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.

From the start, in ways good and bad, the new Hayden Tract was designed as a sort of private urbanism.

“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.

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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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