness.39 Moore’s interest in immediate experience was informed by ongoing research at Santa Barbara on preverbal or 'direct communication', which involved experimental ways to break down social hierarchy by, for instance, seating students in a circle instead of in rows. Direct communication was seen as a radical new way to 'break down "hang-ups" and old ways of doing things'.40 Likewise, supergraphics were understood as environmental devices to turn people’s attention back on themselves, empowering them to discover their inner images and project them, through the power of their imagination, onto the spaces implied by the paint.
Apart from supergraphics, Moore also placed found objects in his interiors to awaken experience. Playing on the label of 'LSDesign', he hung a disco ball from the ceiling of one of the aedicules in his Yale residence. The overt reference to youth culture encouraged interpretations of the aedicule as a space for experiential discovery. Moore used objects to play with scale, encouraging visitors to experience not just reality but also their inner fantasies of cosmic and minuscule worlds. He filled niches with toys and miniature houses, suggesting a diminutive scale. His use of found objects extended to drawings and graphics. He used a Volkswagen billboard as wallpaper. He copied a baroque drawing for a trompe-l’oeil dome on the ceiling above his bed, creating a virtual aedicule. The walls of this aedicule were painted with white stars like those found in the American flag, but here against a red background. It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the idea that reverie was an immediate experience of celestial immensity.
The stars on the aedicule were also a clear reference to contemporary pop art, initiated ten years earlier by works like Jasper Johns’s Flag(1954–55). Indeed, Moore was trying to do to architectural modernism what pop art had done to abstract expressionism. Modernism, like abstract expressionism, seemed self-referential, having eschewed non-modernist aesthetics in an effort to arrive at the abstract essence of a building. By the mid 1960s, Moore’s generation of architects began to question the claim that modernism expressed the timeless essence of construction, free from all historically determined symbolic content. In the jet age, modernism’s functionalist aesthetics seemed part of a bygone world of transatlantic ships and Model T cars, as Banham noted polemically.41 Venturi accused modernism of having evolved a new form of self-referentiality centered on the subjective 'heroic' visions of macho author-architects.42 To these young architects, it seemed that modernist architecture, like abstract expressionism, could only achieve meaningfulness through references that pointed back to an author. Modernism seemed to have reduced buildings to large signatures, whose cryptic messages were decodable only by an endogamous circle of initiated connoisseurs. The breakthrough of pop art was that it reintroduced a symbolic content into art other than the authorial self.
Pop art worked on two levels. Artists incorporated popular imagery to make a basic level of artistic meaning available to general audiences. They also worked on a deeper abstract level, using collage and other techniques to communicate more complex art-specific meanings to initiated audiences. As Jasper Johns explained: 'Using the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it . . . so I went on to similar things like the targets . . . things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.'43 By the late 1970s, art scholars had come to understand the dual iconographical and “infra-iconographical” nature of pop art.44 Surprisingly, architectural scholars to this day insist on stopping their interpretations of postmodernism at the level of its popular imagery. Popular symbolism and classical motifs freed postmodern architects to work on other levels, which a full accounting of the movement must necessarily engage. In Moore’s case, it allowed him to pursue his obsession to achieve authentic experiences through architecture and to use space to organize visitors’ attention inward, so they would become self-conscious of their experiences. Moore’s postmodernism was not a displacement of the myth of ontological primacy from the structure to the surface of buildings. Rather, it was a transfer of that myth onto the experiencing subject, which resulted in a search for experiential profundity.
Although it was seen as radical in architectural circles, Moore’s interest in experiential awareness was already a major theme in the world of contemporary art. Moore drew freely on different artistic movements that were also exploring ways of involving the subject in the creative process, such as countercultural, psychedelic, and comic strip art that tried to alter consciousness, and body or performance art that used reality as creation. But optical or op art spoke most directly to his interest in immediate experience. The Responsive Eye, the 1965 MoMA exhibition curated by William C. Seitz, presented the ability of op art to induce the involuntary participation of viewers in the painting through visual solicitation techniques such as the after-image, consecutive movement, line interference, ambiguous figures, reversible perspective, and the effects of dazzle. Op art techniques were drawn from the breakthroughs of camouflage, Gestalt perception, and psychophysiology. Significantly, the work of op artists like the Hungarian Victor Vasarely (1908–1997) and the Venezuelan Jesús Soto (1923–2005) spilled into architecture. They explored the optical superimposition of elements in three-dimensional space, anticipating the 1963 'discovery' of phenomenal transparency announced by Colin Rowe (1920–1999) and Robert Slutzky (1929–2005) in Yale’s journal of architecture Perspecta.45 Moore openly acknowledged his indebtedness to op art in the mural he painted on his backyard fence in New Haven. He also played the circular cutouts in the aedicules against a circular op art painting of the letter 'O'. Moore’s architecture aimed at the total implication of the visitor in the aesthetic process of creating space through the three-dimensional organization of visual and haptic relationships.
Moore’s supergraphics work in his Yale house reveals his greater ambitions. He wanted to awaken and expand the visual sense of visitors beyond the perception of physical space and toward the inner experience of imaginary poetic space. Because he believed the inner world of experience to be cosmic in proportions, he looked for ways to create an equivalent outer visual experience of larger-than-life incommensurability. His solution was to blow up the size of the cutouts, making it appear as though the geometric figures were so large they didn’t fit into the confines of the interior space and had slipped into spaces beyond. Supergraphics were meant to titillate the imaginary to visualize worlds beyond the real.
The architectural press reported on the house as an otherworldly experience: 'The space extending process of this super scale induces one man to infer that the gigantic graphics are part of a world beyond the one he is in.'46 'Supergraphics', wrote the Progressive Architecture reporter, gave visitors the 'giant vision of an extraterrestrial observer', and 'make Superman of us all'.47 But who did 'us' refer to? The short answer is architects. The discourse surrounding supergraphics held the architect’s experience of architecture to be more authentic than that of other mortals. Indeed it pretended to liberate regular folk by making them experience the world as architects:
Despite its populist appearance, supergraphics was elitist with regard to the architect’s aesthetic experience. It sought to educate and elevate the average man to the experiential level of an architect more than it sought to learn from popular culture. That is not to deny the influence of popular culture on supergraphics but only to underscore the degree to which supergraphics began as an academic movement. Regardless of how much it tried to appear antiacademic, it could not shed the educational impulse to frame everything as a pedagogical exercise. Supergraphics aimed at teaching the average person outside the classroom how to improve his or her experiential capacities. But it was also aimed squarely at the very structure of learning that was institutionalized in architecture schools. In academia, the experiential elitism of supergraphics served to exclude and delegitimize art historians as a group incapable of feeling the very thing that made buildings truly authentic.
This text is an excerpt from Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).