Eric Owen Moss explores the origins of innovation in architecture

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Pterodactyl by Eric Owen Moss Architects. (Tom Bonner)

Pterodactyl by Eric Owen Moss Architects (Courtesy Tom Bonner)

Eric Owen Moss, principal and lead designer of Eric Owen Moss Architects, has spent decades in the metaphorical trenches of architectural practice. But when he speaks about truly innovative design, he harkens back to the literal trenches of World War I, where German architect Erich Mendelsohn sketched his Einstein Tower, later built in Potsdam. “Mendelsohn was drawing something that no one else was drawing,” explains Moss, who will deliver the afternoon keynote address at the upcoming Facades+ LA conference. “It was unique to him and his time and place.”

Waffle by Eric Owen Moss Architects. (Courtesy Eric Owen Moss Architects)

Waffle by Eric Owen Moss Architects (Courtesy Eric Owen Moss Architects)

Moss contrasted Mendelsohn’s work with the “swoopy Maya stuff” so many architects produce today. “There’s a danger that the advent of Maya and Rhino and CATIA and all of this [technology] produces generic kinds of buildings,” he said. “The power of the tools is dictating the design content.” Instead, said Moss, the architect’s tools, whether the Bauhaus-era parallel rule or today’s digital modeling systems, should be a means to rather than the end of design. “I want to argue that architecture is still personal—it still has the aspect of Mendelsohn in the trenches—and that it’s important that architecture not simply be a manifestation of the tools that are being used,” he said. “It’s not the plane that’s flying the people, but the people are flying the plane.”

Meanwhile, the advent of digital design has introduced another set of problems—or, as Moss pointed out, opportunities. Today’s AEC industry professionals use software “that is, by reputation, extremely precise, and extremely exact,” he said. “There’s a supposition that with sophisticated technological tools, it’s all simple—and it isn’t necessarily simple.” Why not? The complicating factor is the human one. “I’m interested in talking about pieces that don’t turn out the way you expect them too,” explained Moss. Whatever the software designers promise, bringing a complex building envelope from concept to completion “is not necessarily easy. It’s also contingent on the people.”

Returning to the distinction between innovative and run-of-the-mill architectural products, Moss recalled a recent public conversation with Frank Gehry. “We were talking about what would constitute a radical architecture,” said Moss. In the end, he identified three necessary conditions. First, the work has to be inventive on a conceptual level. “It has to move architecture somewhere,” said Moss. Second, the implementation of the project must also be innovative. Finally, he concluded, “the political side of the project has to be imaginative—meaning you have to get the city, the developer, the contractor to participate, to buy into it.”

Learn more from Moss and other facades experts, including morning keynote presenter and TEN Arquitectos founder Enrique Norten, at Facades+ LA, January 28-29. Register today at the conference website.

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