Charles Willard Moore was born in 1925 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. A former school teacher, Moore's mother recognized his gifts early on, and through encouragement in self-education and frequent trips across the United States, the young Moore developed a remarkable sense of place aided by a photographic memory.


Too young to serve in World War II, Moore spent those years as an student of architecture at the University of Michigan. There he came under the wing of Dean Roger Bailey, who would expand his cultural horizons.


Upon graduation in 1947, Moore went to San Francisco, attracted by the European qualities of the city, and the legacy of the Bay Region Vernacular. He apprenticed for several offices: Mario Corbett, Joseph Allen Stein, and Clark & Beuttler. Moore was registered as an architect by his 21st birthday.


Hoping to teach, but not having been to Europe, Moore applied for and was awarded Cranbrook Academy's Booth Travel Fellowship.  Between 1949 and 1950, Moore traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa, where he watercolored, photographed, wrote, and even made 16mm films of various architectural monuments. At this time, Roger Bailey, back in the United States, left his post at the University of Michigan and went to Salt Lake City, where he established Utah's first architecture program.

With his first teaching job waiting for him, Moore returned from Europe and drove his imported Citroen 2CV to Salt Lake City. Moore reveled in this teaching experience, remarkable, he later recalled, because he and his colleagues were able to invent an entire architectural curriculum, without an established orthodoxy to counter their efforts.


Anticipating a draft notice in 1950, Charles Moore enlisted, trained, and was sent to Seoul, Korea, serving as lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Some of his work included the design of simple structures such as schools and chapels. His trips on leave to Japan, however, would profoundly shape his work to come, after experiencing architectural and landscape works of tremendous spirit and subtlety.


In the hopes of advancing his own studies, Moore, with the aid of the GI Bill, enrolled at Princeton University upon discharge. He arrived there in 1954 where he immediately formed important relationships with fellow students who would remain lifelong friends and collaborators, including William Turnbull, Jr., Donlyn Lyndon, Richard Peters, and Hugh Hardy. Moore's work at Princeton was influenced by its Dean Jean Labatut, professors Enrico Peressutti, George Rowley, and especially Louis Kahn, for whom he served as a Post Doctoral Teaching Assistant. Moore completed a Master's Degree and Ph.D. in only three years, writing his dissertation on Water and Architecture.