Zagreb Free-Zone, 1991. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
It's a sad coincidence that a new show devoted to Lebbeus Woods will open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art so soon after the architect's death last fall. "He was working with us on the exhibition before he passed away in October," recalls Joseph Becker, assistant curator of architecture and design at the museum. Yet the show's strange timing somehow befits an architect who so often took disaster and destruction as an entry point.
"Lebbeus Woods, Architect," which opens February 16 and runs through June 2, gathers 175 pieces from the past 35 years. The mostly small works on paper track Woods's evolution from drawing fictional cities (like his "Centricity" series from the 1980s) to imagining politically free zones in divided Berlin or war-torn Zagreb. His later abstractions, from the late ’90s and 2000s, refocus on the concept of space itself. "For Woods it seems that the real basis of architecture is the idea of the question," says Becker, who co-curated the show with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, acting department head and assistant curator of architecture and design. "What if we lived by a different set of rules, ones that didn't have, for example, governing agencies that dictate how buildings could stand up or not, or even gravity and physical limitations that dictate the specific kind of architecture we must live with?"
Photon Kite, from the series "Centricity," 1988. Graphite on paper. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
Woods's drawings sometimes get lumped in with a class of speculative science-fiction imagery, an association that distracts from the poignant social content of his works. Many of his pieces from the late ’80s and ’90s depicted utopian spaces free from political ideology. "He was proposing this new kind of architecture," says Becker, "one that could create a different type of mentality, no longer hierarchical but, as he says, 'heterarchical.'"
Berlin Free-Zone 3-2, 1990, rethinks an abandoned government building in Berlin. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
In his drawings about war and disaster—such as Zagreb Free-Zone and Underground Berlin—Woods also challenged the traditional thinking about rebuilding. Instead of wiping away bombed-out buildings and hiding evidence of social conflict, the architect proposed new kinds of environments that build egalitarian free spaces out of the ruptures left by failed hierarchies. "Essentially, big and gaping holes in buildings that would in our reality render that building useless, he would consider, 'What if you filled that hole with a new type of space, a space that would be able to make an interesting dialog with the cause of the hole?" explains Becker. Woods's eye-catching style, with its suggestions of vintage futurism or even surrealism, is but a bonus—not to mention an enticing entry point into his alternative realm of architectural play.
San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City, 1995. Graphite and pastel on paper. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
In addition to the architect's imagined political landscapes, the show includes all ten drawings from the series on San Francisco earthquakes, which he originally made for SFMOMA in the ’90s. These imagined structures adapt to disaster rather than trying to resist it. "He's looking at understanding ideas of chaos and destruction as not negative ideas but, rather, how can architecture be created by this? Is there a way for architects to not build against earthquakes but almost for earthquakes?" says Becker. "You can imagine that if all these natural disasters are starting to destroy the architecture we build, what if architects were more focused on turning that kind of energy into the architecture?"
Light Pavilion, an architectural installation in Steven Holl's Micro-City in Chengdu, China, completed in 2012. Photo © Iwan Baan/courtesy of Steven Holl Architects.
Reconciling Woods's ideas with his imagery in a literal way can be a frustrating exercise, especially for those of us who like to see concepts distilled by drawings. "If you study the drawings, then you can see that there's little in the drawings that say, 'Oh yeah, this is gonna work," says Becker. Then again, if you're lucky enough to be thoroughly disoriented by Woods's zappy, column-pierced Light Pavilion in Steven Holl's new Micro-City in Chengdu, it really does.
Concentric Field, from the series "Centricity," 1987. Graphite on paper. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
Unified Urban Field, from the series "Centricity," 1987. Graphite on paper. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
Conflict Space 4, 2006, is one of the largest works in the show. "He started to explore shape making, mark making, and drawing at an architectural scale, at a one-to-one relationship with the wall," says Becker. Crayon and acrylic on linen. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
Untitled, plastic models for the series "Nine Reconstructed Boxes," 1999. Ink on paper. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods