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.

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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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