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Enigma Variations by Eric Owen Moss (LA, USA)

Eric Owen Moss’ startling internal transformations of a converted warehouse in Culver City, west Los Angeles

Originally published in AR September 1992, this piece was republished online in April 2011

As Philip Johnson has observed, visiting Eric Owen Moss’s work in the west Los Angeles district of Culver City holds the same fascination as exploring the souks of mediaeval lsfahan or the back streets of Rome: jewels abound, slipped casually into the fabric of semi-derelict warehouses. In particular, Moss’s mid ’80s revitalisation of 8522 National Boulevard into a tract of commercial space for specialist studios and shops imparted an identity and unity to what was originally an undistinguished quintet of top-lit industrial sheds. Since the initial basic conversion of the building shell (AR December 1987), Moss has been engaged in an on-going opus of startling internal transformations for individual firms taking space in the building. Two of these idiosyncratic interventions are considered here.


For the original phase of work on the warehouse complex, Moss underscored the basic L-shaped plan of the building with a similarly configured internal street or circulation spine, punctuated at intervals by three distinct, surprising events - an elliptical entrance rotunda, a curvaceous deformation marking the intersection of the L-shape and an ovoid meeting room at its end. Tenant areas were hived off from public circulation by a series of multi-layered openings, resembling overlapping shopfronts. Space could subsequently be parcelled up and let according to specific corporate requirements.

Scott Mendick Associates (SMA), a design firm specialising in advertising and video graphics, occupies the largest tranche of space in the building, an elongated rectangle defined on one side by the sweep of the main public circulation spine. The SMA studio reproduces the idea of a central organisational causeway, this time framed by a procession of exposed, skinny steel arches and oddly Cubist-looking ductwork. On each side of the causeway, open-plan areas are interspersed with semi-enclosed spaces and private offices. At certain points, the curved steel ribs of the spine pierce through the solid enclosures around the offices; otherwise they are simply and abruptly truncated.

The horizontal spine connects with two key vertical elements at opposite poles of the main studio. At one end a V-shaped stair leads up to the roof, and encloses a triangular exercise room at its base; at the other a second staircase rises up to the ‘executive tower’, a suite of enclosed private offices with a rectangular aperture cut into the screen wall. From this vantage point occupants can attempt to assimilate the profusion of structural and service elements crammed into the upper reaches of the studio.

The homogeneous array of arched ribs, with their suggestive, barrel-vaulted contours, is overlaid with a secondary network of conduits, ductwork and stark fluorescent tubes suspended from distinctly lavatorial chains. This tortuousness is heightened still further by slender beams of Douglas fir arranged in a contorted hyperbola that echoes the sloping line of the original sawtooth rooflights. These strange, sculptural interventions are used to demarcate areas of semi-enclosed space within the main studio territory. Circular holes are periodically punched into the ceiling along the spine and light is refracted through translucent canopies of ribbed acrylic sheeting bolted to the steel ribs. At one end of the spine the shallow arch of the ribs is inverted and extrapolated to form the supple curving outer edge of the stair flanking the exercise suite.

Viewed from a distance, the balustrading resembles a set of Saturn’s rings, enigmatically tilted on one side. In a final formal gesture, the stair is framed by a brace of pleasingly tubular duct columns, which are unceremoniously crowned at landing level with squat HVAC units, like some kind of reductionist, machineage capitals. Moss clearly relishes the ad-hoc nature of this technological subversion, although at times the frenzied superfluousness of spine structure and services distribution does tend to overwhelm the interior in an unashamedly Dionysian triumph over Apollonian rationale.


Like thousands of others in the movie capital of the Western hemisphere, the Goalen Group are in the film business. This thrusting film design and production company has colonised a modest space in the bowels of the 8522 building. For this smaller corporate conversion executed prior to the neighbouring Mendick studio, Moss concentrates intently on a single, surprising interior event.

The brief combined both open and closed offices, design and film editing spaces, conference room, projection area and screening room. These elements are clustered attentively around a central drum linked to a secondary circulation path that eventually merges into the definitive L-shaped spine as it marches through the building. The screening room seats around 35 and can accommodate seven projectors operating simultaneously; stressed executives are swamped and seduced by a fabulous tableau of images. On one side of the circulation path are open-plan offices; on the other conference and design cum editing areas enclosed, but not isolated, by full-height, transparent partitions. The original heavy timber members are painted an alluring peppermint.

The conceptual focus of the scheme is an exhibition and circulation area where the corridor puffs out to form a circular intersection or street corner. The plan of this intersection is loosely based on a circle crossed with an octagon to create a shape that is neither one nor the other, but suggestive of both. Through this strange geometrical mutation, the walls of the space appear either as curved fragments of the circle or facets of the octagon. In a further for-the-hell-of-it manoeuvre, the form of the section follows the line of an imaginary pyramid pointing upwards and terminating at a theoretical point in the skylight.

This generates oddly angular soffits that jerk the attention upwards - what Moss disingenuously describes as the ‘Captain Ahab aspiration’. The outcome of this verbal and spatial hyperbole is that the exhibition zone appears to blow out through the roof in three sections, which are effectively extended projections of the wall openings in plan. Within this astonishing melee the original sawtooth configuration of the roof is given no quarter, as opaque surfaces become unexpectedly transparent, funnelling in light and sky to dazzle the depths below.

  • AR 1992 September - Enigma Variations

    Enigma Variations by Eric Owen Moss (LA, USA)

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