Making this place into a city

The neighborhood around the office of Eric Owen Moss feels first like Mayberry, then a bit like "Killer of Sheep." And just after the block of tree-shaded single family homes runs into a stretch of factories and warehouses, a parched, undeveloped hill rises -- almost a bit of John Ford.

It's near where Culver City -- that once forgotten, now chic, city -- rams into Los Angeles, and it's the kind of hybrid, fragmented setting that Moss says makes the greater L.A. area so rich with possibility.

"Los Angeles, probably to be fair, is probably an adolescent city," the architect, 65, says, leaning behind his desk in a way that somehow seems intense. "People talk about Los Angeles as a world city -- I was in Tokyo and I was in Beijing, I was in London, I was in Milan -- you talk about cities with long, long histories. Kings and queens and plagues and Medicis and Marco Polos and every . . . damn thing. And then you're looking at a city of 10 million people, and it really is an infant city."

A conversation with Moss, whose style is brusque and speculative, can be a bit like the neighborhood -- a cross between free association and surrealist poetry. One minute, he's off on a metaphor -- likening his design style to the late, grammar-busting work of James Joyce -- or offering Yogi Berra-isms, such as, "The future of L.A. is probably in front of it."

To longtime friend and admirer Thom Mayne, Moss' words and deeds are all of a piece. "His sentence structure is sort of an attack on the traditional way you use language," says the Pritzker Prize-winning L.A. architect. "It's very parallel to his architecture -- with its breakages and disjunctures and non sequiturs."

These days, Moss' long push-pull with greater L.A. involves several new projects for his office of about 20. If L.A. is a city that's not complete -- something that excites and frustrates Moss in equal measure -- these may show the place getting a little closer.

One is the Gateway Art Tower, a small, twisting, six-story structure in Culver City, open to the sky, with space for galleries and a restaurant, with a small amphitheater underneath, and acrylic screens aimed to reach freeways and thoroughfares. (Frederick Smith, who with his wife, Laurie, has commissioned much of Moss' Culver City work, calls it "a vertical urban park" and "a poor man's Eiffel Tower.")

This tower, as well as a larger, mixed-use Glass Tower planned for the corner of La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards in Los Angeles, is spurred by the Expo Line light rail that will eventually run from downtown L.A. to Culver City and perhaps, someday, to the sea.

"Here it comes, baby," Moss says, standing at the end of an open ditch, a crane laboring nearby, where the Expo Line will run. "They're coming -- these guys are digging a hole!"

These new projects underline for Moss a challenge that's on his mind a lot these days -- "If we could do for L.A. urbanism in the 21st century what we did for L.A. architecture in the 20th."

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A native visionary

Today Moss is known as a formidable intellect and an inventive designer, but one with little patience for politics: He admits he has no skill in the art of compromise.

Though born and raised in Los Angeles -- the son of a sports journalist and labor organizer -- and a graduate of UCLA, Moss says something about the city kept him from feeling an "intimate connection" with the place. Leaving for graduate school in Berkeley and Cambridge, Mass., didn't help.

But in the '80s -- a decade after co-founding the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where he is now director -- Moss emerged alongside Mayne, Frank Gehry and Franklin Israel as part of a generation of visionary architects in a booming city ripe for innovation. Part of Moss' mantra, then and now, was that L.A. needed to stop worrying about emulating older, more traditional cities, and embrace its fragmented nature, its ability to serve as an architectural laboratory.

Personally Moss has rubbed some people the wrong way. Mayne recalls meeting Moss at SCI-Arc in the mid-'70s. "The discussion quickly moved to one of his guys -- Nietzsche or Kafka -- and I said something that was off. And he just bloody cut me to ribbons, in front of my peer faculty . . . I was just in a jury with him, and I see he hasn't changed a bit. He's like a gladiator."

Moss has not acquired the profile that Gehry and Mayne have developed in and out of town; Mayne says it bothers Moss that he doesn't have a marquee civic building in his hometown: "It has to."

Moss, for his part, feels like something about the city has stopped, or begun to reach its limit. The city's underlying reality, he says, has kept L.A. from successfully reimagining itself.

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'Architectural radicalism'

"The big, defining swaths of construction in this city are its infrastructure, not its buildings," he says of the freeways, the Los Angeles River, the power grid and the rail lines. "The meaning of the city may not be its architecture."

These were all built for pragmatic -- rather than civic -- reasons, and they shape the city's social and ethnic landscape and call on policymakers to take them to the next step. He wants the city to reinvent itself, using the infrastructure as its bones.

"You can argue that architecture has worked so well because the city is so fragmented. To do odd, unusual buildings is easier. But L.A. hasn't done for city-making what it's done for architecture. There are very few policy visions for a viable, operational, human city."

Part of the problem is the large number of cities that make up L.A. County. Among the biggest impediments, he says, are the neighborhood councils responsible for many planning and land-use decisions. His frustration with local power comes in part from community resistance to a mixed-use apartment he's designed for the corner of Lincoln and Venice boulevards, with a height (65 feet) that is more than double the limit set by the Venice community plan.

He calls councils inherently conservative. "Local groups like the neighborhood as it is," he says, over lunch at Beacon. "But a city this horizontal, this large -- you can't make all your decisions by taking votes everywhere. This is a city that's supposed to be about architectural radicalism.

"How people who voted for Obama, and claim to be interested in change, give themselves over to conservatism. . .," Moss says, getting steamed. "In a city famous for inventive design!"

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Goal: link city's fragments

Moss' work in China, where he entered a design competition for an enormous technology university campus in Shenzhen, and other parts of Asia shows him that ideas can go from conception to completion much faster, even in a down economy, than they typically do here. He's especially frustrated with Mayor Villaraigosa's slow action on the Metro and other transit issues.

But what Moss is hoping for the city isn't top-down, Robert Moses-style central planning. Rather, he hopes that individual energies will lead to ideas breaking out among the city's fragments. "Take a . . . damn piece of the river, and design and build it," adding green spaces and high-speed trains. "Give us a more complex vision of infrastructure. Sustain the same kind of experimental vision you see in the architecture."

Whether it's greening part of the L.A. River that runs past East L.A. or the revival of Culver City, what he calls "a dead industrial zone that was essentially irrelevant to the city," these projects can serve as sparks. "The success of it," he says of Culver City's transformation into a district of media headquarters, fashionable restaurants, art galleries, and, soon, Metro stops, "demonstrates the fluidity of the city."

The towers, he said, are a small piece of the effort "to substantially reinvent L.A. In every case the infrastructure was designed by civil engineers to solve technical problems: the flow of cars, water, power or trains. Now is the time to conceptualize the city that hops over, digs under, goes around and through that original, simple-minded infrastructure." Ideally, he says, new projects can help connect the fragments of the city.

Moss, who has trouble staying on a single idea or metaphor at a time, keeps coming back to a single image: A Michelangelo sculpture of a slave that seems unfinished. It seems to capture for him the complexity of reality, the ambiguity of Los Angeles and the restlessness of his own spirit. "The truth of a thing," he says, "isn't in one position. It's in the tension between things, in the raw marble and the figure coming out of it."

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