AR­CHI­TEC­TURE LEBBEUS WOODS

Ex­per­i­men­tal Ar­chi­tec­ture.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Kathryn Si­mon PHD

MY FIRST EN­COUNTER WITH LEBBEUS WOODS WAS IN 2004 WHEN THE CON­FU­SION OF 9/11 WAS STILL PER­VA­SIVE. HIS BOOK RAD­I­CAL RE­CON­STRUC­TIONS, 1997, FELL OPEN INTO MY HANDS. IT WAS STAG­GER­ING. THESE PRE­SCIENT CON­STRUC­TIONS RE­VEALED SOME­THING THAT HADN’T YET HAP­PENED WHEN THE BOOK WAS PUB­LISHED.

Woods seemed to pos­sess some pro­found in­sight into the com­plex­i­ties of the in­ci­dent re­ferred to as 9/11 — ex­press­ing in draw­ings what oth­ers seemed to pass over/miss/dis­miss/min­imise choos­ing to go di­rectly into the catas­tro­phe and con­se­quence — and in do­ing so miss the event it­self. When so many could only ut­ter po­lit­i­cal stances to cover up the pain, Woods in­stead ex­pressed the en­tirety of the event. His draw­ings were strangely hope­ful.

Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012) was an ar­chi­tect, artist and teacher who left be­hind a rich legacy. Best known for his vi­sion­ary and ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chi­tec­ture and strong so­cial/po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions, he ex­am­ined life through mas­ter­ful, and one might say, dystopian draw­ings. Lebbeus thought and ex­pressed as an ar­chi­tect in the purest sense of the word, propos­ing in­ter­ven­tions and in­sights re­gard­ing con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, com­mu­nity and more purely philo­soph­i­cal is­sues. He cre­ated spa­ces to dwell –– al­most ex­clu­sively in­tended as draw­ings and mod­els. They sug­gest com­plex­i­ties, both in what has hap­pened and how to live with what is most chal­leng­ing, rather than ‘raz­ing’ it by as­sign­ing it to a past.

Al­though known (and hailed) as a bril­liant ar­chi­tect and ex­cep­tion­ally mas­ter­ful draughts­man, he built only one build­ing. Woods was part of a new move­ment in ar­chi­tec­ture that be­gan in the mid-eight­ies that in­cludes Zaha Ha­did, Thom Mayne, Diller & Scofidio, Neil De­nari, among oth­ers. Many ar­chi­tects around this time be­gan to focus on works on pa­per, mod­els and teach­ing –– in part caused by the com­pet­i­tive na­ture of the field and in part be­cause of the en­trance that draw­ing af­fords one. Lebbeus com­mit­ted him­self to draw­ing, where he found the free­dom his ar­chi­tec­ture needed — to ex­am­ine and build al­ter­na­tive ways to meet the in­creas­ing and per­va­sive is­sues that have come to mark con­tem­po­rary life: cri­sis, in­sta­bil­ity and change. Due to shifts caused by war/pol­i­tics, as well as the nat­u­ral course of the earth’s move­ment (earth­quakes). His ideas took shape through draw­ings, in­stal­la­tions, film, lec­tures and pub­li­ca­tions. They opened up pos­si­bil­i­ties for liv­ing with con­tem­po­rary re­al­i­ties in­stead of nur­tur­ing a cul­ture of ‘mar­ket­ing’ by con­tin­u­ally hid­ing the scars of the in­evitable.

What makes his work (in all these medi­ums) pow­er­ful and hard to for­get, is their vi­sion, vigor and the un­com­pro­mis­ing force around of­ten un­com­fort­able is­sues. One gains en­trance into a pen­e­trat­ing mind syn­the­sis­ing a pro­fu­sion of el­e­ments (po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, eco­nomic, cul­tural, etc.) rather than shut­ting them out. The force of these real in­sta­bil­i­ties in our lives is un­de­ni­able. Whether or not we give them our at­ten­tion, they con­tinue to pro­duce af­fects.

Lebbeus’ draw­ings bring one into a sense that is at once team­ing, chaotic and or­derly. His vi­sion is rem­i­nis­cent of Pi­ranesi –– in its com­plex­ity, and the mul­ti­plic­ity of an­gles and views that take one into imag­i­nary spa­ces for dwelling, but would be im­pos­si­ble to ex­pe­ri­ence in a built con­struc­tion. There is an invit­ing ‘thingi­ness’ to his work, a vis­ceral qual­ity that makes his work com­pelling and ac­ces­si­ble. His draw­ings make ap­par­ent things we ex­pe­ri­ence but are of­ten not vis­i­ble.

De­spite their com­plex­ity and tech­ni­cal prow­ess they are hand-drawn rather than com­puter gen­er­ated, which may be why we find our­selves drawn into these worlds. They are strongly sug­ges­tive of the kind of work a boy be­tween the ages of nine and four­teen would cre­ate. Who in­stead of grow­ing out of a phase of draw­ing ships, space­ships, cars and war themes, has moved on to more ad­vanced con­struc­tions with more so­phis­ti­cated ideas to ex­plore.

The re­cent show at The Draw­ing Cen­ter, New York (April 17 - June 15, 2014) ex­hib­ited the work of Lebbeus Woods span­ning nearly four decades. The ex­hi­bi­tion was cu­rated by Joseph Becker, As­sis­tant Cu­ra­tor of Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign, Jennifer Dun­lop Fletcher, He­len Hil­ton Raiser, As­so­ci­ate Cu­ra­tor of Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign, San Fran­cisco Mu­seum Of Mod­ern Art. Over­lap­ping the ex­hi­bi­tion, Cooper Union held a two day sym­po­sium cel­e­brat­ing Lebbeus Woods life with trib­utes from friends and col­leagues — in­clud­ing Zaha Ha­did, Thom Mayne, Steven Holl, Neil De­nari, Michael Sorkin and Eric Owen Moss.

There is no trace of utopian fan­tasies, in­stead one finds an in­tensely con­sid­ered re­sponse to cri­sis in cul­tural, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions

ques­tion­ing, ex­am­in­ing and the­o­riz­ing ar­chi­tec­ture in places of cri­sis. Rather than raze build­ings de­stroyed by war, his projects in Sara­javo, Ha­vana and Ber­lin are con­sid­ered re­sponses to the scars of war and or po­lit­i­cal strife, pre­sent­ing pos­si­ble ways to come to terms with those con­flicts or at least to live with their his­tory, rather than hide them. The dystopian qual­ity of his work is counter to the pro­fuse hope and life that em­anates from them. They sug­gest a fu­ture, a con­tin­u­ance, not an end­ing.

“The shift of focus I have made from ob­jects to fields has not been made sim­ply as a re­jec­tion of ty­po­log­i­cal think­ing, which dom­i­nates the de­sign of build­ings; not sim­ply as a re­jec­tion of the pol­i­tics of iden­tity that build­ings in­evitably work to sus­tain; nor sim­ply as the re­jec­tion of the il­lu­sions of author­ity con­jured by build­ings, de­signed and built in the ser­vice of pri­vate or in­sti­tu­tional power. It is a shift I have made in or­der to lib­er­ate in the first place, my­self. If I can­not free my­self from the re­as­sur­ance of the ha­bit­ual, how can I speak of the ex­per­i­men­tal, which is noth­ing with­out real risk, even loss? If I can­not free my­self from ob­ses­sion with the end-prod­uct, how can I ad­vo­cate the rev­e­la­tions la­tent in the pro­cesses of mak­ing things? With­out free­dom from the tyranny of the ob­ject, how can I at­tain the mea­sure of in­de­pen­dence nec­es­sary to join with oth­ers, who, in the mak­ing of things, con­quer their ex­is­tence in the first place by their own ef­forts? If I can­not free my­self, how can I ad­vo­cate the free­dom of oth­ers, in what­ever terms they might choose?” – Lebbeus Woods, 2004.

Col­lapse, de­con­struc­tion, cri­sis and in­ter­ven­tion are all words one as­so­ci­ates with Lebbeus Woods’ ar­chi­tec­tural and visual ex­am­i­na­tions, ver­sus the slick high con­cept build­ing de­scrip­tive of most con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture. The struc­tures that Mr. Woods builds are the gnarly ones, the re­sult of com­pli­ca­tions and cri­sis that are born of 21st cen­tury prob­lems. For Lebbeus the act of draw­ing and cre­at­ing in­stal­la­tions was as con­sti­tu­tive of build­ing as an ac­tual con­struc­tion it­self. Lebbeus ac­cepted in­sta­bil­ity as part of con­tem­po­rary life. He was con­cerned with how we cre­ate spa­ces in the face of this sit­u­a­tion find­ing ways to in­clude the scars these dis­rup­tions have left – not erase them. “My idea of utopia, or an ideal state of con­di­tions for hu­mans, is not based on a har­mo­nious meld­ing of con­flict­ing con­di­tions, but rather the ‘free’ di­a­logue or open in­ter­ac­tion be­tween them. The utopian con­di­tion is one of con­flict, achiev­ing a dy­namic bal­ance of ideas, ac­tions, forces, through con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to as­sert dif­fer­ences of every kind. This idea is based on the be­lief that the ul­ti­mate state of har­mony is death.” Vi­sion­ary and pos­si­ble… his work is en­gaged, im­mer­sive, ex­per­i­men­tal - words those in ar­chi­tec­ture use to dis­cuss his work.

Trans­dis­ci­plinary and vig­or­ous in his ca­reer and out­put, his work an­tic­i­pated the strongly in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary cur­rent that is puls­ing through all the de­sign/cre­ative pro­fes­sions to­day and the crossovers be­tween them. Trained as both an en­gi­neer and an ar­chi­tect his cho­sen medium was draw­ing.

While he built only one build­ing, his pri­mary in­ter­ests and oc­cu­pa­tion were is­sues of cul­ture, war, pol­i­tics and com­mu­nity struc­tured in the lan­guage of ar­chi­tec­ture. Ul­ti­mately he un­der­stood ar­chi­tec­ture as a kind of text — with its own gram­mar and syn­tax. Lebbeus is hailed by ar­chi­tects, artists, film­mak­ers and pain­ters for the “con­cep­tual depth, beauty and ‘eth­i­cal po­tency’ that res­onate across dis­ci­plines.” He was a com­mit­ted ar­chi­tect in that his focus was on the fun­da­men­tal ac­tiv­ity of the field: to syn­the­sise a di­ver­sity of forces (po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, eco­nomic and cul­tural) into struc­ture and think through the prob­lems of or­gan­is­ing and un­der­stand­ing space.

His struc­tures are prob­lem­atic in re­veal­ing the un­re­solved, not prob­lem­atic in what needs clo­sure. They take one into the scene of cri­sis and catas­tro­phe with­out be­ing dark. His courage is ev­i­dent in tack­ling truly con­tem­po­rary is­sues of catas­tro­phe, cri­sis and de­struc­tion, which has so far marked this cen­tury in dis­tinc­tive ways. We have now pasted over the post­mod­ern cli­mate. Ter­ror­ism, po­lit­i­cal changes, war and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters like earth­quakes mark con­tem­po­rary ways of life. What Lebbeus asks us to look at is how we build in con­sid­er­a­tion of these very real and en­dur­ing forces. I feel strongly that the im­pact his work will have on the next gen­er­a­tion of ar­chi­tects will be pro­found, and that his legacy may per­haps be­come more vis­i­ble and known in ab­sen­tia.

In­stal­la­tion photo of Con­flict Space, 2006. Graphite on Linen. Im­age courtesy of The Draw­ing Cen­ter. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Plate 06.

Im­age Plates

Plate 01. Lebbeus Woods, Uni­fied Ur­ban Field, from the se­ries Cen­tric­ity [no. 37], 1987. Graphite on pa­per, 24 in. x 23 in. (60.96cm x 58.42 cm). Col­lec­tion SFMOMA, pur­chase through a gift of Ned and Cather­ine Topham and the Ac­ces­sions. Com­mit­tee Fund; ˝ Es­tate of Lebbeus Woods.

Plate 02. Nine Re­con­structed Boxes, 1999. Poly­styrene. Di­men­sions vari­able. Built in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dwayne Oyler. San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Ac­ces­sions Com­mit­tee Fund pur­chase

Plate 03. Lebbeus Woods, San Fran­cisco Project: In­hab­it­ing the Quake, Quake City, 1995. Graphite and pas­tel on pa­per, 14 1/2 in. x 23 in. x 3/4 in. (36.83 cm x 58.42 cm x 1.91 cm). Col­lec­tion SFMOMA, Ac­ces­sions Com­mit­tee Fund pur­chase; Es­tate of Lebbeus Woods.

Plate 04. Lebbeus Woods, Con­cen­tric Field, from the se­ries Cen­tric­ity, 1987. Graphite on pa­per, 23 in. x 24 in. (58.42 cm x 60.96 cm). Col­lec­tion SFMOMA, pur­chase through a gift of the Mem­bers of the Ar­chi­tec­ture + De­sign Fo­rum, SFMOMA Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign Ac­ces­sions Com­mit­tee, and the ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign com­mu­nity in hon­our of Aaron Bet­sky, Cu­ra­tor of Ar­chi­tec­ture, De­sign and Dig­i­tal Projects, 1995–2001; Es­tate of Lebbeus Woods.

Plate 05. Lebbeus Woods, Pho­ton Kite, from the se­ries Cen­tric­ity, 1988, Graphite on pa­per, 24 in. x 22 inches, Pur­chase through a gift of the Mem­bers of the Ar­chi­tec­ture + De­sign Fo­rum, SFMOMA Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign Ac­ces­sions Com­mit­tee, and the ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign com­mu­nity in honor of Aaron Bet­sky, Cu­ra­tor of Ar­chi­tec­ture, De­sign and Dig­i­tal Projects, 1995-2001. Es­tate of Lebbeus Woods.

Plate 06. Con­flict Space, 2006. Crayon and acrylic on linen. 85 1/2 x 108 3/4 inches San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, pur­chase through a gift of anony­mous donors and the Ac­ces­sions Com­mit­tee Fund.

Plate 03.

Plate 02.

Plate 01.

Plate 05.

Plate 04.

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