“I’m not saying it is great to make mistakes, but the possibility of things going wrong is interesting.”Eric Owen Moss

Written by: Juan Ricardo Rincón
Photography: Eric Owen Moss (Studio)- Juan Pablo Valencia (Portrait)
Subject of the article: Interview with architect Eric Owen Moss
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Exclama disemboweled the inner most parts of Culver City in Los Angeles and found an individual who, for most, requires no formal introduction.  Eric Owen Moss opened the doors to his California based studio on a typical sunny morning, however we were not expecting the storm of words and ideas that rumbled like thunder.  Moss is a character that undoubtedly has the clarity to invoke his architectural convictions in an acute and acid manner that interprets the “today” of architecture, and the current state of the world itself.

A UCLA graduate, and foremost a UC Berkeley and Harvard master of architecture. At age 68, he has been stirring up the debates surrounding architecture for more than 30 years.  In this way he is in no doubt one of the leading architects of the worldwide scene, thus earning him an AIA Gold Medal Award (1998) amongst many other recognitions.  He currently presides over his own studio, Eric Owen Moss Architects, and spends his days developing projects in Los Angeles and around the world.  He has also taught at renowned universities, Harvard and Yale.  Today he is the director of SCI-Arch in L.A. (Southern California Institute of Architecture), a school which clearly generates a contemporary debate within the world of architecture not far from the revolution arrived at by Moss himself. The fact that SCI-Arch has appointed Moss as its director comes as no surprise; Eric Owen Moss is, before anything, an agitator of the masses.  When most of his colleagues are merely whispering their ideas into comfortable work, Moss is in no doubt screaming at the top of his lungs disquieting the world around him.  This, he knows how to do. And does it very well in a shameless and effort free manner.

1. Do you think architectural projection is becoming more and more dependent on its tools as new technologies appear?

Architecture belongs to the Tools that are being used to make the architecture; before, when you just had parallel ruler, triangle, or scale the architecture had a particular outcome. Now! The Tools are different, and again! The content of the work belongs very much to the Tools. When we started we were interested in doing things that came out not only as a consequence of the Tools we were using; we tried to at least investigate or adapt the tools, instead of just abusing their use. In the end, the discussions that move architecture around, involve people that can look at these Tools in a critical way and find a different voice, otherwise everything tends to homogenize.

2. How do you think the architectural discourse is evolving in a moment where the outcomes seem to be so similar?

To be able to see where the discussion is going, you have to understand what’s being done, and how it’s being done. We designed a project for the L.A. philharmonic, entirely out of glass. As far as I knew, this had never been done, and we were told what we are always told. “ You can’t do it, it’s going to break, you’ll get sued etc” finally it got done. What is interesting is that the company that did it, now presents it in a catalogue, and they are able to sell it to you. So if you make that project today…… it’s a different project than when we made it. It’s like saying Richard Meir does LeCorbusier better than LeCorbusier, he might…..But it’s not the same, there are issues of chronology, an issue of time, in terms of the formulation and ideas.

3. Let’s look at the Latin American case study, it’s easy to find very young architects still replicating buildings that had other values in different periods of architecture (modern movement mostly), how would you explain this?

When talking about radical or innovative architecture, you have to be careful, because what you are making is not necessarily radical – is the image of radical, which doesn’t mean it is radical. The image of radical is radical when it is exceptional because it hasn’t been done, or because people said it couldn’t be done. Venturi is an example of this. He tried to make architecture do something it couldn’t do. ¡He thought differently! In retrospect Venturi started to take modern architecture down in a way.  I don’t mean modern architecture had nothing to say, modern architecture was interesting around 1919, when it didn’t know what it was, as in a very infant stage. What was interesting was the infancy of the movement; those guys were going on something that was really different from what preceded them. What I am saying is that this work (pointing at a contemporary Brazilian house) is not different at all; it’s just a Choice of style. Most of the work,  I think is not only a function of “what it is”, but more often “when it is, what it is”

4. Culver city has a particular effect on people when they first visit. Tell us about the experience that has been articulating this part of L.A with your work.

What’s more interesting isn’t only looking at the projects that are built, but mostly at the projects that weren’t built.  If you put all this together, you might end up with a dictionary of contemporary architecture. What interests me is not the creation of a fan-unique architectural style, but to join different pieces that reacted differently as a way to arrive at a possible conclusion, or to keep searching for one. There haven’t been many projects like this, and the ones that have been, tend to be a lot more homogeneous, so it ends up being like competing against yourself. Trying not to refine something, but to invert or revert ideas. Some of the projects we start building, we are not quite sure of how to build them, and we find the solutions as the project advances. This is possible in very particular projects, because as projects get bigger, they tend to be more conservative. Some brand-name projects, are not willing to take any risks.

5. Wouldn’t you say these dynamics: where projects are not completely controlled from the beginning, end up being your own way to experiment?

The key to experimentation is that it might fail; this is diametrically opposed to the purpose of building, which cant fail! I’m not saying it is great to make mistakes, but the possibility of things going wrong is interesting. I believe in being dissatisfied, this way, experimentation comes from your opinion of how things are, as opposed to learning how things are, in order to get along with the context. When you get to this point, your letting yourself to some problems but mainly you are letting yourself to some successes. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

6. You were talking earlier about, “competing against yourself”. Understanding that every project has its own complexity, is there any motivation or speculative theme, that you maintain throughout your projects?

Dissatisfaction is a constant in most of my projects. When we did our first project one of the theories we caught on to, was the Penelope theory (Penelope was the wife of Odysseus) during the time Odysseus was gone, all these jokers came to try and courtship her. She said she would start knitting a blanket and at the end she would pick one of these men, and so she knit during the day, and then took it apart during the night.  So nothing happened. What I liked about that idea, was the putting together and then taking apart, to argue about something, to insist on something, to believe in something…..and then being skeptical enough to take it apart. I have friend architects that over a period of time got to believe in what they were doing, and this is ok, you have to do what you believe in.  However this wasn’t my case. I’ve never come to that point. In the mean time “put it together, take it apart”. The Penelope theory of architecture is the most relevant theory for me.

7. Lets talk about Los Angeles, when you see the massiveness and uncontrolled growth of this city, it makes you think about places like Mexico City or even Bogotá. The curious thing is that although Mexico city and Bogota are in developing countries, L.A. is pretty much in the center of the world, ¿what would you say is the link that relates these very different realities?

Los Angeles is a developing city, it just doesn’t admit it. You have a city, which appears to be a city, but is actually a collection of pieces. Los Angeles is in a lot of ways an adolescent city; and adolescence can have either positive or negative connotations, trying things like adolescents do, doesn’t mean negative decisions, but at the same time they are also not durable, long-term decisions. In L.A. there is a lot of jumping around. For example we won the competition, Los Angeles 2106, organized by the history channel, which at the time was a big deal because there was also one for Chicago and New York, nevertheless two weeks later it was forgotten and people where studding  “what was next?” This makes it very hard to structure the city. Besides it’s not even a city in an organizational sense. I get the feeling that in L.A. you are always connecting nowhere to nothing, or nowhere to nowhere.

8. How has this influenced your work?

Los Angeles is paradoxically a great place, maybe one of the best in the world to talk about architecture, because there are all kind of possibilities, many of which will never be realized.  you can keep talking over and over again of what might happen because it’s always hypothetical (laughs), it’s always somewhere in the future. In a sense it’s kind of an anarchic city, and all this inconsistencies, leave a lot of opportunities for young people coming to schools such as SCI – Arch. In a city such as L.A. its liabilities become its own assets, and the fact that there are so many problems and questions to resolve, gives people a big range to speculate and find answers.

9. I was once talking to an SCI – ARCH student who said something I found interesting about L.A, in the sense that in the U.S.A, California was the beauty and L.A. was the beast, what do you have to say about this?

I’m not sure if beauty is virtue and beast is negative, or whether it is the other way around. This reminds me of the Batman VS the Joker relationship.  For me, the Joker, is a much more interesting guy than Batman. The Joker could be L.A., in the sense that he really never had a plan, he’s just making mischief (laughs out loud), so his instinct revolves around making different strategies, while Batman is more predictable because he has to stick to plans, and this makes it difficult for him to figure out a guy that doesn’t think that way! I like the kind of relativism of operating in a context where a lot of positions are possible. For me, the more you stay in one place, the less you get to understand.

10. Do you think architecture is getting the attention it should from society?

In his time, Goya, was painting walls and smoking dope, and nobody seemed to care, Moby Dick was published 50 years after Melville died, Joyce went through 20 publishers before he got anything. I don’t think you can remake the attention span of the world, for example the Sidney Opera House or the Guggenheim Bilbao are projects that have gotten a lot of attention, i’m not sure for the reasons we find them important.  I think if your architecture needs a lot of attention, that’s also the kind of attention that looks at Madonna one week and Lady Gaga the next. Attention comes and goes.