Room East, a small gallery at the Lower East Side, presented one of the more focused works by Lebbeus Woods that included both his manifestos, ideology, drawings, and conversations as artifacts. He was invited by a few like-minded architects from Zagreb, Croatia, to come to their city and—in a way—help the standoff in architecture as the result of politics. Room East presents models such as “Zagreb Free Zone Model” made in collaboration with a colleague. Other graphic works complement a fixation with form that is not standard and expected. In a video presented at the exhibition, Woods himself says that he wanted to form invisible social forces of a city that are apparent, but not built in form. To further this aim, Zagreb Free Zone sketchbooks are also on display. They are perhaps the ones that open up emotional learning of Woods being in a foreign country and contributing to the struggle of their own architects.
It is a distinct and curious moment in time to observe the ideas of visionary and pioneer work that an architect left. Woods did not depict an optimistic future and utopian architecture for us to dream about. Woods spent his career crafting images in pencil and ink and in models of assumedly realistic conditions of human life that is distinct from the imaginary and widespread utopian dreams. Think of movies such as 12 Monkeys (the design for which Woods was ripped off by Terry Gilliam and then won a legal battle over the abuse of his work). Then take in dark futurism in films such as Resident Evil with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, and The Dark Star by John Carpenter. In all of them, such as in the work shown at Room East gallery, the future is not depicted as bright and rosy. Instead walking into the gallery we are presented with a project for a city of Zagreb itself in 1991 at the beginning of last European war in the Balkans.
Woods became a cult figure in places that felt they were left off the map of progress and needed someone to bring architectural struggles with society in conflict as form. This is perhaps why Woods’s premonitions in ink appear distinct from his near contemporary visionaries like Yona Friedman and Claude Parent. The drawings by Woods are dark to begin with and they are more punk than hippy, cynical and warning, rather than happy and optimistic. This dark genre is very well known to American underground scene of graphic novels, and it secured him the attuned attention from the countries that were in the dark situation politically, or perhaps ideologically, such as former Yugoslavia and the Middle East. Woods is adored there as he kept living the way as to how to work out of obscurity, national class inequality, sidelined off-centrism and born out of irrelevance.
Wood’s exhibit at the gallery carried well his demeanor, managing to have his work exhibited beyond the bounds of nostalgia, bitterness or melancholy, and as art. The gallery claims that the exhibit is designed according to Woods own instruction. The exhibition also shows exchanges in notes and letters from Woods referring to Leo Modrčin, his student coming from Croatia and instrumental figure in landing Woods the commission for imagining the Zagreb Free Zone project in 1991.
This exhibit also shows new and promising interest in architectural work that is graphic and at the forefront of social critique, or perhaps it may be art. Meaning that Western architects, such as Woods, can do work with the conditions in the East that are complementary to their social conditions and not neocolonial. Woods was very conscious of this, as is evident in the interview he did with Fedja Vukić, also on display at the exhibition. The document presents the unease of language used in the exchange between Woods and Vukić as many words are crossed out and edited for clarity.
For New York’s nomads and residents in arts and architecture, the visit to this exhibition offers two major opportunities. One, there is a view of the work of an extraordinary architect engaged in a region that would otherwise be a black hole of global interest, but is a source for inspiring ambitions. Two, it is the vision for humanity that may inspire domestic architecture in New York by addressing living standards for the unprivileged class and focus on extraordinary design of those spaces. In that way Woods’s work is not just a graphic delivery, but also a crafted program to take in seriously and work with them when the conditions for Woods’s kind of reality become attainable.
The exhibition Lebbeus Woods: Zagreb Free Zone was on view April 19 to May 22, 2016. All works presented at Room East gallery are from the Estate of Lebbeus Woods.
Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss is an architect living and working in New York.