Visionary architect, Lebbeus Woods passed away last week. He was most well known for his experimental designs that depicted futuristic worlds and dytopic cityscapes. Similarly to Archigram, Woods was known as a ‘paper architect’, a term used to describe a generation of architects who created visionary and fanastical structures but never built anything. Archigram was seen by many architects of the time as dilettantes with unrealistic visions and unpractical for the “real” world application, this was also true for Woods. I believe that the visions of Woods, Archigram, the Metabolists, Cedric Price were all radical (and some were completely unrealistic) but all of these individuals were extremely important in constructing (and instructing) some of the theory and application that is practiced today. Some well known architects designing today, such as Peter Eisenmen, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaus were not only influenced by visionary architects some even studied under them. Woods a long-time professor at Cooper Union directly influenced generations of students during a profoundly significant period.
I believe that visionaries are the most important individuals. Visionaries break rules, think the unthinkable, design the unimaginable but ultimately they are the people who generate change. Anyone can design a building or build a community (and you don’t even need a degree in architecture or urban planning for that), but without the visionaries, who will push the boundaries and redevelop the way we think about our built form and our cities. I thought that Lebbeus Woods articulated this sentiment in a post from his own blog about working on the periphery of his proffessional practice.
“At the edge, we perform at our peak, our best. We have no choice, really. Anything less and we fall off the edge, plunging into the unknown. The edge is a limit, in the first place of our knowledge. We have to push ourselves to get to it. The closer we come to the edge, the more we have to use the knowledge we have. At the edge only the hard-core knowledge is useful. All the frills and redundancies, the posturings and pretensions, simply get in the way and in fact will doom us to failure. At the edge it is only the essential and the authentic that count.”
While I was familiar with Woods’ work I have to admit I was not a huge fan of the majority of his work but I will not deny how important his contribution was to the field of architecture. On many levels, I always felt that I should have liked his work more because his projects were so tentative, abstract and often collaged together (but in a shattered way), all elements that I find extremely interesting, compelling and thought provoking. However, I think it was his dystopian outlook and futuristic-sci-fi-overtones I had a hard time retifying but not for the reasons you may think. Many of Woods well known projects incorporated war-torn countries with the aftermath of rebuilding. His shattered landscapes reflected the savages of war and the scar left on these landcapes. Many of his structures re-used (and recycled) war machines, and infrastructure that had been destroyed beyond repair or was considered refuge. Lebbeus acknowledged that in Sarajevo, people built temporary structures to shield themselves, an ‘improvised’ repair to provide homes and workplaces. He believed that these makeshift structures created a degraded environment but helped to provide a sense of order to the citizens who needed it. His structures often used these disfigured elements as metaphors for ‘scabs’ that covered the ‘wounds’ of buildings damaged by war but also to recognise the order that the residents needed.
Some of the projects I am including in this post are from his website. They are the lesser known ones probably because they are more experimental and hypothetical. I find these ones the most interesting because I cannot make the connections as easily as the war structures. These works always leave me puzzled, seaching for more, trying to decipher what is being depicted, what was being defined? I feel that with these works, we are only seeing a specific moment in time, that these structures are animated and if we were to look at the work over time we would be able to see the transformation. This body of work is very tentative, parastical in nature, balancing between two points of tension but ultimately it focuses on experimentation through the exploration of the impossible.
One of Woods lasting legacies is the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture which he help found in 1988. RIEA is an institution with the purpose of advancing experimentation and research in the field of architecture, in response to changing political, economic, technological and cultural conditions in the contemporary world.