Beyond Buildings


The Moss Monument

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If we have learned anything in the 21st century, it is that history does not repeat itself as either tragedy or farce, but as perversion. Satire rules our satiric landscape, hybrids inch along the road not towards manifest destiny, but towards branded and imaged plural futures that are all possibly true, things fall apart into Photoshopped coherence.


Case in point: the work of Eric Owen Moss of Los Angeles, California, who lloves making the kind of quasi-oracular pronouncements as the one above. For those of us who still have a vague nostalgia for the cornerstones of built reality called Sweets, Graphic Standards and the Municipal Code (and we show our age), he has produced a brick of a book called EOM Construction Manual.


Over 1,500 pages long, clad in a textured red cover, and—of course—produced in China, it is a coffee table book masquerading as a builder’s reference work (complete with indented tabs). In good Attention Deficit Disorder Era manner, it does away with anything but project descriptions beyond a few of Moss’ pronouncements and snippet blurbs by an array of critics who have surveyed his work over the years. (Full Disclosure, 20th Century Style: I am quoted on five of the projects.) It is a physical fact thrown in the face of the medium through which you are reading this.


It is not a beautiful book—but then neither is the architecture Moss produces. It is, however, close to sublime. Despite its heft, it is also not complete—but then neither are most of the designs coming out of the Eric Owen Moss studio. What it is: a more or less chronological survey of two decades of what the architect once called First You Do One Thing Then Another Architecture. It is, in other word, a compendium of slicing, dicing, pasting, swirling, swerving and bulging form, most of it taking place in or near a tract of land called the Hayden Tract in what was once West L.A.’s industrial core.


Moss Culver City 1

Moss Culver City 1


There, Eric Owen Moss has been engaging in a multi-part, extended experiment in how you can not just reuse industrial artifacts, but take them apart, open them up, insert new pieces in, through and over them, and create a kind of rhizome or mushroom field. It started as simple renovations in the mid-1990s, fed on the rise of the consultant class looking for offices, and grew into a collection of structures filled with quirky forms and sudden explosions of light and space. In the process of making these moves, Moss has created a model for a new kind of architecture, and what we have here is a manual through which we can understand that contribution.


Moss Tower

Moss Tower


What Moss has not produced much of is stand-alone, monumental buildings, either in the Hayden Tract or elsewhere. As an old-fashioned architect, he refuses to accept this condition and enters competition after competition around the globe, chasing commissions across the Asian Steppes and throughout Europe. These designs make up most of the Construction Manual’s latter pages, and most of them show that he could take the family of forms he developed in L.A. and produce structures elsewhere that would have the idiosyncratic power of the spiraling tunnels and towers, bulging facades and strip-teasing structures he has developed on his home turf.


Almaty Square

Almaty Square


What he would not have, in most cases, is the straight man to his stream-of-consciousness riffs, the base building to his monkey’s ladders to architectural ecstasy. The Construction Manual starts with one of his few stand-alone buildings, the University of California at Irvine’s Central Housing Office, completed in 1988. It proves that he can indeed create a site-appropriate, light-filled, textured, logical, and exciting building. We can only hope he gets that chance again. In the meantime, I can think of few architects who can put the elements of buildings, from drain pipes to asphalt shingles, and from structural grids to spaces whose geometry is so complex that we do not have proper words for them, together with as much angst and joy as Eric Owen Moss. This manual does not quite tell me how he does it, but it is a monument to a lifetime of experimentation.


UC Irvine Housing Office

UC Irvine Housing Office




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.