Well, it is the prerogative of men to enter the world without acknowledging that they are men. - Sylvia Lavin — Harvard GSD M.Arch.I (Lian)
Watching Sylvia Lavin and Eric Owen Moss in conversation at SCI-Arc last night, prolific Archinect blogger Lian Chang took careful note of a few key impasses -- where Lavin and Moss either failed to see eye-to-eye, or artfully dodged one another's argumentative traps. Lavin, an imposing academic presence as the Director of the Critical Studies MA/PhD for UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, set out to engage Moss, world-renowned architect and current SCI-Arc director, on architectural agency and pedagogy. When the architect’s reach is so far and deep, what is their responsibility to their environment, both physically and temporally? On a more psychological (and abstract) level, how does the architect’s memory of their past serve their present understanding?
To pose these questions, Lavin presented the audience with a few (now nearly nauseatingly ubiquitous, at least in Los Angeles) photos: of Moss on the beach, and in a collection of contemporaries’ portraits. The beach photo incited a back-and-forth where Lavin tried to convince Moss of the (potentially problematizing) difference between the architect’s intent and a project’s historical interpretation -- that the latter is not in service to the former. From Chang’s paraphrasing of their conversation:
SL: This image nauseates me...partly because I've seen it so many times. But also because at the height of feminism...and this is everything good and everything that is awful about a boy's club. I feel like it's my professional duty to say this.
EOM: I think you're attributing motives or reading something... well, that is there, I'll give you that...but the people who were there weren't thinking that. It wasn't in my head.
SL: Well my job is precisely to have something in my head that is not in your head. I'm not playing the psychoanalyst, [trying to figure out what's in your head.] What I'm doing is reading the image against its historical background. It's not meant to be personal--
EOM: I'm just saying as I recall whatever the hell I thought I was doing, standing on a beach--it wasn't intentional. I do think that letting things go instead of chasing back things that were formative in my life...I prefer to let things turn over.
Lavin was clearly frustrated by Moss’ refusal to admit that he could have been part of something that he wouldn’t necessarily individually intend -- that is, part of a celebrated male-dominated architectural community that existed during the upswing of ‘70s feminism. Lavin’s didn’t seem to be trying to corner Moss into admitting sexist complacency or misogyny, only to question his professional operation as championing the architect’s intent above all environmental or historical interpretations. The conversation moved into Moss’ current role as Director of SCI-Arc, and his operations in Culver City, as Lavin tried to tease out a pedagogical focus despite Moss’ insistence that “I'm the guy who said that SCI-Arc doesn't have a pedagogy”.
What followed was a kind of hilarious exchange between someone whose professional title is “Director of Critical Studies”, and an architect refusing to engage with critical interpretations of his work. If the first rule of improv is to “say yes” to your interlocutor, then Moss wasn’t exactly playing nice -- when Lavin started questioning the style of building photographs on EOM’s website, Moss refused to accept any premise that didn’t prioritize the intent of his firm, but didn't say what that intent actually was. Going beyond rejection of the intentional fallacy, Moss seemed to embrace the romantic model of the architect as a solitary, self-inspiring creator of immaculate ideas -- a perspective that Lavin, in the opening of the conversation, suggested was harmful to architecture's professional reputation. In an era of collective criticism and the “diffuse democracy” of the internet, a collage of interpretations and criticisms can crop up in response to any authority’s opinion, and in this day and age the architect has a responsibility to accept the inevitability of that reaction.
In some ways, though, Moss’ refusal to engage with alternate critical opinions, or concretely define his own, may partially explain his strength as director at SCI-Arc. How do you keep an educational institution founded on youthful, innovative contrarianism fresh after forty years? By refusing to adopt any pedagogy -- the architect is free to take up any provisional outlook to realize (and here’s the allegiance to that romantic notion of solitary-creation) their idea. As soon as things start to concretize, they become antithetical to SCI-Arc's origin, and it’s time to move on -- no apologies.