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Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012)

Remembering a unique visionary, whose images of futuristic yet familiarly conflicted worlds inspired generations of architects and Hollywood designers

Late in life Lebbeus Woods travelled to Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette, and found not an icon of optimistic modernity but ‘a decaying fortress on a lush green hilltop, defending itself and its cloistered inhabitants against the world’. It spoke, he said, for ‘an old man who had once been young and hopeful and utopian. It was like the last chapter of a novel that begins with high hopes and aspirations and ends with a particular kind of resignation −courageous and forceful, and not merely ambitious, but heroic …Resignation and strength.’

The idea that courage involves allowing defiance to emerge from acceptance is part of a web of apparently baffling contradictions with which Lebbeus Woods’ world was constructed. The most forceful and persistent of these contradictory ideas was the notion that constructing the image of violence could defy its reality and that destruction was an essential component of construction. It is a notion he expressed most directly in a 1993 manifesto for the post-industrial world, where he called for the architect to be ‘at war with fixed and frightened forms’.

Woods cast himself as a great outsider, unattached to any system of thought, any place, or any community, and a lonely crusader against them. But perhaps we can understand him best and find his work most useful if we place him and his apparent contradictions among a postwar generation for whom destruction and regeneration, utopias and dystopias, resignation and resistance might go hand in hand, since each of these was so evidently growing out of the other.

Woods was born in Michigan in 1940. He was the son of a military engineer. The bright visions of the future that marked his childhood were atomic, mechanistic and technicoloured. But he came of age in the year the Berlin Wall was built; he lived through the 10 frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis the year after, and then the 25 long years of end-of-the-world anxiety that followed.

It was the generation for whom Rem Koolhaas spoke in 1972 when he cast the city as a system of imprisonment; and which Woods’ colleague Raimund Abraham presented when he said that architecture must incorporate ‘the anticipation of terror’ in order to have meaning. And it was a generation in which artists like Constant were using the built environment either as a wide field for speculative manipulation, or a specific canvas on which to insert or remove.

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One thinks of Tadashi Kawamata, born in reconstruction Japan, whose work (like Woods’) is completely ambiguous about whether something is being demolished or constructed; or Gordon Matta-Clark, another child of the Second War, from whom Woods borrowed the concept of ‘Anarchitecture’, and whose cutting out of layered chambers within existing buildings produces liberating effects very like those of Woods in his Underground Berlin. Indeed, Underground Berlin, commissioned by the Aedes Gallery in 1988, is the most elaborate and specific of Woods’ architectural tales, and it seems to come straight out of this postwar mélange of hope and unease.

Cold War Berlin was a highly self-conscious battleground of cultures in which architecture was itself the principal protagonist. The Stalinallee in the east served as a magniloquent promenade of socialist realist monumentality, while the IBA commissions in the west showed off a gleaming and increasingly disparate vision of modernity and the avant-garde.

Among them stood the scrupulously pickled bombed out ruin of a church and walls everywhere pocked with the evidence of gunfire from the Nazi Götterdämmerung. Beneath lay the bunkers of the Nazi high command. Add to this the presence of the Wall and one could hardly hope for a better site to illustrate Woods’ cardinal points: that much built architecture was an agent of authority and an instrument of ideology; and that buildings − quite independent of what was sheltered or served within them − had throughout history been both weapons and victims of shattering assaults.

The project takes its cue from one of the ironies of Cold War Berlin − the fact that even at points of crisis the U-Bahn routinely moved people between East and West. Woods tells the story of an intricate underground city of sheltering chambers and walkways, its forms carefully echoing the shapes of rockets and missiles, and clad in a similarly slick, metallic and colourful armature.

The whole is intricately engineered as a continuous tunnel, and strung together − like the playful machinery of Rube Goldberg or the infernal electronic conduits of military technology − with a system of coils, wires, and ladders. Breaching the frontier between East and West and suddenly emerging from the ground, this monstrous, almost-animate machine for living launches emissaries of destruction on what Woods shows as the peculiarly bleak and forbidding cityscape of the masonry city.

The project, like nearly all of Woods’ work, has always troubled me, because it seems so hard to match the seriousness and radical originality of the argument with its lightweight imagery, its comic-book space-age vocabulary of forms, and the extraordinarily orthodox pictorial techniques that present them.

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But I wonder if here is indeed the nub of his argument and the way to resolve his contradictions: that we defy the terrors of our times if we re-cast them in the near fleshily, erotic, fancifully commonplace shapes we use to tell our tallest tales.The many acts of homage to Woods all talk of his keeping alive the long tradition of paper architecture, linking him into a chain of speculative, fantastical and sometimes grandiose architectural propositions that run from Piranesi and Boullée to Superstudio and Archigram.

But as Underground Berlin suggests, his work should remind us that there is not just one strain of imaginary architecture. The debt to Piranesi’s Carceri is clear, but Woods’ Berlin is otherwise surely closer to Chernikhov’s imagined, intimate but very buildable industrial landscapes. Like Chernikhov, he talks not to some vague future but to a very current state of possibilities, and he was surely right to try to deny the use of his images in films representing dystopic visions of tomorrow. And like his companions at Cooper Union − John Hejduk and Abraham − he was concerned with a narrative rather than an idea; a poetic agenda rather than an analytical one; objects for reflection rather than propositions for transformation.

For the last 15 years, Woods had turned his speculative gaze away from architecture’s relationship to the assaults of arms and authority toward the mounting crisis of sustaining a fixed built environment in the face of a catastrophically changing planetary one. He brought to that inquiry the same pattern of resignation and defiance, acknowledging the inevitable transformation of the earth’s physical landscape in the face of manmade devastation but then looking for the redemptive fields of energy they produced.

It is a sad irony that, trapped in New York as its urban systems collapsed in the wake of a mounting sea, in fragile health and with limited mobility, he became himself a victim of the disastrous possibilities his work asks us to face. The most troubling description of Woods − it has now appeared in numerous notices of his passing − is that he was ‘the last of the paper architects’.

I would think quite the contrary: that his drawings, and their extraordinary currency in the world at large, should and will keep many more generations of architectural storytellers, poets, fantasists and visionaries at their boards, ensuring that architecture remains much more than a functional necessity or a system of plastic aesthetics, but a unique, critical language in which to face the dangers, delights and contradictions of the physical world − with joy, in despair, with resignation, or in defiance.

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