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Eric Owen Moss wants to piece together L.A.'s fragments

The architect hopes his latest projects will help bring the city closer to a new vision.

August 02, 2009|Scott Timberg

The neighborhood around the office of Eric Owen Moss feels first like Mayberry, then a bit like "Killer of Sheep." And just after the block of tree-shaded single family homes runs into a stretch of factories and warehouses, a parched, undeveloped hill rises -- almost a bit of John Ford.

It's near where Culver City -- that once forgotten, now chic, city -- rams into Los Angeles, and it's the kind of hybrid, fragmented setting that Moss says makes the greater L.A. area so rich with possibility.

"Los Angeles, probably to be fair, is probably an adolescent city," the architect, 65, says, leaning behind his desk in a way that somehow seems intense. "People talk about Los Angeles as a world city -- I was in Tokyo and I was in Beijing, I was in London, I was in Milan -- you talk about cities with long, long histories. Kings and queens and plagues and Medicis and Marco Polos and every . . . damn thing. And then you're looking at a city of 10 million people, and it really is an infant city."

A conversation with Moss, whose style is brusque and speculative, can be a bit like the neighborhood -- a cross between free association and surrealist poetry. One minute, he's off on a metaphor -- likening his design style to the late, grammar-busting work of James Joyce -- or offering Yogi Berra-isms, such as, "The future of L.A. is probably in front of it."

To longtime friend and admirer Thom Mayne, Moss' words and deeds are all of a piece. "His sentence structure is sort of an attack on the traditional way you use language," says the Pritzker Prize-winning L.A. architect. "It's very parallel to his architecture -- with its breakages and disjunctures and non sequiturs."

These days, Moss' long push-pull with greater L.A. involves several new projects for his office of about 20. If L.A. is a city that's not complete -- something that excites and frustrates Moss in equal measure -- these may show the place getting a little closer.

One is the Gateway Art Tower, a small, twisting, six-story structure in Culver City, open to the sky, with space for galleries and a restaurant, with a small amphitheater underneath, and acrylic screens aimed to reach freeways and thoroughfares. (Frederick Smith, who with his wife, Laurie, has commissioned much of Moss' Culver City work, calls it "a vertical urban park" and "a poor man's Eiffel Tower.")

This tower, as well as a larger, mixed-use Glass Tower planned for the corner of La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards in Los Angeles, is spurred by the Expo Line light rail that will eventually run from downtown L.A. to Culver City and perhaps, someday, to the sea.

"Here it comes, baby," Moss says, standing at the end of an open ditch, a crane laboring nearby, where the Expo Line will run. "They're coming -- these guys are digging a hole!"

These new projects underline for Moss a challenge that's on his mind a lot these days -- "If we could do for L.A. urbanism in the 21st century what we did for L.A. architecture in the 20th."


A native visionary

Today Moss is known as a formidable intellect and an inventive designer, but one with little patience for politics: He admits he has no skill in the art of compromise.

Though born and raised in Los Angeles -- the son of a sports journalist and labor organizer -- and a graduate of UCLA, Moss says something about the city kept him from feeling an "intimate connection" with the place. Leaving for graduate school in Berkeley and Cambridge, Mass., didn't help.

But in the '80s -- a decade after co-founding the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where he is now director -- Moss emerged alongside Mayne, Frank Gehry and Franklin Israel as part of a generation of visionary architects in a booming city ripe for innovation. Part of Moss' mantra, then and now, was that L.A. needed to stop worrying about emulating older, more traditional cities, and embrace its fragmented nature, its ability to serve as an architectural laboratory.

Personally Moss has rubbed some people the wrong way. Mayne recalls meeting Moss at SCI-Arc in the mid-'70s. "The discussion quickly moved to one of his guys -- Nietzsche or Kafka -- and I said something that was off. And he just bloody cut me to ribbons, in front of my peer faculty . . . I was just in a jury with him, and I see he hasn't changed a bit. He's like a gladiator."

Moss has not acquired the profile that Gehry and Mayne have developed in and out of town; Mayne says it bothers Moss that he doesn't have a marquee civic building in his hometown: "It has to."

Moss, for his part, feels like something about the city has stopped, or begun to reach its limit. The city's underlying reality, he says, has kept L.A. from successfully reimagining itself.


'Architectural radicalism'

"The big, defining swaths of construction in this city are its infrastructure, not its buildings," he says of the freeways, the Los Angeles River, the power grid and the rail lines. "The meaning of the city may not be its architecture."

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