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Eric Owen Moss speaks at the RIBA

A review of the ninth annual Jencks Award winner’s RIBA lecture.

On 6 December, the Royal Institute of British Architects hosted the ninth annual Jencks Award, described by its eponymous founder as ‘a simultaneous prize to theory and practice, two mistresses in addition to Madame Architecture’. Not to confuse his metaphors, Charles Jencks continued by paraphrasing the noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: ‘Greatness is an assault against Dame Nature.’

This polyamorous contextualisation is hardly frivolous; Nature is not a dame easily violated, and without at least several metaphorical mistresses, most architects’ marriage to their profession would end in a calamitous divorce.

The award’s presentation is accompanied each year by a lecture from the beneficiary. American Eric Owen Moss scooped the prize this year, a man Jencks described as ‘an architect’s architect’. This figure, while clearly distinct from the uncompromising individualistic architect of popular imagination (Howard Roark) is nonetheless a stoically heroic one. According to Jencks, no other architect has been responsible for such a large number of buildings in such a small area of city, over such a long period as Moss.

Since the early 1980s, Moss has worked on more than 25 projects within a quarter square mile area of Culver City, an ex-industrial urban municipality bordering Los Angeles. This ‘space-time marathon’ has produced such a startling diversity of forms and structures that one hardly knows how to describe them.

Fortunately, Moss has shown as much imagination in their appellation as he has in their design. A flowing glass canopy and matrix of spindles adorns the Umbrella, while a squat truncated cone with crystalline interiors is named the Beehive.

The Box sits close by, a tilted cube made from machine-buffed metal, as does Stealth, an office block disguised as a planar black monolith. Moss’s most recent addition to Culver City is the Samitaur Tower (AR May 2011), a five-storey structure in Cor-ten steel and smooth acrylic planes designed to exhibit film and video art to passengers on passing trains.

Almost all the buildings were developed in collaboration with Frederick and Laurie Samitaur-Smith, a client-architect relationship unparalleled, Jencks argued, since that between Gaudí and Güell. Together, the Smiths and Moss have been at work on an ambitious urban redevelopment scheme since 1988, simply called the New City.

This fluid and constantly evolving masterplan proposes 43 buildings in central Culver City, aiming to rejuvenate a once-thriving manufacturing district that has been in decline for many years. A little more than half of the buildings have been completed, with Moss using the time between each project to transform, adjust and rethink the governing principles of the masterplan.

By remaining adaptive to the forces shaping this pocket of city, Moss has retained the critical ability to respond to change: political and economic certainly, but also social and demographic – much of which can be seen as a consequence of Moss’s own architecture.

Moss has responded to the architectural vernacular of the existing site – often employing industrial materials and forms, such as wooden trusses, blockwork and exposed steel. But he has re-appropriated these techniques in a radical way, redeploying them in unexpected manners, interspersing them with high-tech milled facades, slumped glass and pastel concrete, building up a unique architectural language particular to the place.

For this reason, Jencks considers Moss a master of piecemeal progression, unequalled as an architect of contextual counterpoint and at the forefront of contemporary Critical Regionalism (though Moss himself did not deny this, he certainly seemed bemused at the categorisation).

Eric Owen Moss began his lecture by showing Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498), which he described as being ostensibly a woodcut image. But the technical execution of the image only accounts for a very small portion of its total meaning, and its true value is easily recognised as being an illustration of the biblical story about the end of the world.

It would be a mistake to confuse the format of the image with the significance of the narrative. By the same, it is contemporary architecture’s increasing concern with technical craft and exotic materials that is neutralising its ability to convey meaning. Architecture, according to Moss, should not be so obsessed with factors incapable of communication, but focus more on its capacity for narrative.

Scientific achievement does not ipso facto equal progress, and Moss argued that no matter what our technical ability in any age, this should not be the limit of our imagination. When a designer sits down at a computer and launches the Rhino toolbar, it may appear like a room service menu from a luxurious hotel, but even the most imaginative combination of functions is still constricted within the framework of the programme.

The resulting project may amply fulfil the technological quotient, but it runs the risk of being vapid, of failing to contain meaning, of lacking ‘the wonder quotient’.

The definition of architecture is often formed by its opposition to some other thing; as Moss puts it ‘to answer the question “what is architecture?” you have to first find its enemy, you have to find its Moby Dick. But as I stood on the deck like Ahab (or maybe Ishmael, at least that way I might come back alive), I realised there is no single Moby, just endless Dicks.’

To focus the efforts of an architect they must nevertheless address a problem they perceive as paramount. For Moss, it is the vanquishing of wonder from architecture that poses the greatest threat to its future, and the enemy against whom we should struggle most firmly.

Photos courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects

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