Lebbeus Woods was a revolutionary, experimental, and theoretical architect. He is regarded as one of the most original architectural visionary of recent times.
He was born in 1940 in Lansing, Michigan and sadly passed away on October 30, 2012, in New York City. Woods’ work is primarily focused on theorizing architecture in places in crisis. He is was the founder of the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture (RIEA) and a Professor of Architecture at the Cooper Union School of Architecture, as well as a Professor of Visionary Architecture at the European Graduate School (EGS).
Lebbeus Woods was educated at the University of Illinois in architecture, and in engineering at Purdue University. He initially worked as an architect with the Finnish American architect and industrial designer, Eero Saarinen. However, Woods works independently and creates various conceptual and experimental projects based on his theoretical positions regarding the role of architecture as a political force in society. Lebbeus Woods held the position that architecture and war are in a certain sense identical and that architecture is inherently political. An explicitly political goal of his highly conceptual work is the instantiation of the conflict between past and future in shared spaces.
One of the most striking examples of Woods’ work is his project on a possible future for the Korean De-militarized Zone. The drawing depicts a hangar-like structure without walls, supported by a heteromorphous meshwork of support beams emerging from sinuous columns patched with tiny windows and sections of sheet metal. Sunshine streams through ragged holes in the roof of the structure, though the sky quickly gives way to the metal patchwork. The tension between ideals and the need to survive, necessity and contingency, emerges in a space of suspended violence.
Conflict and crisis are the forces within which the architectural forms of Lebbeus Woods take shape as he writes:
Social justice is not an issue of masses, but of individuals. If the mass is satisfied with its salutes, but an individual suffers, can there be justice-in human terms? To answer ‘yes’ is to justify oppression, for there are always people willing to lose themselves in a mass at the expense of some person who is not willing to do so. To construct a just society, it is precisely this lone person who must first receive justice. Call this person the inhabitant. Call this person yourself.
Lines and directions are traced out of a sheer will to create a new space from the broken forms that are left, for instance in the wake of the war in Bosnia. Lebbeus Woods witnessed the conflict first-hand as a journalist, and he was later approached for a design to rebuild the Electrical Management Building in Sarajevo after the conflict had ended. The concept of his design was a space which creates itself from the ashes of a failed and tragic past, if only for the promise of continued existence, by healing the damaged sections of the city’s buildings and mending them with scraps from the wreckage. Although the design was not used, it is still highly regarded for its originality.
Many of the buildings/structures which Lebbeus Woods has designed push the limits of the possible and test the beholder/occupant in their strident, often uncomfortable, resolution for a new form of existence. His buildings often look like machines, though they could be either. There is no trace of utopia – except a failed utopia – in these structures, in which bourgeois comforts and complacency are filtered out. The Berlin Free-Zone project was an example of this, in which machine-like ‘buildings’ are set within the area where the Berlin Wall once stood. Many of his more recent designs are more abstract and are attempts to create ‘buildings without walls’, partly in opposition to the neoliberal dream of privatized spaces.
Lebbeus Woods has designed buildings in Havana, Cuba and Chengdu, China, as well as many highly influential proposals and conceptual designs. One of his designs – ‘Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber’ – was implemented in the design of the Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys without Lebbeus Woods’ consent, which won him a six-figure settlement. Lebbeus Woods is the author of Radical Reconstruction (1997), The Storm and The Fall (2003), and System Wien (2005). He is a recipient of the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, and his works are in public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris; the Austrian Museum of Applied Art, Vienna; the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Getty Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities.