joeb moore, aia
greenwich, conn. In the vestibule of Joeb Moore's office building on Greenwich Avenue, the busy retail corridor that runs down to Long Island Sound, a 10-foot-tall black “iPod” shows a continuous loop of digital photos of the firm's work, and passersby on the street stop now and then to take in the images that flow across the 50-inch screen. The vintage mid-century modern building stands out amid the mostly gentrified Ralph Lauren-style storefronts. This is Shope Reno Wharton territory, and Moore worked for the large architecture firm famous for its Shingle-style mansions for nearly a decade before starting his own practice in 1993.
But Greenwich is also close to New Canaan, Conn., home of the so-called Harvard Five. History was made there 60 years ago when, fresh from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, and John Johansen moved to the bucolic countryside, introducing ideas that flew in the face of old New England architecture. It's fitting that Moore, AIA, chose this manicured enclave, where classical old houses commingle with the moderns, to explore the contrasts that have intrigued him since architecture school: What is modern and what is traditional, and how does contemporary architecture connect, in a dynamic way, to history, culture, and ideas about domesticity while also moving them forward?
At the heart of his aesthetic is a fascination with the template-based neo-traditional architecture currently dominating suburbia, which Moore says “plays into that deep, deep nostalgia Americans have for a history that's not theirs.” In response, his work experiments with the “gradation or scale at which we slide traditional and modern architecture between each other” and the ambiguity—sometimes straightforward, sometimes ironic—he can create from that. He tries to use familiar ideas in unexpected ways to show that suburban architecture can be more than product design—granite counters, open floor plan, French doors, and shingle coating, for example. “At its best, architecture can use the concepts of commodity, but you have to do it in a knowing way,” he says. “There has to be a moment of delight and mystery in the work. That's the problem with the mass-produced housing that dominates, even in these high-end markets. It's a receipt, a sum: Here are all the things you need.”
a social art Moore's voluble, brainy nature has been a defining force in the trajectory of his career. Building design piqued his interest as early as middle school. He signed up for his high school's architecture program, but it appeared to be a dull endeavor—a means to an end, which was to make pretty spaces. That view was transformed during his first two years of college, which were spent studying not architecture, but rather sampling courses in environmental economics, philosophy, social studies, and the history of beauty and aesthetics. He finally declared an architecture major in his junior year at Clemson University. “At that point, I was certain there was more to it as a social art than purely a visual art,” he says.
Since then, Moore has kept one foot in academia while tending to the demands of practice. After receiving his M.Arch from Clemson in 1985, he settled not far from where he grew up in northern Westchester, N.Y., having decided that Greenwich—35 minutes from Manhattan—was close enough to the city to stay connected, as well as a place with a more domestic, suburban identity. In 1988 he enrolled in post-professional studies at Yale University, studying architectural history and theory while working at Shope Reno Wharton part time. By the fall of 1992, after turning down a partnership offer, he left the firm to accept a teaching position at Columbia University that continues today, and a year later, he joined up with fellow SRW alum Laura Kaehler, AIA, to found Kaehler/Moore Architects. The principals preside over independent studios but share a staff that fluctuates in number from 25 to 35, many of them Moore's current or former students from Columbia and Yale, where he was a visiting professor last spring.
Connecticut's Gold Coast was the perfect place to begin testing his ideas. There, he found reasonably sophisticated clients who were interested in both historical buildings and contemporary design—and deep-pocketed enough to take some risks. A family friend gave Moore his first commission—a modern house, which he says was “shocking” at the time. That project, Winding Lane, resulted in a regional AIA award and subsequent additions and renovations to the house.
improving on the past At his core, Moore is motivated by the belief that the built environment reflects society's cultural health and is one of the things that animates it and pushes it along. Even though his work is clearly about spatial and material innovation, he is leery of the modernist label (at least where clients are concerned). Viewed in the context of history, Moore aims to build on the ideas of the Harvard Five, who in turn took the Bauhaus to the next level. “Getting contemporary work is hard, and it's taken me 10 years to reach a point where I can do this bridging between traditional and contemporary experiences,” Moore says. “Promoting modernism can be dangerous—it implies it's just a style, and I'm just as suspicious of a modernist style as I am classical style. I'm interested in work that moves people.”