July 28, 2016

What Do You Think of Glass?

Eric Owen Moss (Architect)

Associate Professor Yusuke Obuchi of the University of Tokyo is the foremost authority on digital fabrication research in Japan. He hosted this interview series with experts working with architecture and the latest technology. In the first session, he spoke with Los Angeles-based architect Eric Owen Moss about the future of windows, glass, and architectural education.

Yusuke Obuchi (hereinafter referred to as Obuchi): In your opinion, what do you think of glass?

Eric Owen Moss (hereinafter referred to as Moss): Thereʼs another discussion that is a broader discussion. You could ask it about any piece of defined architecture; floor, wall, roof, stair, window. What's a wall? What's a floor? What's a roof? What's a stair? What's a window? There are a lot of people who would never ask because they think they know what a floor is, what a wall is, what a roof is, and what a window is. If you're prepared to ask a question like that then that means the definitions of the parts of architecture are open to speculation, discussion, examination, or redefinition.

  • Warner Parking and Retail ©Eric Owen Moss Architects

Glass is fascinating because it has a certain amount of strength but it makes everything go away. Itʼs transparent. Whether glass alone is synonymous with a window is a different discussion, but itʼs glass; itʼs transparent. Itʼs also a roof. What you didnʼt ask or you could have asked is, "Could we build this room out of windows?" You could make the whole building out of windows. Or even a floor. So there are a lot of different ways to understand the meanings of glass and windows. There are a lot of things to do that havenʼt been done, including the idea of putting glass together contiguously as a frame and constructing a building out of it or bending the glass. I think this is also possible.

One of the interesting anomalies of glass is itʼs transparent, so in a sense itʼs not there; itʼs not in the room, itʼs not in the discussion. Itʼs something thatʼs there because it keeps the rain out  and isnʼt there because if it's clean you donʼt know it's interior, of course. So one of the questions is how the definitions of glass and windows could be enlarged in order to mean something completely different. When you say, "What do you think of glass?", you donʼt normally think of glass as something that should hold up a building. But in this case, glass has a structural property and itʼs being applied in that way.

Obuchi: Could windows be understood differently if you were to frame them in a different set of questions? Within digital technology, for example?

Moss: We havenʼt even started working on glass in terms of enlarging its capacities, like its structural possibilities, transparency possibilities, or engineering possibilities. I think there is plenty of room to continue to do that.

Digital technology allows possibilities that before would have been difficult to deliver, but they present their own series of issues and problems.

Thereʼs the English expression, "Iʼll believe it when I see it," which means "prove it to me and Iʼll believe it." So, if you reverse that and you say "Iʼll see it when I believe it," it means youʼll make it first, not the other way around. At a presentation we put a number of things on the screen and we talked about them. We used the quote, "You can't rehearse what you havenʼt done yet." You know what that means? You can't practice what you donʼt know. You can't rehearse what you donʼt know yet. You can't practice if you donʼt know how to practice. In a certain way "practice" might be your term, but what you're saying is "a rough fit."

You're not trying to learn how to do something in order to perfect it. In American sports, they call it reps. "Rep" means "repetition," so if you're a quarterback and you throw the ball, and throw the ball, and throw the ball, and throw the ball, and you practice, practice, practice, no matter what happens in the game, the theory is that you're facing something that you have faced many times and you know how to do it.

  • Umbrella ©Eric Owen Moss Architects

So, I think a place like SCI-Arc is looking to put itself in a position that it doesnʼt recognize and work its way out. To find that topically as something that can be taught and discussed is also a problem, and it takes certain kinds of people to do that; people who are willing to do that. To be willing to do that means being willing to say, "I donʼt know." Thereʼs another piece of this that I used in a lecture the other day. Itʼs the question, "Can you listen for things you havenʼt heard yet?" You're listening to me, but actually in your mind you already pretty much know what you think.

Therefore, if you hear something you havenʼt heard before, you either dismiss it and it doesnʼt work or you bend it around until it coincides with the way you look at it. So, is it possible to learn? Especially for somebody whoʼs working. Can you listen in your own head for something that you donʼt recognize? Or is the trick of being a good architect and an experienced architect coming to know what you will do no matter what?

Now I know what to do. When I was younger I didnʼt know, but now I know what to do. Iʼm saying this is the end of architecture. Everybody does this, but whether itʼs The University of Tokyo Yale, SCI-Arc, or the AA; the trick is always, in a way, to undo things.

Obuchi: But the certain degree of expertise obtained by repetition actually develops a sense of skills and repertoire.

Moss: Thatʼs true. The point is that you make something and you take it down. That means you think you know, but then maybe you donʼt. There has to be some component of confidence and there has to be some more self-effacing component where you wonder. Make it and then take it down.

Obuchi: Through this whole discussion there seems to be a certain level of expertise that you obtain where you're not constantly wondering if you can do everything. You do actually become an expert at something. You become good at something and reach a certain level. But what youʼre saying is just donʼt stay there or just reach it.

  • Samitaur Tower ©Eric Owen Moss Architects

Moss: Thereʼs a propensity, a tendency to listen to experts and to famous characters who are supposed to know what's going on. I learned a lesson a long time ago. Itʼs not not to listen. Itʼs not not to be cordial. Itʼs to understand. But in a deeper way, when youʼre talking about philosophical or conceptual decisions… I think there was a point where I decided to rely a lot on my own view of things because I didnʼt think I could really trust anybody else.

If you watch what your kid draws or what he makes, you'll see thereʼs a kind of freedom in not knowing. Thereʼs a limitation and a constraint in knowing and in thinking you know. So for me, the value would be in not knowing and working rather than experience and knowing.

  • "Who says what a window is?"

Eric Owen Moss
Eric Owen Moss was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Los Angeles. He holds Masters Degrees in Architecture from both the University of California at Berkeley, College of Environmental Design and Harvard Universityʼs Graduate School of Design.
Eric Owen Moss Architects was founded in 1973, and the firm has garnered over 100 local, national, and international design awards. Moss was honored with the Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, received the AIA/LA Gold Medal in 2001, and was a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of California, Berkeley in 2003. In 2007, he received the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, recognizing a distinguished history of architectural design, and in 2011 he was awarded the Jencks Award by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In 2014 Moss was inducted into the National Academy, and in 2016 he was honored with an Austrian Decoration of Honor for Science and Art.
Eric Owen Moss has held teaching positions at major universities around the world including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of Applied Arts in Vienna, and the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. Moss has been a longtime professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), and served as its director from 2002-2015.


Yusuke Obuchi
Born in Chiba Prefecture 1969. University of Toronto Department of Architecture 1989-1991. Roto Architects 1991-1995. Graduated Southern California Institute of Architecture 1997. Completed Princeton Graduate School Masterʼs Course 2002. RUR Architecture 2002-2003. Course Master, AA School 2003-2005. Director, AA School Design Research Lab 2005-2011. Instructor, Harvard Graduate School of Design 2013. Visiting Associate Professor, Princeton Graduate School 2012-2013. Project Associate Professor, The University of Tokyo 2010-2014. Associate Professor, The University of Tokyo 2015-present.