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Los Angeles is a defining element of Eric Owen Moss’s practice. Not only was he born and bred here; his eponymous firm is also arguably best known for having transformed the Hayden Tract, a once-derelict, post-industrial stretch of Culver City, into a thriving locus of creative practices — first small media offices in the ’80s, and more recently AOL, Nike, and Dr. Dre — housed in visually arresting, rough-hewn, science-fiction forms of architecture. Moss has also served as the director of the esteemed Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) since 2002. With his tenure coming to an end in August 2015, Architizer dropped by the A+Award Juror’s office, located right in the center of his parallel Culver City universe, to discuss how his practice will change once school’s out.
Eric Owen Moss, photo by Juan Pablo Valencia via Revista Exclama
As you approach the end of the term as the director of SCI-Arc, does that change what you do there or how you approach your job?
No, it doesn’t change it at all. You just run it until the race ends and then somebody else runs it. We’re still doing what we’re doing: we’re still making mischief. I’ll be gone for a year completely, and then I’ll probably come back and do a little teaching. So my relationship with the institution will continue, redefined.
For you, what are the rewards of the teaching process? Do your students ever do things that surprise you?
I run a firm with about 25 characters here, and we’re doing various kinds of work in various places. For about 10 years I’ve done the SCI-Arc, too. And the question is really not your question but a conceptual question: what is the relationship between the two? In other words, do you run an office like a school; do you run a school like an office? In a fundamental way, they’re quite different. Their purposes are different, and yet they’re interested in things that are in parallel. I think there’s a sort of perpetual curiosity about what architecture might become, both in the office and the school.
The Box, 1994, Culver City, California. Photo by Tom Bonner
Students, like urban planning projects, continue on even after your presence is gone, but it doesn’t sound like you’re interested in distilling any of your ideologies in either sphere.
If you’re an ideologue, you’re always going to vote democratic, or you’re always going to make the building symmetrical. There’s a rule system, and you follow the rule system. The relationship between the office and the school is that they are both exploratory. They’re both investigatory. They’re both open-ended. Neither of them are conclusions. They’re impermanent conclusions in the sense that you work on something, you develop it, it’s built, and then you look at it and you say, “It’s x. Fine. But it could have been y.” And you keep it moving. The school works that way. It worked that way when I was there. So we continue to move the discussion. It cultivates the idea that people who are doing work that is important and of interest would also get involved in a discussion of what architecture is. So that’s really the question: what’s architecture? Who says so? And whatever the conclusion is, different people continue to say different things and we continue to listen at SCI-Arc. I think that’s an important educational quality and also an important professional quality.
What endures probably works in a couple of ways. One is what endures structurally, what you’ve set up in the organization of the school that will last for a long time. We changed the school radically. It was almost gone when we started. It had various kinds of issues and we resolved one of those issues, and we bought the building.
What are your students working on now in your final term?
We’re working on a lot of different things. We’re also doing something with Habitat for Humanity. We’re going into a venue which is not typical for SCI-Arc. We’re going into a part of L.A. County called Willowbrook, and we’re going to build five houses over a period of five years, which is a very different social context, a different conceptual model. They’re not going to be the most esoteric buildings. The question is how esoteric can you get with the constraints of the neighborhood and the budget and the social pathologies. It’s a very tough thing to do. When I got the project, I talked to one of the supervisors and said “put me in the toughest part of the city.” It will be interesting to see if we can be conservative enough to afford to build it and radical enough to change the conception of what expensive housing looks like.
It’s interesting that you requested the toughest neighborhood.
There’s a lot of discussion from time to time about the interrelation of design, content, and social pathologies in neighborhoods that are tough with drugs and guns, minority populations, what can we contribute to that discussion. There are a number of issues. Some of them are more obvious; some of them are less obvious. There’s air quality, which stems from the fact that a lot of these sites are next to the freeway. The social context of the building determines how to organize the internal space. And then really conceptual content: what’s it look like? What’s it look like from the outside? What’s it look like from the inside? What can it offer people in terms of the way they live or work in their house? On top of which it can’t be super expensive. It will probably be over the next summer.
Earlier, you mentioned identifying what architecture “is.” And you’ve been practicing for quite a while now. I’m wondering if that definition of architecture for you has changed? What is it now?
You want to be careful when you ask that question that you don’t always come up with the same answer. I don’t know if this is the right word or not, but maybe in an existential sense, what architecture is is a mystery. Most people live their lives trying to find a format or a system. When you systematize your life, in spite of all the disparate, strange possibilities rattling around, essentially you’re ruling out a lot of possibilities. If you’re aware of all the possibilities, there’s the curiosity of “It’s this, but it could be that.” The idea of continuing to look at architecture, shape-wise, face-wise, form-wise, material-wise, even definition-wise: what’s a floor? What’s a wall? What’s a window? What’s a roof? There are probably people who think they know what they are, and there are people who continue to question it. We work in that way. So that’s an answer to the question of “What is architecture?” There’s not a permanent answer to it.
Stealth, 2001, Culver City, California. Photo by Tom Bonner
As you design buildings, are you conscious of the transformative effects that they might have on a city?
When you take an area that is virtually uninhabited, and you put thousands of square feet and hundreds of people into the neighborhood, you make a different sociology. I think you have to anticipate that that will change as the contents change. There are ways of controlling that: what do you charge? What are you building? What are you providing? Who are you cognizant of as a client?
I think it’s also important to understand that what we’ve done in working in this area which is part of Los Angeles in Central Los Angeles and part of Culver City is that in a certain moment, it gets contagious, and when it’s contagious, other people will come in. I remember that when I came here. It was a mess: rusting railroad tracks, broken liquor bottles, blowing pieces of the L.A. Times. It’s not that anymore, it became something which is viable. The first people who came here were younger people: filmmakers, media types, public relations types, but not the fancy ones. Now, you’ve got Nike, you’ve got Converse, you’ve got AOL, you’ve got Dr. Dre, you have all of these high-end companies. They now see it as a logical place to come and do business.
Samitaur, 1996, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Tom Bonner
Architecture is completely transformative.
It can be.
It can’t not be. But it can be a good transformation or a bad transformation.
It has the potential to do that, to remake the city. This is a neighborhood that 20 years ago you probably wouldn’t have imagined to be this way.
So were these your goals and visions when you first started as an architect, as a young Eric? The transformative quality of things you conceptualize?
I think, yeah. You’re commenting on cities when you make them different; you’re commenting on the culture; you’re commenting on what architecture is when you make architecture that is different. In Barcelona, we’re working on a conversion of a power plant that was built in 1970 and shut down in 2010. You can’t tear the whole thing down. It’s like getting a piece of paper with a bunch of drawings or scratchings on it; you can erase some things but you can’t erase everything. It’s going to be housing, a hotel, beach stuff, and recreation. We also won a competition recently for the remaking of the center city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s kind of a mixed venue. We have a huge site in the center of the city, which is an old train station. There’s big, old steel pieces of buildings, which were used to maintain the Santa Fe railroad. Very industrial stuff. And then in and amongst those you have all this space and housing and entertainment. Like I said, it’s contagious.
In your year away from SCI-Arc, you’ll have a little more time. Do you have plans for how that will change what you do from day to day?
There’s a lot of work which is very promising that we are right in the midst of — I think this has to do with the economy. We’re finishing two projects: one is this fancy restaurant, the other is something called the Pterodactyl. We’re also doing a very big book on all this about this area in concept. It’s called “I’ll Believe It When I See It.” And we’re getting ready to do a little show in New York at Studio Vendome.
But the way this office runs is seven days a week. It just keeps going. I’m not sure that you just move something out, you move something else in.