Eric Owen Moss on Passing the Torch at SCI-Arc: “You Are Never Done”

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Eric Owen Moss speaking at a past SCI-Arc graduation. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This weekend marks the culmination of months of intensive work for students at LA’s 43 year-old architectural laboratory SCI-Arc, as they present and defend their thesis projects before large panels of critics at the annual Graduate Thesis Weekend. The proceedings culminate in a Graduation Ceremony Sunday, at which the Commencement Speech will be given by architect Eric Owen Moss.

That speech formally marks the passing of the torch, from Moss, director of SCI-Arc for the past 14 years, to his protégé Hernan Diaz Alonso, longtime coordinator of the school’s graduate thesis process, who took up the leadership post earlier this summer.

While curricula and faculty changes have already been made (in a faculty switch-around, John Enright has become Vice Director/Chief Academic Officer, Elena Manferdini becomes Graduate Programs Chair, and Tom Wiscombe the Undergraduate Program Chair), Diaz Alonso means to perpetuate the SCI-Arc spirit of invention, writing in his director’s message, “SCI-Arc is where architects become mad scientists. It is where art, science, and industry converge and new futures unfold. At SCI-Arc, we forecast the migrations of culture. We stare down complex technologies and command them to do our bidding.”

In the coming months we’ll look at where SCI-Arc is heading.

Before getting to that, DnA checked in with Moss, now returned full-time to his Culver City office and his architecture and planning projects, among them a high-rise at Jefferson and La Cienega, in the works for many years, and schemes afoot in Nanjing, Albuquerque and Barcelona.

When Moss took up the directorship of SCI-Arc he was known for wildly idiosyncratic designs and loquacious theorizing; administrative ability was not something that came to mind in association with this architect.

But 14 years later he is widely perceived to have done a masterful job running the school, pulling together a very effective board; buying the former freight depot that houses the school in the arts district, and becoming actively engaged with downtown’s burgeoning development; delegating effectively to a passionate faculty; and keeping the school high in global academic rankings.

While visitors to the thesis reviews this weekend will see many beautifully rendered images of arresting forms whose utility and buildability is sometimes hard to grasp, Moss says he left the school a “pluralistic place,” where students’ have found a wide range of expression, from formal experimentation utilizing leading edge technology to designs for the Solar Decathlon and Habitat For Humanity.

Read on for an excerpt from our conversation, which was prompted by comparing notes on Russian writers and led to lessons from the Paris Commune.

Eric Owen Moss, left, and his successor, Hernan Diaz Alonso

Eric Owen Moss: This discourse starts with Frances saying she is reading Tolstoy and my comment that you are never done, and that you read and you reread; and you learn again and again that the answer is never the answer, or the conclusion is never the conclusion.

The adventure is never final and you open up again and again and again.

I think that’s the objective at SCI-Arc, and to some extent I took that job the way I’ve done many things in my life — which is to jump into something and then to see what’s coagulated. What have I jumped into?

It’s much easier (to see) in retrospect, but I think I didn’t know the nature of the problems or even the nature of the administration and organization that’s requisite in a place like that, not only what’s required but what wasn’t present.

What was going on in my office at the same time that I took the SCI-Arc job was a reorganization where some priority was now placed not just on content — on theoretical content, concept, intellect, idea, shape, form, space — but on what we needed to do to implement that work in the world to realize it, to make it doable and implementable.

And I think one of the things that we learned about SCI-Arc was that at the level of ideas, of thinking, of adventure, of imagination, of discovery — all of those wonderful things — they need accoutrements. They need support, they need tools to be realized in the world.

You can’t move without the content but even the content doesn’t warranty success or achievement unless there are administrative means to implement those projects.

SCI-Arc’s new Robot House is among Moss’ legacies. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Can you get specific about what you mean by tools?

EOM: When we when we started at SCI-Arc — myself, and the initial team of Ming Fung and Chris Genick — we walked into a school with no C.N.C. machines, no 3D printers, no robots, no vacuum formers, no tools.

Further, (there was) relatively little in the way of fiscal resources to implement or to purchase or to move forward. So we looked at the situation in terms of ideas — design ideas, imaginative students, creative faculty — and we had to give them the tools to implement, meaning to draw, to model what they wanted, and to make that information then available on the outside.

We started publishing a number of books and maybe the most important thing in the long run (was) a commercial real estate deal — which ipso facto doesn’t sound like SCI-Arc — but we had to get the building and we ultimately. . . bought the building, and bought the property to the south.

Now we’re building a house with Habitat for Humanity in (Supervisor Mark) Ridley-Thomas’s area around Century and Vermont. So the idea of connecting with Antonio (Mayor Villaraigosa), later (Mayor Eric) Garcetti, and (former Councilwoman) Jan Perry who was enormously helpful, and the neighborhood group, LARABA. . those exchanges developed an intersection between what SCI-Arc argued for — ideas and people on the outside — (and moved it in) a sense from an introverted world to an extroverted world without conceding the content of the introverted world.

And I think that was a priority for the office and it’s also a priority for SCI-Arc and I think we’ve left SCI-Arc in a position now to go out and make all kinds of mischief and deliver it.

Pterodactyl West Elevation
Pterodactyl, West Elevation, one of Eric Owen Moss’ buildings for Samitaur Constructs, in Culver City (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But there was an interesting moment — and maybe this is only a theoretical moment — but a moment where we wondered. . . you’re a big fan of the Paris Commune. . . and (that) was an idea at the end of the nineteenth century for a moment. It was an ideal and it was an aspiration and it was a goal and to certain people it meant, this is where the world is going.

But there’s an argument that what made it precious was its fragility — that it had a moment, like a relationship or a building that might be made and not materialized. . . that there are things in your life that belong not so much to a longterm goal. . . but you do it in pieces and the adventure — and I know this is said and maybe it’s even a cliche — is to live it in a day to day sense.

So what happened to Paris Commune is it came up, and it dissipated, and it dissolved, then it went away and now it’s a story.

And there was a question about whether SCI-Arc should come to an end because it had it had a spectacular beginning — and then, like a lot of institutions there’s a kind of cosine curve of ups and downs of its history, (there was the question) should it end?

Have we done enough? Have we had enough? Did it make its mark, hasta la vista, let’s go do something else.

I remember talking about that and of course we decided we wouldn’t be the authors of the dissolution of the school.

Project by Cynthia Abi Naked and Esra Durukan, students in Tom Wiscombe’s studio at SCI-Arc (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But I think it’s interesting just as a hypothesis — that things come and things go and they are important and they go away and the law of institutions — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s SCI-arc or Enron or the Federal Government or N.P.R. — is that they form, they are fragile, they are experimental, they materialize, they have a point of view, they have a method, they have a system, they have an order, and then they run it.

And then the experimental side, the discovery side, which was so important certainly for SCI-Arc and for this office in its origins, then is replaced by systems and methods and patterns and rules.

And then people come to buy it, they come to buy it, they come to buy a product, the standardized product and so on.

(W)rapper - Site Montage, View from South
Rendering of (W)rapper – Site Montage, View from South – a tower by EOM to be built at the intersection of Jefferson and La Cienega in Los Angeles (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So (there was the) idea of ending something before it’s institutionalized. . . but we decided that wasn’t the way to go but we did want to we remake, in a very fundamental way, the thinking about both the inside of the school and the outside. But I think what I meant when we started this conversation with the line, you’re never done, I think that could be a mantra in perpetuity for SCI-Arc: you are never done and you know what you know. . . provisionally.

So you know it, you go and do it with confidence but at the same time with a certain amount of skepticism that somebody else will see it differently, that we haven’t solved anything but we’ve made initiatives and that’s what’s important: the experiment and the adventure.

I think we’ve lived that way. Now whether you can institutionalize a kind of anti-institutional message, we will see.

Hernan is coming — he’s a terrific guy, he’s got a very talented group of people around him and they immediately switched about 50 things, which is I think commendable; in other words: it works, it’s good, now start over, and I think they’re doing it.

For more information about this weekend’s graduation activities, click here.

Waffle, EOM’s latest addition to the Hayden Tract, where he has built or retrofitted several buildings for Samitaur Constructs (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)