Last month, as New York City was overwhelmed by Hurricane Sandy, one of the world’s foremost architects passed away in the darkened and chaotic city that was almost overcome by nature. It was a cosmic confluence — environmental mayhem coincided with the last breath of a great creative individual who was always dreaming for more, and embracing an out-of-control world.
Defiantly non-conformist, anti-starchitecture architect Lebbeus Woods died on Tuesday, October 30. He was 72. Through a lifetime of work, the vast majority of which only exists on paper, Woods challenged the architectural establishment, railing against boring buildings and resisting the temptations of money and fame that turned architects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas into celebrities.
“With the triumph of liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism, the conversation came to an end. Everyone wanted to build, which left less room for certain kinds of architecture,” Woods told Nicolai Ourrossof of the New York Times when describing the political situation driving an anodyne architecture fully in the service of wealthy patrons.
Woods studied at the University of Illinois and Purdue University. He worked in the office of designer and architect Eero Saarinen from 1964 to 1968, and there, according to his colleague, collaborator, and friend Christoph a. Kumpusch, he learned to “explore limits.”
“Saarinen’s work was something in motion for Lebbeus — not structurally but virtually. It determined boundaries rather than defined limits,” Kumpusch explained.
But soon after his time with Saarinen, Woods turned toward entirely theoretical, experimental architecture that often created more impact in its virtual state than real buildings in real cities ever could. Some compare his work to science fiction, because it resisted being fixed in the now and was always traveling past boundaries to what possibly could be. He was first and foremost an iconoclast. “I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms,” he wrote in his iconic pamphlet War and Architecture.
The world of Woods was complex and forward thinking. He was a seer of spaces, who imagined the seemingly impossible. “Lebbeus saw the world — its energies, whether spatial, political, or social — as an undiscovered reality … imagined, or, in fact, real — something unfinished — not provided, discovered through architecture; one that doesn’t answer but questions; one that doesn’t find solutions but challenges,” Kumpusch said.
Kumpusch worked for more than a decade as Woods’s right hand on the Light Pavilion, which has just been completed in the Raffles City complex in Chengdu, China, and it will be Woods’s first built piece of architecture. It’s incredible that one of the world’s most renowned architects had to wait until his 70s before his first building was completed, but remember that Woods wasn’t very concerned with the now.
“Just on our way downtown on the Thursday before he died, we drove by the Brooklyn Bridge after an incredible mid-term review at his studio at Cooper Union, Lebbeus said ‘You know, the biggest problem one can have is to not have a problem,'” Kumpusch told Hyperallergic. “He then continued going through a book mock-up that included the Light Pavilion and he lit up. ‘It’s something that hasn’t been done before! People will use it in ways we don’t know yet,’ he said. ‘And that’s something I always wanted — to work on something that hasn’t been done before.’ He shouted: ‘And we did it!’ And this was punctuated by rolling laughter. Lebbeus believed in architecture — whatever that might be — we don’t know yet — but is he visionary? I don’t think Lebbeus cared about categorizations at all.”
Kumpusch, who has worked at a number of leading architecture firms, including Coop Himmelblau, and taught at numerous universities, including Cooper Union, Cornell, and Guangzhou University, says Woods’s influence on him and others around him was immense.
“Nobody wants to have a bad idea, but one must not cancel anything out, which is one of the most incredible things Lebbeus made me realize. Ideas must be fearless, and architecture must be fearless,” he said.
People often paint Woods as a devoted, “monklike” rebel against the established order, and he certainly was a figure who inspired generations of future architects. BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh, memorialized the architect with a characterization that cuts to the heart of Woods’ spirit:
“Speaking only for myself, Lebbeus is a canonical figure in the West — and I mean a West not of landed aristocrats, armies, and regal blood-lines but of travelers, heretics, outsiders, peripheral exploratory figures whose missives and maps from the edges of things always chip away at the doomed fortifications of the people who thought the world not only was ownable, but that it was theirs.”
The fact that most of the projects that Lebbeus Woods is best known for aren’t realized hasn’t hindered his popularity. If anything they have made them more wondrous as people ponder if they can ever be built or how they might be used. These ideas might sit on the page, but they activate the viewer’s imagination in ways few architects could.
“He often said, ‘I never sit down to draw for the sake of drawing. I only draw when I want to say something.’ His drawings are not drawings, they are projects,” Kumpusch said.
Lebbeus’s shunning of the spotlight and dedication to the ideas of architecture beyond than its current pragmatism makes one wonder if Woods lacked the ego typical of high-profile architects who build for legacy. “I don’t think Lebbeus was concerned with ‘legacy,'” Kumpusch said. “He was concerned with ‘future.’ This is his legacy. I deeply miss him.”
But the architect’s legacy, whether something was of concern to Woods or not, is something many architects, critics, and writers are already started to explore. One writer, Kelly Chan, compares Woods’ famous drawings to the prints of 18th C. architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who is best known for his paper fantasies rather than his built works. “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,” Chan writes.
It seems fitting that people are finding the most apt comparisons for Woods’s work in other centuries, he was a man whose work gives us the impression he wasn’t always comfortable in his own time but whose work is obviously timeless.
Some of Woods’s provocative projects, real or theoretical, are collected below.