It's never been easy to look at a Lebbeus Woods drawing and put together how the building shown might be assembled. The late architect's fantastical ink and pastel sketches of orb-like urban plans and robot-legged vessels insinuating themselves into the war-ravaged cityscapes of Berlin or Sarajevo can't exactly generate construction documents. But in this era of 3D printing and techno-everything, Woods's speculative oeuvre gets more and more plausible, says Eric Owen Moss. "I don't agree at all with people who have said his architecture is a fantasy," explains Moss. "A lot of things that he drew—which I wouldn't say are outlandish, but would certainly be difficult to build in the '70s and '90s and 2000s—are increasingly buildable."
That's an interesting prospect for an architect who devoted his life to developing an idealistic architecture on paper and who, in his own way, had to make peace with not building. Tonight SCI-Arc will debut a never-released video from 1998 in which Woods discusses his unconventional career and his influences, including the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster. The video is the centerpiece of the SCI-Arc gallery show "Lebbeus Woods Is an Archetype," which opens today and runs through December 1. A few blocks away, in Los Angeles's Bloom Square, SCI-Arc built a steel-frame version of Woods's drawing "Earthwave" back in June. The installation, which will also remain on view through December 1, is the first Woods drawing you can step inside.
"Centricity: Free Livinglab," 1986–87. Image courtesy Friedman Benda/Adam Reich Photography. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
"Aerial Paris," 1989. Image courtesy Friedman Benda/Adam Reich Photography. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
The show features 21 drawings Woods made between 1982 and 2000, many of them loaned by friends and rarely seen in public. Drawings from some of the same series that appeared in SFMOMA's recent retrospective are here, including the metallic pods of "Berlin Free Zone" and the industrial-style "living labs" of "Centricity." Visitors are also treated to the puzzling black-and-white diagrams of "Aerial Paris," which depict an airborne community for autonomous circus performers, and "Four Cities," a quartet of urban zones each based on a different state of matter and energy—features that, despite our era's great leap forward in technology, are not currently available as settings in Revit.
"Four Cities," 1982. Courtesy Blythe and Thom Mayne. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
In the video, Woods addresses an unseen group of students in Vico Morcote, Switzerland, where SCI-Arc once maintained a campus. They asked about his early career, and whether he regretted not going on to build the way many of his colleagues did, recalls architect Dwayne Oyler, who was on the trip. "At the point he made the video, he had grown very comfortable with who he was and the way he made a mark as an architect," says Oyler. "There's a sense that he cycled through some feelings about it before he came to grow comfortable with what his contribution was."
Moss, who organized "Lebbeus Woods Is an Archetype," sees the show less as a retrospective than a departure point for considering the architect's legacy and its influence on the younger generation of designers. "Lebbeus Woods was in a fundamental way opposed to the idea of architecture as commerce," says Moss. "He understood architecture as a way of making buildings to illustrate the culture's priorities—or what the culture should have as priorities."
Two drawings from "A-City," 1985–86. Image courtesy Friedman Benda/Adam Reich Photography. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
But the next archi-conoclast won't be just any utopian obsessive. With all the advanced software available today, says Moss, "it's possible for very unimaginative people to draw what appears to be very imaginative work." In contrast, he explains, "Lebbeus had to invent his own tools; they came out of his hands and his head. Now the tools are handed to people. You can bend it, you can fold it, you can microwave it—you can do all kinds of things."
Adds Moss: "I think the people who come after him and follow his point of view will find it hard to be as original as he was."
An untitled colored pencil drawing from 1990. Courtesy Blythe and Thom Mayne.© Estate of Lebbeus Woods
"Berlin Free Zone—24," 1990. Courtesy Blythe and Thom Mayne.© Estate of Lebbeus Woods