The Samitaur Tower by Eric Owen Moss is as much of an optical mechanism as it is a work of architecture. Photography by Tom Bonner
For almost a year, the Samitaur Tower by Eric Owen Moss Architects was under construction on a narrow site, opposite a forthcoming elevated train line, five minutes’ walk from my apartment. When work began here in Culver City, an independent municipality on the west side of Los Angeles, the tower was a series of exposed steel rings. The structure took the shape of a misfused backbone, hulking knot-like and tense on the side the road. Once translucent acrylic projection screens were wrapped around the facade, backlit from within to give the tower the feel of a Japanese lantern by way of Star Wars, it had made the transition from a helical whirl of raw steel to its final balletic state.
Commissioned by urban philanthropists Frederick and Laurie Samitaur-Smith, this is the latest project by Moss in a 20-year creative collaboration with the couple. Formally, the tower resembles an astronomical device, its steel loops casting oblong shadows onto the pavements below. The tower itself reaches to a height of 22m, over three of which are below street grade, since the site was partially excavated to form an outdoor auditorium. Cut into the structure’s off-centered core is an open-air stairway, like an apotheosis of the emergency exit, leading up to a number of terraces and platforms. Each one offers a comfortable place to rest and look out over the city.
However, this optical relationship with the tower’s surroundings works in more ways than one: the project has been designed as a visual attraction - the local landmark as media spectacle. In its press materials, the architects cite Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and Louis Kahn’s City Tower as inspirational precedents. But they could just as easily have referred back to the long history of cinematic devices, such as magic lanterns and camera obscuras. The tower is as much of an optical mechanism as it is a work of architecture. In a sense, it is more Athanasius Kircher than it is Times Square.
I spoke to project architect Dolan Daggett about the tower’s visual priorities. The intention behind squeezing the project onto a small corner plot across the street from the future train line, he said, was to reveal the potential for density in greater Los Angeles. For spatial effect, he compared this to a cramped site in Tokyo. The tower would thus demonstrate, in view of commuting Angelenos, that even Los Angeles’ narrowest slices of land could be used to overcome city sprawl.
Furthermore, Daggett emphasised that the tower’s street-facing, curvilinear screens are dedicated not to commercial advertisements but to community arts education. He referred to the tower as a kind of pedagogic device: ‘an apparatus, a machine, a system that requires space between the projector and the screens’. Indeed, the architects deliberately avoided the use of LEDs, choosing instead a tactile technology: the ceiling-mounted projector.
Visitors can thus stand inside the tower as images are projected on to the outside walls, immersed in what Daggett called a ‘complete wash of light.’ This also means that anyone inside the tower is visible in silhouette for spectators north of the site, including passengers on the forthcoming train line. But it is hard to resist the feeling that the project is just an expensive way to entertain drivers stuck in traffic jams.
After all, isn’t the tower just a kind of hypertrophied billboard, inadvertently and ironically continuing the optical sprawl of Los Angeles’ everyday landscape? It is not yet clear whether Moss has successfully produced a functioning public space that, on its own terms, can critique or otherwise subvert the visual noise of commercial billboards planted around the city like flags from a conquering power.
Perhaps, then, we might discover another motive at work in the tower’s design. The Samitaur Tower exists in a rather unique urban context. Many of the surrounding buildings were also designed by Eric Owen Moss, including the headquarters of Samitaur itself. This gives the project an oddly literal opportunity to look back at the firm’s earlier work, conspicuous for Moss’s trademark use of broken arcs and half-circles. It makes the local neighbourhood a kind of inhabitable masterclass in deconstructive ornament, as if the tower were an Eric Owen Moss retrospective in architectural form.
Put another way, when you climb to the top of the tower, you don’t just see Los Angeles: you see half a dozen projects designed by Eric Owen Moss. The narrative power of this is not to be missed, of course, and the Samitaur Tower does benefit from these proximities, but it is hardly just architectural historians who will be visiting Moss’s overlook. Especially once the adjacent train line has opened, this tower will need to function for the public it is ostensibly intended for, irrespective of whether its views give a tantalizing glimpse of Moss’s career.
On this note, it appeared oddly appropriate that the tower was chained off behind signs warning of video surveillance for all trespassers when I walked back to visit the tower one final time. The sight presented a curious contradiction to any claim that its panoramic perspectives were open to all and sundry. This left the upper reaches of the tower empty of all but wind, its steps silent, its screens awaiting an audience that had yet to arrive.