Lebbeus Woods is probably the most famous architect you’ve never heard of. Although, perhaps the word architect is limiting. Since the beginning of his career at a number of highbrow firms in the 1980s the architect, theorist and (I will venture) artist has weaved his off kilter brand of design in and out of a variety of mediums. He has become most famous for his temporary installations, pavilions, interventions and proposals that play with existing spaces, designs and systems.
Wood’s lectures and projects thrust architecture into heady, almost activist territory; the kind of stuff you might expect to find in a university classroom, a museum project space or an international conference. An exhibition of his early work from the 1980s currently on display in Chelsea shows a different side of the artist/architect.
Some 120 works adorn the gallery’s enormous first floor space. What I was first struck by was the artist’s wellspring of creative energy. Here was a young professional, someone trained to bring order and structure to space, yet even at an early age his works seem to present more questions than answers. His large scale ink drawing “A-City: Sector 1576N (Aerial)” (1986) presents a fleeting bird’s eye glance at a sort of Sci-Fi revisionist medieval city. The carefully balanced paths and buildings suggest the thoughtful rational of a city plan. The fine lined stylization betrays the sensitivity of a draftsman. Against the warm yellow paper the result seems closer to an old master print than the musings of a contemporary architect. He shifts between visual language and perspective with the fluidity of thought. While looking at a number of the impresario’s large scale, multi-panel pieces I felt as if I were privy to a Google Earth view of the mind’s eye. The hard-edge, pixelated nature of their construction resonates on the digital level. In fact, the whole tenor of the installation seems to scream the obvious truth of our connectivity obsessed age.
Like an elaborate steam punk storyboard the artist mixes classical allusion, technology and humanity with equal measure. His “4 Cities and Beyond, Region R” (1983) renders two towers in soft colored pencil against a dark blue night sky with the delicate fancy of an illustrator. For an “architect” his use of color can be breathtaking. Woods’ towers appear fleshy. There also we find a number of drawings filled with the dramatic coloring, monumental machinery and otherworldly natural scenes of the science fiction comic book. Scanning the gallery wall the eye flits between each series, bridging the space of some 1,000 years of human invention.
In the space between these aesthetic gaps we see the man himself, winking curiously at the improbable and overlooked. Men in bowler hat’s gaze across ruined junk heaps at cyborgs. We see gleaming alien structures and crumbling cities. While the breadth of style and dazzling scope of source material is certainly inspiring, underneath it all there is a clear, unwavering vision. His stark, angular forms provide unexpected, startling new ways to look at our cities. Sharp geometries grow from the sides of buildings, natural improvisations, as much based on invention as adaptation. Here is a look at architecture beyond a blueprint or static moment in time. To commit something to the world is to watch it change and ultimately decay. Why not skip past the beginning? The result is a practice that highlights the dynamics of transformation; buildings crumble, explode and foreclose. Wood’s modeling incorporates, if not hinges on these unavoidable realities as much as another might expect his shiny concrete lobby to be carefully maintained.
These works on paper are more than the interesting but fanciful sketches of a theorist. They are the highly encoded pages of a manic encyclopedia. Here is a furiously inventive ghost message from the author to others of his craft. The abounding sentiment is fleeting. Like the objects we so vehemently manifest, even our ideas are subject to the cruel twist of gravity. Nothing is permanent and everything is crafted, even our daydreams.
Lebbeus Wood: Early Drawings continues at the Friedman Benda gallery (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until April 6.