Beyond Buildings


Drawing Out Lebbeus Woods

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The exhibition of Lebbeus Woods drawings that is currently on view at the Friedman Benda Gallery in New York (through April 6th), reminded me not only of what an incredible architect and visionary Woods is, but also how his aesthetic has permeated much of what I think is interesting about architecture today, even though he has never built anything beyond site-specific installations.



Just go around the corner from the gallery and take a look up at the building that Neil Denari, AIA, designed for a site that abuts the High Line. I by no means want to imply that Denari is here copying Woods, but in the 1980s and 1990s Denari was a good friend and admirer of Woods, and I would say that the canted shape of the apartment building, twisting and turning its way to make full use of the slice through the city’s fabric that the High Line produced, evokes many of Woods’s bulbous building designs from that period.



More than that, the whole High Line reminds me of Woods's interest in an architecture of simultaneous construction and delay that winds its way through both the human-made and the natural landscape, unfolding, slicing, expanding, and above all else making us aware of what most of us see as the backdrop for signature buildings. I think it is no coincidence that the earliest work on display here, from the early 1980s, presents architecture as a kind of refinery, complete with what appear to be holders for liquids and gasses, refining towers, and gangplanks connecting the whole complex: this is architecture that wants to both get at the basic elements of construction and transform them, through the alchemy of drawing, into something else. It also wants to open up and build the edges where those industrial forces that our cities repress help us actually live in our neat grids.


The High Line, an industrial artifact that has become a way of reusing and reseeing Manhattan, makes the buildings through which it slices look as if they are Woodsian artifacts. It is also part of a wider movement in which industrial chic, the need to reuse existing buildings and materials, disaster porn, and steam punk have come together to create an aesthetic that you can see from China to Paris, in projects from the Palais du Tokyo to the OCT arts district in Shenzhen, and even in high-end hotels such as the Andasz chain.




Partially this is because Woods’s drawings inspired not just architects, but filmmakers, cartoonists, and other purveyors of popular culture, to the point that the architect was successfully able to sue the makers of the film 12 Monkeys for copyright infringement. You also might be able to say the Woods himself was part of a larger movement, in which his work coincided with, on the one hand, the emergence of writers such as William Gibson and his cyberpunk visions and, on the other hand, with the logic of reusing industrial sites in an era in which, for instance, rail yards around the world became the sites for massive urban redevelopment–Woods even drew his vision for what should happen with the Hudson Rail Yards just up from the High Line.



I think the place Lebbeus Woods’s work takes is that of drawing (and I would include his models in that description). Connected to the history of disegno, the Italian world in which drawing and design are one, they were a drawing out of the possibilities and the dangers of our modern world, utopian and dystopian visions made as concrete as they could be without becoming real. I am beginning to see a whole new generation of architects turn back in new ways to that practice. Lebbeus Woods will continue to make architecture into the future.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.