The long-awaited exhibition Lebbeus Woods, Architect at the Drawing Center presents works spanning over 35 years of Lebbeus Woods’s radical architecture. The show features a dizzying array of transdisciplinary experiments with fields of light and tectonics in drawings, notebooks, loose sketches, collages, physical constructions, scale models, a full-scale drawing, and fragments of texts from publications, manifestos, and entries from his blog.
Exhibiting a body of work that constantly challenged the restraints of gallery spaces and the usual practice of hanging drawings on walls and exhibiting models on pedestals is a challenge for any curator. By the early 2000s Woods had moved away from publishing drawings in architecture publications and pamphlets towards the physical construction of tectonic fields and ephemeral installations, among them The Storm (2001) at the Cooper Union Houghton Gallery in New York, “The Fall” (2002) at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and System Wien (2005) at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Woods often joked that these exhibition spaces and their curators were his first clients, since they were willing to take risks to show architectural works that had no precedent.
At the Drawing Center, when it comes to presentation, radicalism does not prevail. Woods’s drawings are framed conventionally in chronological order and models and notebooks are displayed on pedestals. But perhaps we can ignore this and instead enter the space of the works directly to explore a vast episteme compressed into a single gray room. Although Woods’s work has been called “a fantasy and compared to science-fiction imagery,” this retrospective was the fourth-most attended architecture and design exhibition in 2013 at its original location, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps that’s because Woods’s vision challenges institutional pedagogies and disrupts conventional architectural practices with its radical experimentation, uncompromising questions of architecture’s relation to politics, and powerful imagery, while also exploring the phenomenology of light, human perception, and architecture as an instrument for transformation.
Upon entering the gallery at the Drawing Center, one is confronted by a steel cross with a voided center and building-like structures emanating from its sides, plus four drawings of a tomb floating in space. This project, dedicated to Albert Einstein, was among Woods’s first published works, created for Pamphlet Architecture in 1980. Described by the architect as “a vessel journeying outward on a beam of light emitted from Earth, following an immense and subtle arc through the stars,” the tomb proposal was inspired by Einstein’s ideas of time, relativity, field theory, and physics. The drawings, rendered with ink and graphite on a white, etching-like background, depict a still life of geometrical volumes. They are both haunting, capturing intergalactic light and the buoyancy of gravity-free objects, and cinematic, the stillness and uprightness of one frame anticipating the dynamism and change of orientation in the next.
In projects that immediately followed, such as “Aeon” (1981), “Centricity” (1986), and “A-city” (1987), Woods explored Einstein’s ideas through a new lens: urban systems and cybernetics, inspired by the experiments of Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster was an Austrian-American scientist and early architect of cybernetics in the 1950s and ’60s. Woods encountered him during his first years in architecture school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where von Foerster was a professor of electrical engineering. In these early series, Woods was very much interested in technology and cognitive science, and integrated cybernetic concepts such as self-organization and communication networks into experimental urban plans. These cities are laid out as “heterarchies,” non-hierarchical urban structures. At first sight, they appear desolate, uninhabited, post-apocalyptic, and forlorn, composed of various parts of scrap metal or reassembled war machines; yet there are traces of habitation, lab towers filled with instruments, and spherical light machines for communication. Lightweight structures are connected in complex networks at various scales, along with shadowy human figures.
Around the period of these urban explorations, Woods was “radicalized” as a result of two events: a large exhibition of his work in London in 1985 and a visit to Sao Paulo’s favelas in 1987. The exhibition drew Woods out of his New York studio and “into the milieu of postmodernist cultural and intellectual debate,” according to the 2004 publication Lebbeus Woods, Experimental Architecture, establishing his name internationally as a teacher and radical thinker. The book also describes the impact of the Brazil visit on his thoughts: he became aware “that all [his] projects up to that time were insufficient in confronting urgent human problems, not only in Sao Paulo but anywhere… [he could] at best raise the crucial question and demonstrate that some sort of action was possible for architecture.”
Drawings between 1988 and 1995, found in Woods’s well-known publications Anarchitecture: Architecture Is a Political Act (1992), War and Architecture (1993), and Radical Reconstruction (1997), investigate concepts of war, reconstruction, territorial division, and autonomy. Woods was greatly impacted by his upbringing during World War II — his father’s involvement with the development and testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico and subsequent death from a rare form of cancer from proximity to these sites — and his later experience of the Croatian War of Independence during visits to Zagreb, where he met his future wife. The most prevalent forms in this series are free-moving urban light structures inspired by Archigram’s Plug-In Cities and collage experiments. The houses of “Aerial Paris,” for instance, float like kites or fragmented zeppelins over the Eiffel Tower and a dense city. They are tectonic, with windows and internal stairs, and they’re composed of various parts and connected by cables and light fabrics. They are mechanical but strangely resemble insects, with shells grafted onto one another.
In 1988, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Woods visited the German capital and became fascinated by the city’s political division, turbulence, and vibrant underground scene. During this trip he developed his concept of an “Underground Berlin” (1988), envisioned as an injected free zone for an underground autonomous community along the lines of the U-Bahn. He describes this radical destabilizing agent in the blog entry “Underground Berlin: the Film Treatment” as the “subversion of an existing authoritarian system of social control … accomplished by architectural means.”
Following “Underground Berlin,” “Berlin Free Zone”(1990) examines creative forces erupting in free zones inhabited by “white boxes” of connectivity and floating chairs. In these collaged drawings, dynamic architectural structures crash into fixed buildings from past centuries, exploding into internal spaces that disrupt Cartesian grids. These spaces are constructed from metallic structures resembling spacecraft, at times hard, folding under the compression of structural forces, at times soft, like fabric. This is a project about light, communication, and the subversive autonomy of free thought, offering alternatives to post–Cold War urban planning. Woods clearly had in mind Berlin’s decay, half-occupied spaces, and the traces that would disappear once the city was cleaned under the new hegemony of capitalism. These drawings strike the perfect balance between light and dark, hard and soft, old and new.
Underground Berlin” (1988), “Aerial Paris” (1989), “Berlin Free Zone” (1991), “Zagreb Free Zone” (1991), and “San Francisco: Inhabiting the Quake”(1995) all explore conflict zones and undesignated spaces through an architecture of fluid and dynamic forms. Contrary to modernist mantras of form following function, the spaces Woods created are “free of meaning, free of purpose” (again from Lebbeus Woods, Experimental Architecture), adaptable by each use and each user. His is an architecture continually inventing itself as it injects itself into new sites.
Lebbeus Woods, Architect continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through June 15.
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