US-based architect Eric Owen Moss insists the world must revise itself continuously

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Eric Owen Moss about his ways of stretching the reality of possibilities and why if he is asked to design a hospital, he will try to design a jail first.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Oct 20, 2020

Eric Owen Moss (b. 1943, Los Angeles) earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1965, and two Masters of Architecture – from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, and Harvard’s GSD in 1972. He established his firm, Eric Owen Moss Architects (EOMA) in his home city a year later, taught at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) since 1974, and served as its director from 2002 to 2015. Moss has won architectural competitions and designed projects large and small both in the US – in San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, New Mexico and Ohio, and internationally – in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Italy, Spain, England, Austria, Finland, Norway, Germany, Serbia, Russia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, India, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Yet, the architect built only in Los Angeles, and for the most part, in a tiny territory – Culver City, now thriving pedestrian-friendly art district with scattered galleries and upscale restaurants.

Umbrella (right) and Pterodactyl, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Umbrella (right) and Pterodactyl, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA Image: Courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects

Since 1986, EOMA has been working on projects with local husband and wife developers, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith. Three of them contributed greatly to the neighbourhood’s remarkable transformation through converting abandoned lots, warehouses, and factories in Hayden Tract, a former industrial east end of Culver City. Moss’ urban experiment is a low-rise campus of more than 30 uniquely designed buildings that amount to over one million square feet of space rented to design and media companies. This sprawling iconic architecture – buildings and their fragments are identified here as Beehive, Pineapple, Pterodactyl, Slice, Stealth, Umbrella, and Waffle – attracts architectural aficionados from all over the world. The following is a condensed version of my conversation with Eric Owen Moss over FaceTime between New York and Los Angeles.

Lawson Westen House, Los Angeles | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Lawson Westen House, Los Angeles Image: Tom Bonner

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You said, “I am interested in the instinct rather than in the method”. Could you touch on your process, as well as the role of subjectivity in your work? Where do you begin?

Eric Owen Moss (EOM): What I mean by instinct is a sense, intuition, a judgement, which precedes the analysis used to explain something. An instinct is the opposite of method because a method suggests a system or an analytical sequence. So, for me an instinct is more crucial than method. And what I am objecting to is this – when something starts as an instinct and then, over time, becomes a method or a system, something that can be taught and repeated. This is what I am trying to resist. Whether I succeed is a different story. I am aware of this struggle and I am trying to argue that my instinct remains an instinct. I try to resist being formulaic. This is how I remain alive as an architect.

VB: Could you elaborate on this point?

EOM: Daedalus, an architect from Greek mythology, was the inventor and builder of the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. But soon after the Labyrinth was finished, Daedalus was imprisoned with his son Icarus in a tower to keep the invention a secret. I still remember the words, “The land is blocked and so is the sea. And by the air will we go”. I am willing to do what Daedalus and Icarus did by the power of their feather wings.  

Samitaur, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Samitaur, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA Image: Tom Bonner

VB: In your lectures you have shown images that constitute your list, a kind of alphabet. What are these things and how were they developed? You said that these objects have nothing to do with pragmatics, sites, budgets, clients. It is just a list. Are they inspirational pieces?

EOM: They are three-dimensional sketches and models of various ideas. Do you like them?

VB: I like them instinctively, but what could you tell me about them?

EOM: Well, my dad was a writer and when he wasn’t writing he was making his lists of words – rhymes, synonyms, antonyms, and so on to stretch the vocabulary. That’s what I learned from him. So, now I have my own list. These pieces are all over my office. I used to do them by hand – little sketch models. I keep making them. They are different from one another or they can be similar, or contradictory to one another. They have no site, no budget, no program, no owner, no zoning restrictions. They are just dances of forms and shapes, and spaces, ideas, or pieces of ideas. I make them whether we are working on projects or not. But they are not precedents, they are not ready-mades or prototypes to be built. It is not like that. They help me to keep my thinking going. I try to make them every day. But this is not my method; they are my instincts, my inquiries.  

Culver City, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Culver City, Los Angeles, USA Image: Courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects

VB: Do they help you to bounce your ideas around?

EOM: They distract me. They inform me. But it is not like I would take one piece of this kind, two pieces of another kind, blow them up in scale, cut something in half, and so on. It doesn’t work that way. They are not different from a list of words that my dad used to put together and axiomatically they would give him a poem. These pieces are just tools and images. So, for example, if somebody comes to my office and they commission me to design a hospital. The first instinct for me would be to spend some time trying to design a jail or something. And I am not talking about designing a jail literally – with corridors, cells, exercise yards, infirmary, offices, and a bridge of sighs that takes you to it. Of course, not. It is more about the notion of arriving at a particular conclusion, which requires multiple discussions with my team before anything is shown to our clients.

Samitaur, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Samitaur, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA Image: Tom Bonner

VB: The point is to get away from the convention, such as the hospital model, to get away from pragmatics, right?

EOM: Perhaps. So, first, before making the hospital I would make my jail, which programmatically has nothing to do with the hospital. The argument is to take the project in the direction of the logic of a method – what’s the site, what’s the program, what’s the climactic conditions, or whatever that is – and take it into a conceptual direction to get away from all the conventions. And at the end, the hospital project would have to be tested pragmatically. It has to pass that test.

Lawson Westen House, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Lawson Westen House, Los Angeles, USA Image: Tom Bonner

VB: I understand – this is a way for you to escape being framed and grounded by something that’s settled and prescribed. As you said in the past, “Building has an obligation, always larger than itself, to the city and the culture it intends to join”. And it seems that your architecture gets interesting when it tries to escape a particular program – a window detail, a skylight, a stair that goes nowhere, and so on. It becomes free when the program is free.

EOM: The idea is to stretch the reality of possibilities, to accumulate a kind of amalgamation that you would never come across if you simply addressed your project directly. It gives me something to start.

Beehive, Culver City, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
Beehive, Culver City, USA Image: Courtesy of Eric Owen Moss architects

VB: Could you elaborate your quote, “The world could be different. You can make the world different than what it is”.  

EOM: That’s what I feel. And not only the world could be different, but it could keep revising itself continuously, and it should. So many people are saying that everything is changing faster and faster, but I am not sure it is so. What I would say is that some things are changing faster. Other things are not changing. Some things are changing for the better. Some thigs are changing and loosing something. For example, a meaning of human conversation is being threatened. I think that needs to be resisted. So, to keep a meaningful discussion going we need to question the way the world is. Otherwise, for example, a neo-classical building of the Boston Public Library designed by Charles McKim and built in 1895 may constitute a perfect manifestation of a civic building. And if we didn’t question this model, we would still be building that way today. So, the vision of possibilities in architecture and other fields should remain open. We should keep operating both inside the box and outside the box in our search of finding new possibilities and meanings in how things change.

National Conference Room, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA | Eric Owen Moss Architects | STIRworld
National Conference Room, Culver City, Los Angeles, USA Image: Tom Bonner

VB: And you said, “My signature is never dry”. Did you mean that you try not to have a signature, implying that you are or at least intend to be different every time?

EOM: If having a style or signature means following a method, as you can see a lot in the work of many other architects, then yes, I am trying to avoid it. I don’t want to restrict myself intellectually. Every time I am writing a sentence, I don’t want to start it with a capital letter, to have a noun, a verb, and end it with a period. I want to arrive at making my own point.

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