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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There are ways in which the Hayden Tract model is very much sui generis, making it nearly impossible to export and try somewhere else. Moss’s architecture is hardly the kind to be copied easily, even as it ﬁts snugly with the Samitaur Smiths’ vision and with the odd urbanism of Culver City. But the success of their experiment does suggest quite powerfully how spread-out, horizontal cities have one advantage over denser and more vertical ones: their overlooked corners are more easily remade, provided there are ﬁgures like the Samitaur Smiths and Moss to provide the spark. Changing a handful of buildings can have a startling effect. In a city ﬁlled with towers, remaking ofﬁce space would happen inside buildings, as an interior project, and be far less visible and powerful.
“There is a real ﬂuidity to the urbanism of a city like L.A.,” Moss says. “It would be very hard to try this in New York, Chicago, or even San Francisco. But this city is much less stratiﬁed.”
Hayden Tract is now edged with new rows of restaurants with well-known chefs and art galleries designed by Los Angeles architects a generation younger than Moss. And the Samitaur Smiths continue to plug away. Two new Moss projects are under construction: a ground-up conference center with an undulating steel-and-glass facade called Wafﬂe, and Pterodactyl a suite of ofﬁces rising from the top of a parking garage. A Moss-designed ofﬁce tower called the (W)rapper, at 230 feet high unusually tall by the standards of the area, is planned for a site just over the border into the city of Los Angeles.
“The Smiths galvanized it all,” Moss says. “They made it a place to go. They owned some stuff and bought more and now everybody’s piling in.”
From the start, in ways good and bad, the new Hayden Tract was designed as a sort of private urbanism. Though the buildings remade by Moss were examples of extroverted architecture, as a district, as a piece of the city, the project turned inward on itself. It remained thoroughly unknown to many Angelenos. The attitude of the Samitaur Smiths, according to Moss, has always been, “We don’t want city money, we don’t want city input, we don’t want city support—all we want is, leave us alone.”
“We were a private effort,” Frederick Smith says, with some deﬁance. “We borrowed money and had to pay it back. And compared to other urban renewals, we couldn’t rely on subsidy. The government was not going to help. We had to struggle to ﬁgure out.” Now that experimental urbanism is entering a dramatically new phase. In 2011 a new light rail route, the Expo Line, was built from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City; a second phase, all the way to the beach in Santa Monica, will open in 2015, ﬁnally bringing L.A.’s West Side onto the transit grid. The train line is part of a massive expansion of public transportation in Southern California, much of it paid for by a sales tax increase approved by L.A. County voters in 2008. It is emblematic of a region re-engaging the public realm and trying to reverse several decades of obsession with the single-family house and the private car.