Preserving the Wondrous Home of a Legendary Architect

By Lawrence Biemiller

Austin, Tex. -- The best houses teach us that great architecture doesn't have to be big, or even serious. Sir John Soane's home in London, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater -- none of these is especially large, but each has an enormous amount of personality, even playfulness. Jefferson built his bed into the wall between his bedroom and his study -- and what could say more about the man who slept there? He designed a seven-day clock whose weights mark the days of the week as they descend -- and he let Saturday hide down in the basement. The lesson of such places is so simple that only the cleverest architects seem to understand it: A little dome or fountain here; an arch or fluted column there; maybe something half hidden, waiting to delight the discoverer -- and pretty soon you're having fun, breaking out of your rut, forgetting to be boring.

One of the best houses of our time is tucked beneath a canopy of trees in a quiet neighborhood near the University of Texas here, and with any kind of luck it will soon be open to visitors. The house belonged to Charles Moore, who died in 1993 after a life rich with designing buildings and teaching architecture. Legendary among architecture students for his studio courses and field trips -- Mexico was a frequent destination -- he is best known to the public as a progenitor of postmodernism, which relieved architecture's Miesian starkness with classical detail, color, and wit.

Moore's particular talent was in creating spaces as lively as the history of architecture is long. Kresge College at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which he designed beginning in the late '60s, became a Mediterranean hill town organized around a winding street. Dartmouth College's Hood Museum, from 1985, is as dramatic as an opera set. It has a set's foreshortened perspectives, a cozy bridge, a long ramp winding up to the entrance -- and crescendos at every turn. The Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the last designs to which Moore contributed, is built on a slope and arranged so that its staircases seem like waterfalls, splashing from landing to landing, filling a sunny courtyard with people before spilling out again on the other side.

It's probably safe to say that few architects were more clever, or more fun: Moore's own house is all the proof you need. Park in the driveway, head through the wave-topped gate that opens into the boxy wooden tower, and knock at the carved door. Inside, a long wall of bookshelves curves gently inward on your left, lighted by large windows on your right. The curve pulls you into the house, tempted though you are to examine each cluttered shelf -- besides books, there are toy soldiers, masks, tiny houses carved out of tree bark, and whole towns of clay buildings. Above the shelves, elaborate lighting fixtures -- each different -- give the effect of columns and pull your attention upward, to the sloping underside of the roof. Even the floor is worth looking at: It's full of circles painted inside squares.

A few steps more and you reach a dining area with a big wooden table -- perfect for long, laughter-filled dinners with friends. Past that, the curving wall leads you into a warm, eclectic living room. The mantel is surmounted by palm trees cut out of painted plywood; a pair of leather-upholstered sofas face each other across a glass-topped table containing a toy-filled landscape. Everywhere are colors, nooks, sculptures, curios you couldn't begin to put names to, toys and more toys. Steps lead up to a pillow-filled conversation area, from which a window looks out on vine-covered pergolas and a pool. Poke your head up the narrow side stair: There's a tiny loft for guests.

Follow the curving wall to the windows at the end of the house -- and see how the wall continues outside, becoming a fence that separates the pool area from the lawn. The curve slips right around into the apartment on the far side of the pool, emerging again near the front gate to form a giant ellipse. The conceit of the design is that the ellipse encloses the public areas of both the house and the apartment -- bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens are outside its border.

Hard to believe that when Moore bought this place it was just an average suburban home, with low ceilings and smallish rooms. That was in 1984, the year the University of Texas hired him away from the University of California at Los Angeles. In the years that followed, he transformed the house into an astonishing spatial and visual wonderland. Like Soane's home in London, Moore's became a museum displaying both itself and the books and artifacts its creator had collected -- in Moore's case, everything from the battalions of tin soldiers to a pair of chairs with Texas-longhorn headrests. But the house was also a hostel for architecture students, a backdrop for Moore's celebrated parties, a staging area for worldwide trips, and, above all, a monument to the human imagination.

Moore died two years ago, at the age of 68. Afterward, architects, clients, and friends began campaigning to preserve the house, which is short drive from the campus. Months of complex negotiations among heirs, university officials, potential donors, and members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects now seem close to paying off. A plan has been devised under which a new foundation would operate the house, opening it to visitors and for use by the university's architecture students.

The adjoining apartment -- built for Arthur Andersson, one of Moore's architectural partners here -- would become a residence for the architecture school's visiting lecturers. Moore's drawings and slides and other documents, now crammed into a dressing room, would be catalogued and moved to the architecture school's library. The foundation would also work on behalf of architecture education. Kevin Keim, who worked for Moore as an editor on several books, has coordinated the preservation project.

Stan Haas, an Austin architect, is one of the project's volunteers. "It's very important that it be a living complex, not just a house museum," he says. "We're not going to sell cuff links and stained glass -- I don't think Charles was that kind of guy. He would prefer to have some students sitting around his fireplace." Mr. Haas adds: "He influenced an entire generation of architecture students -- people would stand in line to be in his studios."

Mr. Keim says that what Moore taught him is this: "Never be boring." He adds, fondly: "There were always people around -- no locked doors. There was usually great chaos, especially when Charles was in town." That chaos is the one thing missing from the house now. As animated as its spaces are, as lively as its artifacts make it, on a rainy winter afternoon it's still too quiet inside. Architecture students, visitors interested in buildings, children eager to see wonderful toys -- it's easy to imagine Moore welcoming them to his house, even now, and easier still to imagine their being much the happier for having come.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published January 12, 1996.