Books

Uncovering a Manifesto in the Blog of Visionary Architect Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods, “Solohouse” (1988–89) (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)

From 2007 to 2012, the late architect Lebbeus Woods kept a blog that offered a peek into the mind of one of our most visionary contemporary creators. He mused on past work, reacted to news, and explored in words the ideas that grounded his fantastic illustrations of buildings that seem transported from a lost timeline of more organic modernism. Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blogrecently published by Princeton Architectural Press, transforms that blog into a book, extracting 70 posts from his 300 entries.

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Cover of ‘Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog’ (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press) (click to enlarge)

You can still access his blog online, so why a book? Editor Clare Jacobson writes in an introduction that it’s because both she and Woods “recognize the benefits of the form.” The blog was, for Woods, a way to encourage a public dialogue that he saw missing in architecture. In a physical book form, his words can posthumously continue that discussion with a new audience

In his first post, published October 1, 2007, Woods considered architects like Rudolf Steiner, Hermann Finsterlin, Frederick Kiesler, and John Hejduk, whose “influence has more or less seeped through the filters of architectural education — and mainstream architectural journalism — and yet has impacted architectural thought and design, despite the inattention of critics and historians.”

Woods himself was very aware of his place outside the mainstream, with almost all of his designs unbuilt — and often impossible. In a 2010 post titled “The Experimental,” he pondered the “task of the experimental architect,” and the importance of transporting viewers to an entirely novel place:

First, if we have to wait until the world is made right before we can afford the satisfaction of beauty (in whatever terms), we will never have it, because the world will never be made right enough. Second — and this is the more subtle point — it may be that the apprehension of beauty in art, music, poetry, and even architecture is necessary to solve the grittier real-world problems. The experience of beauty — especially difficult or “terrible” beauty — is one that gives us a sense of personal connection to a wider world.

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Lebbeus Woods, “Metastructure,” from ‘Bosnia Free Zone’ (1993), showing the wall of the Bosnia Free State (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)

In another post, he rattles off a “resistance checklist” for architecture, including proclamations to “resist whatever seems inevitable”; “resist the idea that architecture is a building”; “resist the hope that you’ll get that big job”; and “resist the suggestion that you can only read Jacques Derrida in French.”

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Lebbeus Woods, “City of Fire” (1981) (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods) (click to enlarge)

Often, he included his drawings opposite his succinct essays, sometimes revisiting projects decades later, like his 1980 “Einstein Tomb.” He writes as if the conceptual memorial to the scientist had been launched into deep space 30 years prior, its “vanishing” being “as it should be, because Albert Einstein, the inventor of the twin theories of relativity (one for the electromagnetic/human scale, the other for the gravitational/cosmic scale) wanted no site for the veneration of his memory.”

He contemplated his 1988–89 “Solohouse” 20 years on, its long body perched on a nimble supporting leg having a function that is “ambiguity itself, the burdensome idea of ‘freespace’ — one must invent the way to inhabit the house, because it is not predetermined.” It’s a project that remains electrifying, its off-kilter, unsettled form instilled with organic uncertainty; a drawing of it was a haunting highlight of the recent Greater New York at MoMA PS1.

Woods also looked to where he may have failed, such as in addressing destruction in Sarajevo, which some critiqued as “aestheticizing violence.” One of his 1993 drawings from this project has a parasite-like shape crawling across a damaged residential building, providing new spaces for new living within its sinewy body. He pondered how postwar architecture should never just create a façade of returning to normal, nor totally rebuild over the historic, but merge the two. The “postwar city must create the new from the damaged old,” he wrote, elaborating:

And because the new ways of living will not be the same as the old, the reconstruction of old buildings must enable new ways and ideas of living. The familiar old must be transformed, by conscious intention and design, into the unfamiliar new.

Woods died on October 30, 2012. His last post was on August 11, 2012, and that’s how the book ends. After an explanation that he wouldn’t be posting regularly for reasons of health, time, and energy, he wrote to his readers: “Thank you for all you have given.” The title of the book, itself taken from a “Slow Manifesto” 2009 blog post, could double as a tagline for his whole career. Even if you forget the intricate details of his architectural drawings, with their coils of lines, biotic silhouettes, and sense of something both new and decayed, his work sticks like a burr to your brain. And reading through his blog posts, you get a close, candid sense of the person who could imagine such things, not as science fiction, but as possibilities.

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Pages from ‘Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Lebbeus Woods
Pages from ‘Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
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Lebbeus Woods, “Aerial Paris” (1989), showing “Aeroliving Labs,” a community of heavier-than-air structures in the air over Paris that drags immense sheets of lightweight material through the Earth’s magnetosphere. (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)
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Lebbeus Woods, “Sarajevo,” from ‘War and Architecture’ (1993), a proposal for the reconstruction of the Electrical Management Building (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)
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Lebbeus Woods, “Solohouse” (1988–89) (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)
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Lebbeus Woods, “High Houses,” from ‘War and Architecture’ (1993) (courtesy of Estate of Lebbeus Woods)

Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog is out now from Princeton Architectural Press.

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