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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The 100-meter-long building is home to the Los Angeles offices of advertisement giant Ogilvy & Mather.
Architectural photography courtesy Tom Bonner
The effort also went very much against the grain of architectural history in Southern California, where experimental designs have generally taken place in the residential sphere. Moss and the Samitaur Smiths, by contrast, hoped to burrow deeply into an overlooked and built-out industrial neighborhood and transform it from the inside out. Instead of reinventing the American house—as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra and the Case Study architects had, with Julius Shulman trailing behind with his camera—Moss aimed to remake the idea of the American workplace.
“For us, architecture is the largest art form,” Laurie Smith says. “And we thought, we’ll put in these absolutely very different-looking buildings. And you can hate them or love them, but they’re going to attract your attention, and let you know that change is afoot.”
They started with a few warehouse conversions. Typically, Moss would not only make the buildings usable as ofﬁce space for design companies or ad agencies but also tear them open at the corners or along the roof, only to re-seal them with glass or leave their trusses exposed. Materials and forms were not so much layered as thrust together, with brick walls jammed in next to expanses of stucco; elsewhere, glass seemed to melt over steel-framed supports below. There were echoes of early Frank Gehry and the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Yet there was no mistaking a Culver City building that had received the Moss touch: It looked newly strange and adventurous, like a teenager who for the ﬁrst time in her life has swapped her parent-approved haircut for something more expressive.
The developers, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith, on the terrace of Stealth.
Portrait by Ye Rin Mok
Early on, Moss started giving his Culver City designs nicknames, as if to soften or humanize their aggressive forms. A long, low-slung warehouse, battle-gray like a gunship, became Stealth; now, it is home to the West Coast headquarters of the big ad ﬁrm Ogilvy & Mather. Buildings known as Umbrella and Slice have followed.
Over time, as Hayden Tract began to ﬁll up with new tenants, word began to get out both in Southern California and nationally that Moss and his clients were doing innovative work. The buildings began to ﬁll up with just the sort of tenants the Samitaur Smiths had hoped for: movie production ﬁrms, dance companies. The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp toured Culver City with Moss in 1993, and then became a regular visitor, calling the architect’s work in transforming the area “an exhilarating display of rearrangement, juggling, and experimentation with architectural form.”
Perhaps most remarkable of all was the way not just architecture but urbanism became malleable in the hands of Moss and the Samitaur Smiths. The idea of isolated and newly redesigned buildings as catalysts for a rebirth in Culver City worked so well that the basic character of Hayden Tract seemed to shift: walking its streets, you had a sense of evolution happening, of opportunities opening up. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles a decade ago, Culver City’s reputation had morphed entirely. I knew it from my ﬁrst weeks here as a place of creativity, full of design ﬁrms; Moss and his clients had buried the old Culver City for good.