The New York Times
August 25, 2008
An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
These are lonely times for Lebbeus Woods.
In the early 1990s this irreverent New York architect produced a
series of dark and moody renderings that made him a cult figure among
students and academics. Foreboding images of bombed-out cities
populated by strange, parasitic structures, they seemed to portray a
world in a perpetual state of war, one in which the architect's task
was to create safe houses for society's outcasts.
Since then Mr. Woods has become his own kind of outcast.
Architecture is big business today. While most of his friends and
colleagues have abandoned their imaginary cities to chase lucrative
commissions, Mr. Woods has shown little interest in building. Instead
he continues to work at a small drafting table in a corner of his
downtown apartment, a solitary, monklike figure churning out
increasingly abstract architectural fantasies, several of which are
on view in the "Dreamland" show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Some question the wisdom of his choices. (They certainly haven't made
him a rich man.) But that he now stands virtually alone underscores a
disturbing shift in the architectural profession during the past
decade or so. By abandoning fantasy for the more pragmatic aspects of
building, the profession has lost some of its capacity for self-
criticism, not to mention one of its most valuable imaginative tools.
Not so long ago many of the world's greatest architectural talents
behaved as though the actual construction of buildings was beneath
them. During the 1960s firms like Superstudio in Florence, Italy, and
Archigram in London were designing urban visions intended to shake up
the status quo. These projects — walking, mechanized cities and
mirrored megastructures that extended over mountain ranges and across
deserts — were stinging attacks on a professional mainstream that
avant-garde architects believed lacked imaginative energy.
When I was an architecture student in New York in the early 1990s,
the architects my peers and I admired most were famous for losing
competitions, not winning them. For us it simply meant that their
work was too radical, too bold for the cultural establishment.
This was not just youthful idealism. Free of mundane professional
considerations like budgets, clients and zoning laws, these
architects were able to produce works that were aesthetically
inventive and piercing social commentaries. And their designs were
wildly influential, closely studied by younger architects who sought
to apply their ideas in the real world.
Mr. Woods, now 68, was a regular fixture of that scene. In the early
1990s he published a stunning series of renderings that explored the
intersection of architecture and violence. The first of these, the
Berlin Free-Zone project, designed soon after the fall of the Berlin
Wall, was conceived as an illustration of how periods of social
upheaval are also opportunities for creative freedom.
Aggressive machinelike structures — their steel exteriors resembling
military debris — are implanted in the abandoned ruins of buildings
that flank the wall's former death zone. Cramped and oddly shaped,
the interiors were designed to be difficult to inhabit — a strategy
for screening out the typical bourgeois. ("You can't bring your old
habits here," he warned. "If you want to participate, you will have
to reinvent yourself.")
Some critics condemned the design for its coldblooded imagery. But it
also turned cold-war Modernism on its head. In the 1950s American
architects were striving to retool wartime military production for
the construction of a peacetime paradise. One result was the mind-
numbing conformity of suburban subdivisions. Mr. Woods, by
comparison, has never been so utopian. In his drawings society seems
to be coming apart at the seams. His glistening pods, armored against
the surrounding mayhem, are intended as sanctuaries for society's
most vulnerable: outcasts, rebels, heretics and dreamers.
This vision reached its extreme in a series of renderings he created
in 1993 in response to the war in Bosnia. Inspired by sci-fi comics
and full of writhing cables, crumbling buildings and flying shards of
steel, these drawings seem to mock the old Modernist faith in a
utopian future. Their dark, moody atmosphere suggests a world in a
constant struggle for survival.
Things began to change, however, at the end of the last millennium.
High-end architecture was suddenly a valuable commodity. Architects
like Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, once relegated to the halls
of academia, were suddenly struggling to handle an abundance of new
commissions coming not only from elite cultural institutions but also
from mainstream developers and wealthy corporations.
Mr. Woods, a large, burly man who still likes an occasional
cigarette, doesn't try to hide his disdain for this new reality. "Big
corporations today want to present themselves as benefactors of the
human race," he told me recently, summing up the current state of
affairs. "ExxonMobil runs ads about the ecology now. And architecture
is part of this. It's a business."
It's hard to disagree with the main thrust of his argument: that
architecture has always needed a place that is wholly free of self-
censorship, and that this place does not exist in the often-
contentious exchange between architect and client. Most of us
remember, for example, what happened to Mr. Koolhaas in the 1997
competition for a major expansion to the Museum of Modern Art.
Choosing to ignore the museum's internal politics, he indiscreetly
highlighted the museum's corporate agenda in his design. An enraged
MoMA board instantly dropped him.
The pressure to smooth over anything in a design that might be
perceived as threatening has only increased in recent years, as a lot
of architecture has begun to look like a sophisticated form of
marketing. Architects who once defined themselves as rebels are now
designing luxury residential towers for the super-rich.
The greatest influence of this trend, however, may be on a younger
generation of architects. Reared in an era when there seems to be an
irresistible supply of work, these architects often seem eager to
build at any cost. And their facility with computer software can make
it easy to churn out seductive designs without digging deeply into
hard social truths.
As Mr. Woods put it: "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
Meanwhile, as his peers moved on to bigger, more lucrative
commissions, Mr. Woods's work has become more and more abstract. In
1999 he began working on a series of designs whose fragmented planes
were intended to reflect the seismic shifts that occur during
earthquakes. ("The idea is that it's not nature that creates
catastrophes," he said. "It's man. The renderings were intended to
reflect a new way of thinking about normal geological occurrences.")
Last year the architect Steven Holl, a close friend, hired him to
design a pavilion for a housing complex in Chengdu, China. A towering
composition of crisscrossing bridges and ramps, the project is the
closest Mr. Woods has come to real architecture: a dense Piranesian
space in which people can climb to peer out at the urban sprawl of
the new China.
"I'm not interested in living in a fantasy world," Mr. Woods told me.
"All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But
what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of
conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived
by a different set of rules."