In memoriam: Lebbeus Woods one year after his death

A little over a year ago the visionary architect Lebbeus Woods died. I never got around to writing up a reflection on his passing, something commemorating and celebrating his lifework. Thankfully, many whose opinions and insight I respect did.

What follows is thus a pastiche of images by Woods and text from two articles — one by Sammy Medina (then at Architizer), with whom I’ve collaborated in the past, the other by Kelly Chan (then at ArtInfo), a fantastically overproductive architecture critic who I know through Sammy — as well as a quote from the British author Douglas Murphy on Woods’ oeuvre.

Early drawings

Not much I can really add to their comments, really, except to point out a few intersecting themes that unite them (for good reason, too, as I think they hit upon something):

  • First, there is the contrast of Woods’ career with those of his contemporaries Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid, both of whom transitioned from speculative architectural drawing in the late 1970s and 1980s to become “starchitects” by the mid-1990s. Douglas, Sammy, and Kelly all stress Woods’ disappointment with the naked careerism of his former peers.
  • Second, related to the first point, there was Woods’ refusal to capitulate to the imperative to build in a reactionary age. This wasn’t an act of simple asceticism, I don’t think, but rather a recognition of historical reality.
  • Finally, there is the comparison that both Sammy and Kelly made of Woods to the pioneering Italian draughtsman Piranesi — whose work, according to Manfredo Tafuri, prefigured that of the twentieth century avant-garde. Piranesi, like Woods, built very little during his lifetime. Both are instead remembered for their resolute commitment to “paper architecture,” whose unsettlingly speculative content served to disenchant the triumphant conservatism that had overtaken architecture in their time.

With that, I’ll conclude. Enjoy.

Lebbeus Woods, Makeshift House (1990s)

Lebbeus Woods, Makeshift House (1990s)

On the passing of Lebbeus Woods

Douglas Murphy

Guardian quotes Douglas Murphy as follows:

Around the end of the 1980s Lebbeus Woods was just one of a number of radical architects making their name through the production of imaginary projects; elaborate drawings and paintings occupying a milieu somewhere between fine art and architecture, which allowed many to interrogate the conventions of their discipline. Open a book on the experimental architecture of that period and Woods’ heartfelt and haunting drawings regarding the siege of Sarajevo share space with early works from the likes of Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. But unlike so many of that generation who eventually made the career transition from avant-garde upstarts to global superstars, Lebbeus Woods never got rich by building rubbish. In recent years, his blog was a fascinating, unpretentious investigation into the same ideas that had driven his earlier visions: history and memory, destruction and healing.

Douglas Murphy
Architecture critic

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City project (1995)

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City project (1995)

Why the unbuilt visions of architect Lebbeus Woods matter

Kelly Chan

On October 30th, 2012, architect Lebbeus Woods passed away in his New York City apartment at the age of 72. Amidst the haze of a disastrous hurricane, news of his death crept out somewhat discreetly over Twitter that morning. Those who recognized his name — the architects, critics, students, and others stirred by his creative vision — were saddened, but possibly more stunned by the fact that such a preeminent voice was silenced so suddenly. In the outpouring of praise following his death, Woods was portrayed as an architect’s architect. Those who knew him personally, to any extent, penned poignant testimonies to his ingenuity and character. He was seen as an almost sanctified figure, an uncorrupted presence in a discipline that struggled to maintain a schizophrenic identity as lofty art form and viable commercial enterprise. What gave Woods this enormous cachet as a singular figure?

With only one permanent construction to his name, a felicitous art-architecture hybrid called “Light Pavilion” completed just this year in Chengdu, China, Woods is best known for his immense output of architectural drawings. His visions of violently ruptured buildings and landscapes, stitched together with profane steel interventions that flout the laws of physics, are considered some of the most radical works of experimental architecture in the 1980s and 90s. Famed practitioners such as Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid and countless former students of Woods (who taught at The Cooper Union in New York and the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland) have expressed their admiration for and indebtedness to these two-dimensional schemes.

Lebbeus Woods, High Houses for Sarajevo (1997)

Lebbeus Woods, High Houses for Sarajevo (1997)

Yet Woods’ work goes far beyond its influence on his more actively building contemporaries and disciples. His thin portfolio has unduly sidelined him from popular discourse, sequestering him from the more audible dialogues concerning contemporary architecture. To consider Woods a mere inspiration to others, a teacher and an enabler, is both deferential and reductive. Given the peculiar immateriality of his oeuvre, it seems important to evaluate how those who did not know him personally, those who did not directly benefit from his guidance, can reflect on his legacy. Why was Lebbeus Woods one of the most respected architects of his time?

My only real interaction with Woods is documented in a brief e-mail exchange that occurred this past summer. I had sought the architect out for an interview, unaware of his declining health, and he was kind enough to thank me for my interest and request that I ask him again later in the year (which I did days before his death). My first encounter with his work was barely three years ago: I had seen one of his drawings projected onto the wall of a Tribeca loft, one of several in a slideshow for a benefit auction. That evening, I took passive delight in Woods’ extraordinary draftsmanship, dwelling little on the content of the ghostly image. But I have since developed a new understanding of his impossible fictions. As someone fairly distanced from the scene he inhabited, someone who simply experiences architecture rather than ruminating on how to create it, I find Woods’ drawings empowering in ways that the greatest realized constructions can be. That the architect rarely built in fact strengthens the force of his ideas.

Shortly after Woods’ passing, architecture critic Douglas Murphy wrote a brief panegyric contextualizing the architect in recent history. “Open a book on the experimental architecture of that period [around the end of the 1980s] and Woods’ heartfelt and haunting drawings…share space with early works from the likes of Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid.” Murphy concedes a fairly obvious aesthetic comparison. Were one to imagine Woods’ drawn creations or scaled models translated into built reality, they might bear a striking resemblance to the gestic designs that have propelled Libeskind and Hadid to the heights of international stardom.

Quake city

But Murphy also sets Woods apart, rightly setting the stage to distinguish him from “that generation who eventually made the career transition from avant-garde upstarts to global superstars.” Wary of this inexorable shift starting in the 80s, Woods chose to acknowledge how architecture and its capacity for meaningful intervention had been drastically compromised. Bound by its tremendous demand for time and resources, the medium was coerced into forsaking its role in shaping human experience in order to address its participation in the rampant production of capital. Woods’ almost complete abstinence from building was, in a sense, a reflection of that prevailing trend and the architect’s personal resistance.

Woods also conveyed his jaundiced sentiments in remarkably heartfelt blog posts. Reflecting on Zaha Hadid’s Olympic Aquatic Center in London, he wrote in February: “I feel abandoned and bereft because one [of] the most gifted architects of my time has been reduced to wrapping such conventional programs of use in merely expressionistic forms, without letting a single ray of her genius illuminate the human condition.” Woods’ reproach exudes the disappointment of a hurt friend:

Did she consult with me about the way the Center’s form should somehow express the “fluid geometries of water in motion”? No. If she had, I would have counseled her to forget this idea, because it is too easy and obvious. Even if it could be achieved in architectural forms (which it isn’t here, because water’s fluidity is formless and boundless) it would be much more compelling…to be confronted with actualities of their relationship.

Woods’ critical analysis of his contemporaries brings us back to his theoretical divergence from them. One can make superficial comparisons between his drawings and the contemporary renderings of Hadid, Libeskind, and other designers who espouse computer-generated expressionism. But what should be noted is that Woods’ visions eschew precise translations into built form. His structures lope and hover over cityscapes, burrow into existing buildings, cling precariously onto their facades, and suggest structural complexities beyond comprehension. Furthermore, given countless sheets of blank paper, carte blanche after carte blanche, Woods consistently chose to depict fragmented dystopias rather than propose utopian solutions. His drawings do not so much allude to external plans and cross-sections as they do unhinge the deceptive semblance of stability in the world. His lurid creations suggest that ruptures, schisms, and incongruities in human history can inform new ways to build.

High houses for Sarajevo

Woods was certainly an anomaly of his time. One could say he draws closer comparison with 18th-century Italian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi than with any of his contemporaries. Though centuries apart, both men were similarly viewed as visionary architects, excellent draftsmen who drew extensively, each executing but one permanent built work. The uncanny parallelism of their careers is frequently acknowledged, but with little elaboration as to the significance of their similarities.

Like Piranesi before him, Woods realized that architecture’s most progressive ideas are often stifled by the limits of its materiality. Piranesi’s fragmented etchings of ancient Rome challenged the dogmas embedded in Classicism; Woods’ dystopian visions revealed architecture’s obsequious response to commercialism, its willingness to erect meretricious façades in order to perpetuate a deeply troubled status quo. Like Piranesi, rather than address these deep-seated issues through one exacting construction at a time, Woods worked with a different material: not stone, nor steel, nor space, but individual perception. Woods’ crepuscular landscapes, like Piranesi’s Roman figments, empower those with the least agency in determining the shape of their world. They challenge existing conventions without enforcing new ones. They inspire private insurrections and personal liberations. They rouse new possibilities. At the same level as some of history’s greatest buildings, Woods’ drawings dare us to determine the terms of our own reality.

Lebbeus Woods, Architectural drawing (1973)

Lebbeus Woods, Architectural drawing (1973)

Lebbeus Woods, dead at 72

Sammy Medina

Some sad news: Visionary architect and artist Lebbeus Woods has passed away at the age of 72. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman tweeted the shocking announcement this morning saying: “Deeply sorry to have just heard that Lebbeus Woods, a true visionary architect and astonishing draftsman, died this morning. A great loss.” He would later write that Woods had been “fading for some months, sadly, but he kept teaching to the end,” and that he had died in his sleep.

Earlier this year, Woods had been at work on realizing his first “built” project, the Light Pavilion. The large-scale sculpture is embedded in one tower of Steven Holl’s “Sliced Porosity Block” development in Chengdu (nearing completion), whose construction Woods documented on his much-cherished blog. He was also preparing a book, he wrote in a send-off note dated August 11, 2012 announcing that he would be ceasing blog updates.

Heralded for his virtuous drafting skills and fervidly imaginative works, Woods was the rare architect who built little (in fact, close to nothing), yet commanded an influence far beyond the parochial halls of the field. His career significantly shaped adjacent creative professions, perhaps most notably in the literary and visual spheres of science-fiction and Hollywood films. Woods, in fact, worked briefly as a conceptual artist on Alien 3, an experience which he detailed, as he would on a great many topics over the last several years, on his blog here.

Parasitic architecture

It was through his blog that Woods, with great perspicacity, acumen, and wit, broadcasted not just appraisals of his past and current works, but, just as memorably, his opinions on (and frequent distaste for) the mundanity of contemporary architecture. Tied to this development was the failure of a generation — Woods’s own — of spectacularly promising architects who in recent years have squandered their talents, playing down their most distinguishing tendencies and advancing work conveniently divorced from both polemic and political agenda in the pursuit of clients, fame, and other vanities. “She has let me down,” Woods logged in an entry this past February about his contemporary Zaha Hadid and the sleek, soulless architecture she and others have made fashionable. “And what makes it worse,” he continued, “is that she apparently couldn’t care less.”

Unlike those architects, Woods would never lose his rogue streak, producing work throughout his near 40-year long career practically combusting with militant intent and revolutionary zeal. His large canon of drawings, etchings, lithographs, and installations were experimental to the core and which constantly questioned the nature of architecture’s capacity to effect change in prevailing structures of ideology and the social domain alike. Through these, Woods didn’t advocate wholesale utopias or realizable future cities, so much as wield (and sustain) inestimable critiques on the state of architectural production. With his passing, the field loses its own Piranesi.


8 thoughts on “In memoriam: Lebbeus Woods one year after his death

  1. Pingback: In memoriam: Lebbeus Woods one year after his death | Research Material

  2. Extraordinary article! Excellent blog, I am trying to put together a thesis on Utopias, and how modernists fail to deliver while looking at it from a meta-modernist point of view. I just decided that I want to pursue this a couple of hours ago and I started digging(found your blog). What would you recommend that I should read, seeing that you seem to have quite some experience with such things. I want to get points of view from as many people as I can possibly get. Thanks for your time.

    • There’s been a lot written on the subject of utopia. Ernst Bloch’s trilogy The Principle of Hope is fairly exhaustive, and good in parts, but probably not worth reading from cover to cover (on all three books, etc.). Lewis Mumford wrote a book on The Story of Utopia, which is a decent overview and his first book. Karl Mannheim wrote a pretty readable but schematic and tendentious book called Ideology and Utopia in 1927, criticized well by Horkheimer and Adorno in separate essays. Adorno and Bloch themselves have a dialogue in a volume on The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, and the younger Leszek Kolakowski discusses utopianism in a short essay called “The Concept of the Left.” In terms of architecture, two books I would check out are Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, which is short but magisterial and enigmatic, and Reinhold Martin’s Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again.

      • Thanks a lot, for this information, I will most definitely read through them, I`m planing on delivering this thing in during this academic year, maybe finishing it up in the summer, the reading list is already huge, Adorno is one of the headlines, but I also want to understand him, because apparently he is extremely relevant today, so next stop is The Jargon of Authenticity. Thanks again for your insight, your blog is exceptional, I cannot stop reading it :)

  3. Again, stuff that looks nice on paper, thanks to the use of traditional painting techniques and materials, but which would probably turn out ugly in practice; I see this a lot in architecture, and often it has to do with the choice of building materials, typically stuff that looks cheap and gets dirty rather than ages, and the obssession with squeeky clean modernity. I guess that’s what Big Business and Big Government like.

  4. Pingback: In memoriam: Zaha Hadid, 1950-2016 | The Charnel-House

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