Review> Conversation with Catastrophe
Nicholas Olsberg reviews SFMOMA's survey of Lebbeus Woods
Quake City, 1995.
Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
153 Third St., San Francisco
Through June 2

“Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules,” Lebbeus Woods is quoted saying in the short entrance text to the surprising exhibition Lebbeus Woods, Architect now on view at SFMOMA. What follows is just that, a sequence of concise suites of architectural thinking that propose a radical new approach to how we might order the world around us.

For many of his contemporaries, Woods is an uncomfortable figure. His first career was as a renderer, and it seemed, as he launched himself in the late 1970s as a speculative architect, that he had never really left the illustrator behind. Most of the speculative architecture of the day invested in commonplace space age fancies—the kind of infernal machines and missiles that every schoolboy in the Fifties was doodling on his knee during class—a philosophical weight that they could not bear. We had at that time been bombarded with comic book, sci-fi, and commercial imagery from the graphics of This Is Tomorrow and the dystopic romances of the Metabolists to the mechanistic utopias of Archigram. We were far from seeing anything new in the use of this imagery that pointed toward visionary ideas. By 1980, couching future thinking in the rough and ready visual vocabularies of newsprint, comic strips, and B movies was a solid if slightly dated Pop tradition. Now here was Woods not only returning to it, but ministering to it with a lusciously skilled and vulgar hand on singular fine-art and collectible sheets that seemed to serve no greater purpose than to furnish the new taste for gallery architecture.

Left to right: Unified Urban Field, 1987; Photon Kite, 1988; Concentric field, 1987.

For those of us thus discomfited by the works and by the sometimes mystifyingly vague verbal bluster that went with them, there are great surprises in this exhibition. The curators lay out a progress that is scrupulously balanced, often drawing attention away from the more pictorial tale-telling and flamboyant series of the 1980s toward subtler and more speculative chains of thought that came after. These are less extravagantly, sometimes even tentatively rendered. As a result, we get an unexpected view of Woods not as an influential portrayer of fantastical forms, but as someone who wanted to talk to us about the moral urgency of our common concerns.

Woods described his role as one at war with all institutions and givens, and many of his fancies seem at first to turn on impossibly defiant moral contradictions. As we were all reminded one bright September day twelve years ago, architecture is a target of terror and catastrophe. It is used to imprison, to fortify, to intimidate; it falls victim to human and natural assaults. Woods was a child of war and terror, born in 1940, the son of a military engineer, coming of age as the Berlin wall was raised and waiting through that week one year later when the safety catch came off the triggers of global destruction. It was against the condition of architecture as a victim or agent of such terrors that he stood. But it was in the contrasting imagery that posed shattered worlds against shiny missiles and gleaming derricks that he found much of the vocabulary to oppose it. It is as a child of war that many of his first major works start—with the Wagnerian notion that destruction is essential to regeneration; with the possibility that if we could picture architecture itself as weaponry, then it would be less thinkable that violence be done to societies by building a wall to contain them, or cities assaulted by designing missiles to destroy them.

Einstein Tomb, 1980 (left); Nine Reconstructed Boxes, 1999 (right).

As the show unfolds, however, it becomes evident that there was a sequence to Woods’ inquiries in which the target in his defiant sights gradually moved. He nevertheless kept the discussion grounded in an internal logic of contradictions and reversals. His Cold War pieces sought to resist, offering the imagined threat of destruction as an answer to the real one. But work from the 90s onward suggests acts of defiance in which the negative force could be moved to a positive end. His response to the tearing down of Berlin’s wall was to weave the new city together with “free-spaces,” little acts of architecture that had no evident purpose except to violate the conventions of the city so that they might be used in ways that states and institutions could not imagine or control. His work in war-ravaged Sarajevo ultimately proposes that just to do something as architects (even talk) is an act of reassertion, bringing catastrophe into civil conversation. Indeed, nearly all the later work suggests that the best form of resistance might come as a sort of sturdy resignation—like the improvisational investigation into earthquake structures that asks if we could build in a way that works with a catastrophic event rather than defends against it.

Many of these inquiries have a rough and hasty beauty that reveals the veritable fever of imagination that produced them. With the last works—field drawings that address the condition and future of the habitable earth in its current catastrophic distress—the cause of that urgency becomes apparent. The only real question for Woods was to define and expand the boundaries within which a fragile human society could find its range of survival. Woods’ work went from projecting Einstein’s ashes into timeless space to questioning if we need ask anything more of architecture than to provide light. The one constant subject throughout is locating and protecting the functional range of the human animal. It is the question of our times.

Nicholas Olsberg

Nicholas Olsberg is a writer and former director of the Canadian Center for Architecture.