Lebbeus Woods

I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of Lebbeus Woods, on October 30th, at the age of 72. He was an architect, professor, writer, and theorist. Few of his designs were ever built. Other visionary, experimental designers -- Buckminster Fuller, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid -- eventually, however late in life, made the leap from paper to built reality. Woods was different. The force of his imagination was such that many of his ideas are simply impossible to realize with the technologies and cultural conditions of today. His drawings and paintings -- massive, stark, violent, beautiful -- present visions of a world unmoored from history, time, and space.


High Houses.

He wrote extensively, publishing almost thirty books, untold articles, and a lovely blog. His practice, in his own words, is described thusly: "Over the past thirty years, my thoughts have followed a single line, in many parallel ways. lt can be summarized in a single question: what is the place of one person - any individual - in the complex, ever-changing landscape of the world? lt is a question without a fixed or universal answer. Still it must be asked. Answers, however provisional, must be attempted. This is particularly urgent for the apportioning and use of space, which every person needs, and which the work of architecture explicitly provides. The installations I have designed and made in collaboration with others explore the phenomena of change in material and spatial terms. . . . The aim is not to disturb the stability, but to provide strategies for adaptation when transformation occurs. Even more, they celebrate change and the energies driving it, as the essence of existence."


A cityscape.

Woods passed just as Hurricane Sandy devastated New York. It was a strangely apt time, as his work celebrated and explored disruption, violence, impermanence, and change. His Wikipedia page includes this quote from his book Radical Reconstruction, which explored post-war Sarajevo, embargoed Havana, and fault-lined San Francisco: 

"Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no "sacred and primordial site." I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then "melt into air." I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know your name. Nor you can know mine. Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city."


A project for Havana.

Woods' work has affected my thinking in several ways. First, shelter is fundamentally a response to crisis. I am cold, I am wet, I am unprotected from beasts and marauders, I must find shelter. But architecture is more than shelter. It is an intellectual construct. It is a spatial experience. It is shelter,rationalized. 

Second, disruption drives the world forward. Woods' ideas were prescient in many ways, imagining a future world destabilized by war, climate change, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. Most of today's architecture, if one can call it that, is a series of silly antics performed for folks who won't live long enough to see them fail. Hurricane Sandy is an all-too-fresh example: just scroll through the pictures on the New York Times to see architectural absurdities floating down city streets.

Third, there is no substitute for beauty. I am in the business of making beautiful things -- objects, buildings, and the drawings that describe them. Woods' drawings crush my soul! They are so raw and complex and gorgeous it makes me want to give up trying. This beauty, in his drawings, is what keeps his work from sliding into nihilism. It would be easy, from some of his writings, to caricature him as an apocalyptic crank. But the drawings anchor the writing, softening his bellicosity. 


This drawing, The Chair, was partially the basis of a successful lawsuit against the creators of the movie 12 Monkeys, whose dystopian film sets borrowed heavily from Woods' work.

I first came across his work on BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh's fantastic architectural archive. Manaugh has long been a champion of Woods' work, posting this great interview with him back in 2007. He also posted this eulogy , which is a very powerful piece of writing. Please read it in its entirety, but, in the meantime, here's a short excerpt: When I say that Lebbeus Woods and James Joyce and William Blake and so on all belong on the same list, I mean it: because architecture is poetry is literature is myth. That is, it is equal to them and it is one of them. It is a way of explaining the human condition—whatever that is—spatially, not through stanzas or through novels or through song.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and—as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers—neither should we."


The Berlin Free Zone.

Finally, I will leave you with an essay Woods wrote for his project for the Schindler House garden in 2003, examining the nature of resistance. Since much of this blog tends to register as objections, I thought it wise to toss my notions in the air and re-examine them, as one must do from time to time. (Bear with it and read the whole list, it's brilliant . . .)

Lebbeus Woods 


Until now, I have not thought much about the idea of an architecture of resistance. Although many people might judge that my work in architecture has been nothing if not a form of resistance, I have never considered it as such. To say that you are resisting something means that you have to spend a lot of time and energy saying what that something is, in order for your resistance to make sense. Too much energy flows in the wrong direction, and you usually end up strengthening the thing you want to resist.

It seems to me that if architects really want to resist, then neither the idea nor the rhetoric of resistance has a place in it. These architects must take the initiative, beginning from a point of origin that precedes anything to be resisted, one deep within an idea of architecture itself. They can never think of themselves as resisters, or join resistance movements, or preach resistance. Rather (and this is the hard part of resistance) they must create an independent idea of both architecture and the world. It is not something that can be improvised at the barricades. It takes time and a lot of trial and error. This is only just, because the things to be resisted have not come from nowhere. They have a history built over periods of time, a kind of seriousness and weight that makes them a threat to begin with. They can only be resisted by ideas and actions of equivalent substance and momentum.

The word resist is interestingly equivocal. It is not synonymous with words of ultimate negation like ‘dismiss’ or ‘ reject.’ Instead, it implies a measured struggle that is more tactical than strategic. Living changes us, in ways we cannot predict, for the better and the worse. One looks for principles, but we are better off if we control them, not the other way around. Principles can become tyrants, foreclosing on our ability to learn. When they do, they, too, must be resisted.


Resist whatever seems inevitable. 

Resist people who seem invincible. 

Resist the embrace of those who have lost. 

Resist the flattery of those who have won. 

Resist any idea that contains the wordalgorithm

Resist the impulse to draw blob-like shapes. 

Resist the desire to travel to Paris in the Spring. 

Resist the desire to move to Los Angeles, anytime. 

Resist the idea that architecture is a building. 

Resist the idea that architecture can save the world. 

Resist the hope that you’ll get that big job. 

Resist getting big jobs. 

Resist the suggestion that you can only read Derrida in French. 

Resist taking the path of least resistance.

Resist the influence of the appealing. 

Resist the desire to make a design based on a piece of music. 

Resist the growing conviction that They are right. 

Resist the nagging feeling that They will win. 

Resist the idea that you need a client to make architecture. 

Resist the temptation to talk fast. 

Resist anyone who asks you to design only the visible part. 

Resist the idea that drawing by hand is passé. 

Resist any assertion that the work of Frederick Kiesler is passé. 

Resist buying an automobile of any kind. 

Resist the impulse to open an office. 

Resist believing that there is an answer to every question. 

Resist believing that the result is the most important thing. 

Resist the demand that you prove your ideas by building them. 

Resist people who are satisfied. 

Resist the idea that architects are master builders. 

Resist accepting honors from those you do not respect. 

Resist the panicky feeling that you are alone. 

Resist hoping that next year will be better. 

Resist the assertion that architecture is a service profession. 

Resist the foregone conclusion that They have already won. 

Resist the impulse to go back to square one. 

Resist believing that there can be architecture without architects. 

Resist accepting your fate. 

Resist making models from chicken-wire. 

Resist people who tell you to resist. 

Resist the suggestion that you can do what you really want later. 

Resist any idea that contains the word interface. 

Resist the feeling of obligation to subscribe to Domus. 

Resist the idea that architecture is an investment. 

Resist the feeling that you must explain everything. 

Resist the claim that history is concerned with the past. 

Resist the innuendo that you must be cautious. 

Resist the illusion that it is complete. 

Resist the opinion that it was an accident. 

Resist the judgement that it is only valid if you can do it again. 

Resist believing that architecture is about designing things. 

Resist the implications of security. 

Resist writing what They wish you would write. 

Resist assuming that the locus of power is elsewhere. 

Resist believing that anyone knows what will actually happen. 

Resist the accusation that you have missed the point.

Resist all claims on your autonomy. 

Resist the indifference of adversaries. 

Resist the ready acceptance of friends. 

Resist the thought that life is simple, after all. 

Resist the belated feeling that you should seek forgiveness. 

Resist the desire to move to Berlin.

Resist the notion that you should never compromise. 

Resist any thought that contains the word should. 

Resist the lessons of architecture that has already succeeded. 

Resist the idea that architecture expresses something. 

Resist the temptation to do it just one more time. 

Resist the belief that architecture influences behavior. 

Resist any idea that equates architecture and property. 

Resist the tendency to repeat yourself. 

Resist that feeling of utter exhaustion.