Cooked up in a refinery where Platonic solids had turned into swirls of metal splaying off towers canting out towards a tilted landscape, the world of experimental architecture that Lebbeus Woods envisioned dug down into the abandoned tunnels of a still-divided Berlin subway system. There, figures whose task was to study the energies of the earth and the stars were making a new world of continual construction, sitting on cantilevered chairs and peering down vortices that Woods outlined with spare lines. Then they burst out of the ground onto Alexanderplatz, launching themselves into airborne pods that twirled around the Eiffel tower. Woods called it Anarchitecture: a place of anarchism and architecture, of both order under construction and falling apart, and of the continual drawing out of our human potential to create connections, collaborations, and knots of mental material.
Lebbeus Woods’s official title for what he did was "experimental architecture," and I happily joined his Research Institute for Experimental Architecture in the early 1990s, eventually stealing the phrase to describe the generations of experimental architects—many of them influenced by Woods either directly or indirectly, who were interested in architecture as an experiment on and in the real world, rather than as a way to make buildings alone. On Tuesday, Lebbeus Woods passed away in New York.
Woods was no idealist. After his Aerial Paris series, he turned to Architecture and War, a series of drawings in which it was difficult to ascertain whether the discipline was one of destruction or reconstruction. Ruins and decay fascinated him as much as construction. Form he came to see as dangerous in and of itself, and he moved on to fields: cracked plates heaving up into hills and descending into dales at first, then cross-hatching and fields of undulations that became more and more abstract. They merged with his writing, a scrawl as unintelligible as his purpose remained not so much obtuse, as tentative, wanting always to hold the possibility of what architecture could imply in the balance.
What made his vision so compelling was his mastery of the drawing. An architect who became an illustrator who helped sell postmodern skyscrapers with his Prismacolor pyrotechnics, Woods, in the mid-1980s, became a revolutionary with the stroke of pencil, blowing up our preconception of what buildings or landscapes could be merely by drawing alternatives that were so evocative, so convincing, and so unnerving that they seemed possible.
Like all architects, he wanted to build, but more than that, he wanted to experiment. He was the great alchemist of architecture, transforming the most old fashioned modes of representation, the ruins of our industrial society, and the utopian dreams that are still architecture’s subconscious, into golden, but rusty, visions of a future that might already exist, except that he had to draw it out.
He influenced many architects, as well as moviemakers and artists of all sorts. He is the hidden force behind some of the best work being made today, and I wish he could have lived to see more of it come to fruition. He was a great teacher, a preacher, and a holy fool. It seems fitting that he passed away in the middle of our lifetime’s largest storm. I imagine him drawing it, channeling it, and refining it into architecture until his last breath and his last line.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.