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Lebbeus Woods: 1940-2012

By Mark Lamster
October 31, 2012
Image courtesy Lebbeus Woods
Woods' "Labyrinthine Wall," a protective wall abstraction for Bosnia.

Lebbeus Woods, the visionary draftsman and educator considered by many to be the conscience of the architectural profession, died at home in New York City on Tuesday morning at the age of seventy-two. The causes were natural, but observers could hardly fail to note that his death came with Hurricane Sandy’s inundating waters still flooding New York. No architect had devoted more energy to the consequences of catastrophic urban failure than Woods.

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The last of the great paper architects, Woods achieved cult-idol status among architects for his post-apocalyptic landscapes of dense lines and plunging perspectives. Deconstructivist in the most literal of ways, they were never formalist exercises. Instead, they conveyed the architect’s deep reservations as to the nature of contemporary society, and particularly its penchant for violence. He eschewed practice, claiming an interest in architectural ideas rather than the quotidian challenges of commercial building. “I want to address problems that clients are not commissioning architects to address,” he said in a 2002 interview.

That experimental mindset is evident in his largest built work, “Light Pavilion,” a recently completed installation of angled girders set in the void of a Chengdu tower designed by his friend Steven Holl. “The freedom of spirit in architecture that Lebbeus embodied carried with it a rare idealism,” Holl said in a statement emailed October 30. “Lebbeus had very passionate beliefs and a deep philosophical commitment to architecture.”

An exhibition devoted solely to Woods’s work is scheduled to open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 16, 2013 (it will run until June 2). Woods himself was to have turned in plans for the installation this week. Their status is uncertain.

Woods was a towering figure, in all ways. Tall and bluff, with a sweeping canopy of white hair and a basso-profundo voice that told of decades of hard drinking and cigarettes, he could command any room. That appearance belied a nature both gentle and generous. Though he could be a demanding critic—on his popular blog, he recently castigated Zaha Hadid for losing her principles—he had a tendency, unusual among architects, to spread credit and compliments easily. “He was the first well known architect to reach out to us,” wrote Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, on the organization’s website October 30. On the other hand, Woods was unapologetic in defending his own creative integrity. He won a large settlement from the producers of the film 12 Monkeys (1995) after filing a lawsuit against director Terry Gilliam for copying his work.

Woods was born in 1940, in Lansing, Michigan. As an undergraduate he studied engineering at Purdue, and received his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois, in 1964. He then joined the office of the late Eero Saarinen, then under the direction of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, and worked on their landmark Ford Foundation building in New York. It was only in the 1970s that he devoted himself fully to his experimental studies, financing his project with work as a delineator for New York’s top architectural firms.

In 1988, Woods co-founded the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture and began teaching at the Cooper Union. His visions of urban spaces ravaged by war were published in numerous books, among them Anarchitecture, War and Architecture, and Radical Reconstruction. “He stood for the possibility of a bravely experimental approach to architecture,” says Henry Urbach, a frequent Woods collaborator who is now director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. “He was particularly attentive to architecture's political dimension, to the way in which ruptures of different sorts, either natural disasters or switches of political regime, could have a profound influence on what we build and why."

Those post-apocalyptic visions were shaped by his personal history. His father, an Air Force colonel who was present at the atomic testing on Bikini Atol, died of a rare form of leukemia when Woods was just thirteen. Woods believed the cause was radiation poisoning, though the military would not admit it.

At the time of his death, Woods claimed to be at work on a book on World War II and architecture, one presumably informed by that history. His health had been in decline for some time. He traveled in a motorized chair, and had recently stepped away from his blog. In a final post—title, “Goodbye [sort of]”—he announced he was quitting it for “various health and other issues,” and to concentrate on his book. “I must say that it has been a privilege to have communicated with so many bright and energetic readers,” he wrote. “Thank you for all you have given.”

Mark Lamster is an architectural critic and historian based in New York, and a contributing editor at Design Observer.

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