Game Changer: Eric Owen Moss
The architect's 27-year-long collaboration with Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith has transformed a once-derelict area into a thriving urban community.
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Eric Owen Moss, the chief architect behind Hayden Tract, a decades-long urban project in Culver City, just west of Los Angeles.
Portrait by Ye Rin Mok
The Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss, who directs the Southern California Institute of Architecture and once was called a “jeweler of junk” by Philip Johnson, thanks to his talent for twisting workaday materials into eye-catching forms, has one of the nimblest and most easily distracted minds I know. He is a whirling Rolodex of cultural references, equal parts deep insight and ADD; in conversation, his tangents have tangents. And yet, over the course of 25 years, he has worked with remarkable consistency and dedication to transform one particular pocket of Southern California. Along with a husband-and-wife team of developers, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith, Moss has turned a section of Culver City, a small city wedged between Los Angeles and Santa Monica, from a declining warehouse district into a thriving beehive of architectural experimentation that doubles as an enclave for creative-class companies in advertising, digital media, and the arts.
This singular relationship between architect and clients began in 1986 when Frederick Smith, who had begun buying up low-slung commercial buildings in a part of Culver City called Hayden Tract, went to collect a rent check from Moss, an architect then in his early forties who was leasing ofﬁce space from him. Smith was looking for an architect to help him redesign some of his warehouses. He had already made a circuit of what he calls “most of the best-known architects in town” and found that they barely gave him the time of day—and certainly were not interested in the kind of freewheeling intellectual back-and-forth he wanted to carry on with them as a prelude to actual design work.
When he walked into Moss’s ofﬁce, he saw a copy of T.S. Eliot’s wartime poems Four Quartets on the desk and guessed that here might be a kindred spirit—“an architect,” as Smith puts it, “with a brain.”
“If a client goes to an architect and tells him, ‘I’m really interested in time and space,’ usually that’s not a discussion that goes anywhere,” Frederick Smith told me. “But Eric was different. We had long conversations. And ultimately we developed a plan.”
The plan was as follows: To think of the scattered properties that the Samitaur Smiths owned as points on a continuum, or “pearls on a string,” as Frederick Smith puts it, and to develop them one by one as ofﬁce space for creative tenants and as catalysts for a larger reinvention of Culver City. It was a huge, quixotic goal given the state of the area back then. “It was 98 percent vacant,” Laurie Smith says. “Very heavy crime, drugs, big houses of prostitution. We wanted to come to the rescue of the neighborhood and change the whole economy while also introducing culture and art.”