Almost 30 years ago, Eric Owen Moss started tinkering with warehouse buildings in the Hayden Tract in Culver City. At that point it was a flagging industrial area. For him and his clients Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith it was a playground, and together they turned it into a complex of whimsical structures, occupied by the likes of Nike, Converse, WeWork, GoPro and the Tennis Channel. Many of the buildings have names — among them Stealth, Beehive, Umbrella and Slash/Backslash.
For a couple decades the area was what he describes as “a marginal experimental architectural venue.”
Now the Hayden Tract may take on a new character.
That’s because of the arrival of a restaurant by hotshot young chef Jordan Kahn, who made his name at some of the best eating establishments in the country — French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea. Called Vespertine, and due to open in early June, this will be a 22-seat, $250 per head, three-hour, multi-course, multi-sensory dining experience. It’s the vision of 33-year old Kahn who, while pastry chef at Red Medicine spotted a Moss-designed building in the Hayden Tract named Waffle. The glass building sassily wrapped in wavy criss-cross metal frame spoke to him, he says.
“If you’ve ever been to the Sequoia redwood forest and you happen to just walk straight up to a redwood tree, a Sequoia redwood that’s a million years old, you feel this insane sort of energy that comes off of the tree. And I had kind of a similar experience with this building,” Kahn said.
While Kahn mapped out Vespertine he opened a lunch place across the street called Destroyer. And he cooked up a plan for a restaurant experience that would combine all the five senses — and tapped composers, perfumiers and other artists to create an all enveloping sensory experience, from the soundtrack that changes as you move from outside to inside and from room to room through the phials of perfume that diners will be given as they depart.
The concept owes as much to Hollywood storytelling as selling food and it even has a prequel, a story that he shares with artists to give them a framework for their designs.
“The loose Cliff’s Notes mythology is that this is an alien artifact that’s been here for a billion years. The building, it’s been dormant so it was sort of a standard rectangular shape and then recently it was turned on through something that happened, this anomaly. And so the building started to shift and it’s kind of morphing. And so we’re in the belly of this.”
Vespertine — its name refers to a night-blooming flower, but it’s also the title of a Bjork album — also takes cues from the ritualized Japanese dining adventure called kaiseki, where multiple, small courses vacillate from light to heavy and savory to sweet, “like a heart monitor,” unlike, explains Kahn, the more linear tradition of Western cuisine. Kaiseki is also a visual feast, in which every course comes in a different and specific tableware, an approach also echoed in Vespertine.
“The key to Jordan, to me,” says the architect, “is when he said, Eric, make me a bowl. I’ll make you the food to go in the bowl.”
Eric Owen Moss also designed many other features, like the whimsical garden named Addilantis (after his daughter Addy), banquettes on the dining floor made of hard steel, with acrylic tabletops — “the most incredible banquettes and tables ever made in the history of restaurants without question,” says Kahn — and, in the lobby, a long white winding object with jagged edges suspended from the ceiling with wires and snaking through the space. It’s called a table but bares little relation to conventional tables — and is more like something you’d expect in the billion-year old alien artifact.
When the restaurant opens, the guests will take an elevator to the kitchen on the second of three levels. The stairs will be used by service staff. And as the elevator opens to the kitchen, Jordan Kahn will be there to greet them.
“All of the imagery and things we’re putting out there makes it feel like a very intense, very serious, art driven, avant-garde project. And we wanted the very first thing that you experienced from a person was like just this really humble human touch.”
If Vespertine succeeds, it may “ratify,” in Eric’s words, “a confirmed architecture and commercial presence” in the Hayden Tract. He has mixed feelings about this, calling it a “win and a loss.”
But for Eric, who recently returned to full-time practice after 13 years directing SCI-Arc, the experience of working with the young chef who seems to be an equally-driven dreamer, has been a fabulous creative adventure.
“I think my initial sense of food is probably related to my sense of fashion, which would be different than sculpture or painting or music, is that it’s ephemeral. And because it’s ephemeral, it’s maybe it’s not so serious. But for [Jordan] it’s mythology, it’s fun and it’s serious too,” Moss said. “So it’s been terrific. It’s been a special adventure and hopefully we’ll do a few more things together.”
For those interested in seeing Vespertine before it opens, Venice Design Series is offering a Culver City tour this Saturday, May 6 from 10 am to 4 pm. The tour also includes Steven Ehrlich’s EYOC office (for breakfast) and a walk through Vespertine with Eric and Jordan Kahn, finishing with Prosecco and a tour of Morphosis offices with principal Thom Mayne.