“The Truth is in The Tension of Possibilities”: In conversation with Eric Owen Moss
Even though Eric Owen Moss’ buildings are easy to spot it is hard to categorize them. They constitute a clash of forms and surfaces that collide, break, contort, superimpose onto themselves, bend, split, melt, and explode seemingly out of control –all to avoid being subscribed to anything that may even remotely evoke a design methodology of any kind.
Owen Moss’ strategy is a labyrinth-like exploratory path, which never fails to point to yet another unexplored turn. The result is intensely unsettled, thoroughly original, and even delightful. Although, despite Moss’ insistence on endlessly reinventing the rules that define his architecture, his work, nevertheless, has crystallized into a process of perpetual deformation of any singular object or image. Still, he refuses to rely on modularity, repetition, and any other systematic and predictable outcome.
The following is a condensed version of my conversation with Moss over FaceTime between New York and Los Angeles, the architect’s hometown where Eric Owen Moss Architects is based since 1974.
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Vladimir Belogolovsky: I would like to discuss the intentions behind your architecture.
Eric Owen Moss: Years ago, I did an essay for my book with Rizzoli, which was originally titled Which lies do you want to tell? And David Morton, a long-time senior editor there told me that we had to change the title. It ultimately turned into Which truth do you want to tell? The point I want to make is that one’s intentions may be X, Y, and Z. But the results could end up being A, B, and C. So, you can listen to my intentions and not see them in my buildings. In other words, the intentions may not necessarily ratify the work. Some of the intentions may be immediate and pragmatic, while others – long-term such as a message to the next generation. And another question is about consistency – what you say to your client, the public, the bank, people you work with, or students.
VB: Sure, there are always discrepancies between intentions and outcome but let’s focus on the intentions. That’s all most people have. Very few accomplish their dreams, anyway. But we can’t dismiss those who try and fail because they can’t be compared to those who never try. That’s the difference.
EOM: Of course, take Frederick Kiesler, for example, who never built but predicted so many models and ideas that keep showing up in many contemporary works, and will likely continue to show up in the future. Perhaps that was his mission. He was the futurist. Another interesting idea is in the discrepancies between the intention and image. You may find that in the work of Walter Gropius, for example. Some of his ideas come from precedents in modularity and redundancy of Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, which he used in projects that had a completely different social meaning and impact. Although, his love for assembly lines, mass production, and technology in general, has a clear reflection in his buildings. Also, the intentions of various kinds can be entirely misinterpreted and reimagined by future generations.
VB: How was it to grow up in LA and what sparked your initial interest in architecture?
EOM: My parents were New Yorkers. My dad was a sportswriter, editor, and poet. His six-volume poetry collection was recently published by Janus Press in London. They traveled and read a lot. My mom was a social and political activist and labor union organizer. They moved to California shortly before I was born. It was a great environment to grow up in, very encouraging and culturally very diverse. There was a lot of sympathy for culture. Also, my mom worked at an office building by Richard Neutra in Downtown and she knew the architect through work. So, when I was in Middle School and we had to write an essay about who I wanted to be when I grow up, we actually went to meet him. By then I knew I wanted to be an architect. It was not a life-changing experience, but it reconfirmed this interesting possibility. I had a lot of intellectual versatility and I was fascinated with architecture from an early age. I see architecture as a defining voice over time. History evolves and buildings stay, although they often are more impressive during the state of construction than in their finished form, as Eero Saarinen has remarked while his TWA Terminal at JFK was still being built. He likened it to the Bath of Caracalla in Rome. Architecture helps to connect people who came before us and who will come many generations after. Architecture is a voice behind us and in front of us.
VB: Your way of making architecture is about being inquisitive and searching for something new, and as it says on your website, it is about uncovering new ways to think, to feel, to see, and to understand architecture. Where does this attitude for the perpetual discovery of what architecture is or could become from in you?
EOM: What I feel and sure of is that there is always more to know than we could possibly understand. You can’t just build a city for three million people. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t have all the answers. If you are a writer you know what a sentence is – it starts with a capital letter, there should be a noun, a verb, and it should end with a period. That’s not how architecture works. Of course, there is a need for stability and continuity, and conservative values. I am not against that. But somebody will always be irritated because the world is inadequate, incomplete, and insufficient. So, I want to say something or at least to have a discussion, or to share my own hypothesis. I may not even be right, but maybe I am.
I think we need this tension. The truth is in the tension of possibilities. I am against someone simply saying – this needs to be symmetrical or it needs to be asymmetrical. Or you have to hide the structure, or you have to express the structure. Or someone tells me that if there is no green that it is not architecture. I want to question all that. I am not interested in joining any interest group. What’s important is to be investigative. That’s what to me means to be alive. It is a way of life. It has nothing to do with whether there is a consensus or agreement. My work has nothing to do with that. The idea is for me not to allow becoming a rule or a system. I am against becoming predictable. Of course, the reality is that our society pushes for comfort, predictability, and convention because change is uncomfortable for most people. So, the conservative forces absorb what may be new. The question for me is this – Can I free myself from being conservative, predictable, and conventional?
VB: Here are some of the words that pop up when one comes across your work – making and unmaking, skeptical, suspicious, uncertainty, resistance, and here is my favorite – unlearning. What other single-term words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you would like to achieve?
EOM: Artists often have an enormous sense of self-confidence. But they also are very skeptical. So, I am skeptical of my confidence. Yes, I am willing to push my ideas and defend them in front of my students, clients, or the planning commissioner. But in private I could say –”What did I leave out?” “What did I miss?” This is how I still think when I work on my projects. For example, I just designed a house for my children, and it is now under construction in Santa Monica. I am using rubber both for insulation and safety reasons. It is a very unusual material for a house, but it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be used if I see certain advantages in it. So, I am always questioning the convention, which makes many people quite uncomfortable. That’s because I am never at a point when I know how to do things. It is a constant discussion and search – I arrive at one solution and I move to the next question.
VB: You mentioned that you see your buildings as a single career-long project. Could you touch on the meaning of progress in your work? Do you insist on asking a new question every time?
EOM: Well, ultimately, it is about the learning process, which evolves. But it is not about progress. Some projects may be missteps or sidesteps. And in retrospect, looking over a number of projects doesn’t mean that they constitute a logical sequence. There are dichotomies and juxtapositions, and similarities, and differences, and exceptions. So, it is not a continuum. For me working on projects can be very erratic. Yet, these projects are not simply unrelated fragments either.
VB: If you look back to your career who do you think you owe most for what you have achieved?
EOM: Honestly, that would be different people and events throughout my life, but in the deepest sense, I would say it is my mother and father. It was about taking me to particular vantage points, so I could see various possibilities. I learned a lot from my parents, and I passed their and my own knowledge to my kids, and now I am learning a lot from my kids as well.
Read Vladimir Belogolovsky’s previous interviews published on ArchDaily.