In a profession where a graduate level degree qualifies you to cut paper and a fifty hour week is considered part-time, architect Eric Owen Moss is fairly easy-going without being easy. Ask a seemingly simple question of Moss, and you shall elicit an answer that draws on philosophy, symphonic composition, and a good-natured frontier sensibility. While Moss has won major competitions in China, Mexico, and Russia, and is currently designing the Patent Office Building of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., he is still something of a hometown secret. He lacks the studied grandeur of some of his more well-known contemporaries, but to good effect. Without that PR sheen, it’s possible to have an actual conversation with him, if actual conversations are defined as extended discussions about the construct of history.
Moss has spent the majority of his career at work on The Conjunctive Points development in Culver City, transforming this formerly sleepy industrial neighborhood into a series of innovative cultural spires, office buildings, and performance spaces. As a primer to Moss’ work, start with “Slash e Backslash,” a previously uninterrupted series of warehouses that have been sliced open at different angles and resealed with glass walls. It feels less like a staid structure and more like something that in a few days might heal, or grow a new wing. As an architectural novice (and face it: everyone who doesn’t have glue gun burns and a penchant for swapping favorite Philip Johnson stories shall forever be an architectural novice), I think that what distinguishes Moss from his contemporaries is the way he plays with history to join the past and future into an uneasy now.
I tell Moss that his buildings could almost be viewed in time-lapse photography, because they’re not finished; they’re happening, right now, right in front of you.
“I like that,” Moss says. “You want to keep what is fragile alive, and that’s a contradiction in terms. You either sustain it or you kill it, and when you sustain it, it becomes something else. Even if it looks like what it used to look like, it has a different meaning. In architecture, what it is isn’t necessarily what it appears to be.”
We’ve been talking in his office for about an hour. City buses rumble by outside periodically, audibly reinforcing the notion of transience. I ask him about the concept of history. In essence, is history a practice in revisionism?
“I like the discussion. I’m not sure you ever get to the end of it. There’s a Tolstoy remark that history would be an excellent thing if only it were true. There’s another one: We write history and the history becomes the history we write.
“Tolstoy has a great example in War & Peace. There was a guy—this is the battle of Borodino. A soldier got knocked off his horse, he was in the mud, it was smokey, all kinds of crap was going on. He had no idea. And so, he’s doing something which somebody at West Point or at Sand Hurst 150 years later would teach on the Battle of Borodino and they say, ‘Okay, the cavalry did this, the infantry did this, the weather was this, the hillside, the river’—whatever it is.