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.”

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Jan 16, 2014 03:25 pm
 Posted by  sajjicloud

Cheers for a totally captivating article of the wonders of sheer genius with spirit!!!

Jan 16, 2014 11:55 pm
 Posted by  OneofMany

It is a lean list of fates worse than having to listen to Eric Owen Moss listen to himself talk. He is a perfect stereotype of the Architect Blowhard, collecting titles and quotations as a transparent attempt to assert his dominance over anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. His one-dimensional single serving "buildings", especially, manifest his futile hope that one sentence snippets of inanity will bestow upon him your awe.

The brilliant Christopher Hawthorne actually dims in the presence of Moss, and seems to apologize for writing about such an empty shell from the very first line of the article. The fact that Moss is trying to take credit for the resurgence of Culver City is equal parts hilarious and horrific.

Living in Culver City as it began to transform from just a place to someplace, one could witness first hand the grassroots community effort that went into making the city a vibrant center for art and culture. Eric Owen Moss' compound of follies and sculptural office buildings spurns this type of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other pragmatism, nor do his personal playthings physically relate in any way to the recently energized Culver City downtown. That takes effort in such a small area, an effort that Moss is amusingly ready to disown, now that it has become clear that the communal neighborhood attentions by others have paid dividends.

Moss suddenly wants his garden gnomes to be part of it instead of apart from it. Like a child in a sandbox, he looks jealously at the other kids playing their game without him. So he tries to brand himself as a "man with the city," and his attempt to suddenly embrace this place he has worked so vigilantly to wall himself off from for the past 20 years exposes the truth of his fickle, self-aggrandizing nature. In an irony completely lost to Eric Owen Moss, the real Culver City has become the very collaborative organization of practicality Moss detests.

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