With one of the most in-depth collections of Lebbeus Woods's works in the world, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is the perfect museum to host a retrospective of the architect's career. And after his passing last October, now would be the perfect time for such a retrospective. But the reason and the timing for 'Lebbeus Woods, Architect,' which opened on Feb. 16 and runs through June 2, are purely coincidence. Co-curators Joseph Becker and Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher had been working with Woods on the exhibition before his death, as it was to be the last one in the 1995 Mario Botta building before Snøhetta and EHDD begin work on an expansion. To Becker and Fletcher, Woods represents everything that SFMOMA's architecture and design department stands for: exploring architecture's possibilities as an agent of change and societal exploration. "The potential for architecture is really limitless," Becker says. "It's a larger idea than the city, than the building you sit in, than the glass that keeps you inside as opposed to outside. It's this latent feeling of 'what-if.'" One-hundred-and-seventy-five of Woods's drawings that explore that what-if will be on view, as well as 13 of his models. We talked to Becker about what it was like to work with Woods, and how the exhibition has changed since his passing—now to say more about architecture at large than just about architecture at SFMOMA.
When did you start working on the exhibition?
Last summer, which made for a very compressed timeline for an exhibition. SFMOMA was about to close for an expansion and we really wanted to do this show with Lebbeus [before then]. At the time, he was alive and we were working directly with him.
Why this subject for your last exhibition before the expansion started?
His work occupies a really important part of our collection and design. It was a good moment to put works on view that had been collected by the past four curators. It was a good opportunity to state that SFMOMA's collection of architecture and design is really focused on the questions that architects can pose and the potential of architecture to challenge our perception and our environment. Lebbeus’s work has always been about the what-if, but in a very real way: What if we just change a couple things, can you suppose that that would change certain social normative conditions, or hierarchical conditions, or spatial conditions?
At what point in the process did you lose Woods?
He passed away right in the middle. We had planned on perhaps doing an installation with him, but then the exhibition shifted. It’s now really devoted to drawings and models. That’s the bulk of his career, though he did do a number of spatial installations through exhibitions. Now the exhibition is very focused on key projects from the past 30 or so years that deal with certain recurring themes and also show an evolution of his focus.
Do you think that the exhibition will now have a retrospective feel that it might not have had before?
A lot of people who don’t know his work are going to discover it. There has been a lot of attention on his career in lieu of his passing that brings this exhibition a little bit more to the forefront. It’s an interesting challenge in that we have to present highly conceptual and theoretical architecture to a public that’s varied in its degree of understanding. The goal is to cater both to people who are already familiar with Lebbeus and his projects and to go more in depth, but to give a very approachable presentation for people who don’t know anything about him.
SFMOMA as a whole is very committed to presenting really engaging projects, but specifically, within the department of architecture and design, we’ve always been focused on the more experimental and the more conceptual and visionary architecture works. It’s not necessarily about what is just good design out in the world, but rather what projects might ask larger questions or have a larger tie-in to the speculative universe. Our department was established in the early '80s, and since then, we’ve focused on the hypothetical, the critical. Not only through architecture, but also through industrial design. It blurs the line often of what we would traditionally consider starchitecture and the practice of the architect. We’re establishing the fact that Lebbeus Wood is an architect even though there are no built buildings to his name. That’s kind of what we’ve established within our department, to present projects that challenge the notion of what is and what is not [architecture.]
How do you explain to visitors who don't know Woods how we was an architect, though he never built anything?
That has to do with the questions your work is attempting to ask, questions of space and usage and functionality. What does architecture do? What does architecture do for humanity? What are its shortfalls? What are its potentials? Even without building something, he’s [Woods is] engaging within the process of architecture, the discourse. As a professor for so many years at Cooper Union, he was able to inspire generations of architects in thinking about what questions to ask and how to answer them. It’s not that he never built anything, it’s just that he never built a building. But when you think of an architect, you think of an entire building envelope. The built form … might have inhibited him from ever wanting to build a building. It would always be constrained by the rules within which we live, and he was proposing something beyond that: What if we didn't have to deal with gravity? What if we didn't have to deal with government agencies? What kind of architecture would that reveal?