Architecture After Las Vegas

This week, an international array of critics, architects and historians will convene at the Yale School of Architecture for Architecture After Las Vegas, a four-day symposium beginning January 21st. The event features lectures and panel discussions designed to consider the long-term impact of Las Vegas – as famously celebrated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown – on design, urbanism and the architectural discourse.


Lecture Review: Lebbeus Woods

lebbeus woods

There aren’t really many architects whom I admire, but last Thursday I attended a lecture given by a man whose work has profoundly affected my understanding of architecture – architect and theorist Lebbeus Woods. After a brief introduction in which he was described as “visionary,” Woods started the event – part of CCA‘s Graduate Studies Lecture Series – by telling the audience he despised that term. Not only because some archaic definitions of the word imply a foolish impracticality, but also because he believes that by labeling him a “visionary” the architectural profession has marginalized his work and the revolutionary ideas that drive them. Why would they want to do this? Maybe because he’s proposing nothing less than a completely new definition of what it means to be an architect.

Structured around a timeline of his work, it was apparent right from the start, that this was going to be a phenomenal lecture. Engulfed by the darkness of the small lecture hall, we were immediately thrust into the high contrast black-and-white piranesian world of his early work. These painstakingly elaborate explorations of fantastical, industrial-baroque cities paved the way for more real world investigations.

lebbeus woods

In his vision of a reactionary, Cold War era Berlin, inhabitants of both the eastern and western halves have constructed a new city – an underground city hidden below the U-Bahn. A place inhabited by poets and criminals, where reunification can truly begin. In a later, 1991 Project, the Berlin Free Zone, Woods showed us drawings of his “FreeSpaces,” functionally ambiguous structures built within existing buildings. Literally, a city within a city. It’s almost Shakespearan. The loosely defined, unconventionally configured spaces are void of any purpose or meaning. They force their inhabitants to completely reinvent their mode of living – there’s no place to put that damn Eames lounge! Although its taken a completely unexpected form, this is quite the modernist idea. Until this lecture, I never thought of Woods as a modernist, but he most definitely is; and quite proudly wears the title! He believes that architecture truly has the power to change our lives and transform our way of living…but for some reason, many of today’s architects have forgotten that. Woods is a firm believer that if we only design what people already have or what they want, nothing new will ever emerges. “Architecture should be judged not only by the problems it solves, but by the problems it creates.”

In proposals for disaster stricken cities – Zagreb, Sarajevo, Havana, New York – Woods’s work adopts a medical metaphor. Radical forms of salvaged material act as “scabs,” over the “wounds” of a building damaged by war and disaster. As time passes and the buildings are rebuilt, a “scar” remains – a visual reminder, an aesthetic embodiment of history. These crisis projects produced what I find to be some of Woods’s most compelling work.

Finally, Woods spoke about his rod-and-cable based constructions in Vienna and Paris. These projects both relate in some way to the ideas of energy transformations and the collapse of system organization. He conceived these ideas and designed their components, but their implementation was left up entirely up to local artists and installers. By setting up a system of rules and guidelines, but not explicitly dictating the construction of the piece, Wood’s is recruiting co-conspirators in his plot to undermine the traditional understanding of architecture. The architect doesn’t dictate every aspect of the design. There’s something left up to chance and interpretation. Lebbeus Woods believes that this is the future of architecture.

lebbeus woods

I was hoping that with his experience in crisis-design, Woods was going to speak about New Orleans. Unfortunately, he would reveal only the fact that he is indeed working on something. When I spoke with him afterwards, he told me that he is developing projects at multiple scales , and surprisingly, that he has never visited New Orleans. With its rich history, its diverse cultures, and its preposterous location, it seems like the perfect laboratory for his ideas. I can’t wait to see the innovative proposals this “visionary” (sorry!) architect creates.

Rarely have I ever been so enthralled for the entire length of a lecture. The avuncular Woods speaks in a manner that compels you you truly listen to what he’s saying. And of course, his astounding illustrations only serve to enhance what are already incredibly powerful ideas. He makes you believe in the worlds he’s creating. He makes you believe that architecture has the power to transform our physical and spiritual worlds. Lebbeus Woods makes you believe in Modernism.

see also:
Lebbeus Woods + 12 Monkeys [LWB]



Tonight, at Tulane University, I attended a lecture given by Stephen Cassell, founding partner of the Manhattan firm, Architecture Research Office (ARO). Mr. Cassel presented three of the firm’s early works – a small Colorado home, a military recruitment office, and a small cosmetic boutique – and three of their more recent works – all educational facilities of some sort. His lecture technique was immediately appealing, and in no way overly pedantic. I’m sure most of us have seen too many lectures where the speaker simply shows photographs of one project after another while giving an almost scientific description of their design. Cassell, however, presented each work from early development to completion, scattering the presentation with humorous personal insight and anecdotes.

ARO doesn’t seem to prescribe to one specific design attitude, but rather develop their projects in a manner appropriate for each program and site. The development and presentation drawings he presented ranged from the clean precision of computer renderings to incredibly basic rough sketches and collages. With more emphasis on the latter. It looked like they were still in school – and I mean that in a good way.

I think the strongest of their built work was the Military Recruitment Office. (pictured) Situated in the center of Times Square in New York City, the recruiting station is arguably dismissable as a one-liner – Cassell even admitted this. I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that; Times Square is a one-liner. ARO faced two incredible challenges with this project: The most intensely urban site in the United States and the laughably complicated bureaucracy of the U.S. Military. (The diagram of National offices who had to approve all the drawings was truly terrifying!) Their solution was simple and incredibly effective. A 4-bay structural system and 5-bay glazing system sandwiching color treated flourescent lights arragned as an American Flag. These alternating systems created a dynamic facade perfectly suited for the controlled chaos that is Times Square.

In my opinion, ARO’s more recent, larger projects are much less successfull or elegant as their earlier work. I was reminded of Wes Anderson – his early, low budget movies were so amazing, everyone wondered what he could do with a big budget. The answer, of course, was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – not a bad movie by any means – but even most die hard fans will admit that it was lacking the certain magic found in his earlier films. Something got diluted along the way, and this is exactly what seems to happen with ARO. There were some incredible ideas present in each of these works, but the buildings seemed out of scale, the material stretched too thin. They were missing that certain magic. The best of the larger designs was the one that will forever remain unbuilt: Their losing entry to the Vietnam Memorial Museum competition. It wasn’t so much the building that was interesting, as the ideas that were addressed in the proposal: how to build on the National Mall? How to react to Maya Linn’s memorial? How will the way we view the war change as we move further and further away from it? How does one commemorate the history of such a controversial military action? Without going into detail, ARO proposed a mostly underground building that placed the focus on remembering the individual soldiers and stories they have to tell. Tim O’Brien would definitely approve.

By the way – Last week I saw Hal Foster Lecture, but didn’t really feel the need to blog about it. The man is a brilliant writer but an incredibly TERRIBLE lecturer. There was no cohesion to his mumbled, fractured presentation. Plus, some of the girls thought he was sexist.


Previous Lecture Reviews:
Winka Dubbledam


Lecture Review: Winka Dubbeldam

Last night I attended the Winka Dubbeldam lecture at Tulane University. Dubbeldam is the founder and principal of Archi-tectonics, a firm that considers itself as much research laboratory as design studio, and relies heavily on computers as generators of form.

Unfortunately, what I found to be some of the most compelling ideas presented were not discussed in much detail. For example, an unbuilt proposal rethinking the urban scheme for a medieval city in The Netherlands. In an effort to preserve what little nature is left in the Netherlands, these cities are no longer permitted to grow outward, so they must grow from within. A compelling idea when one considers the possible urbanistic implications. The scheme she briefly showed was no less than a complete rethinking of the spaces that make up a city, but she never discussed the concept or design process. Another urban project that she did present in detail was their post 9/11 scheme for lower Manhattan. Commisioned solely for exhibition purposes, the firm designed an interactive “game,” instead of presenting a building scheme. Users adjust political, social, and economic factors, and watch a 3D model of a proposed Lower Manhattan scheme react according to the user input and parameters established by the architects.

The buildings she presented were designed around basic programmatic elements. Walls and ceilings were “wrapped” around the program and folded inward or outward reacting to the presence of specific elements. I think it’s a great technique, but sometimes the resulting spaces weren’t exactly appealing. In particular, there was a private residence where the folded, angular walls created a space that just seemed to aggressive for a vacation house.

The project whose form generation I found to be the most interesting was an installation in a New York Gallery. The pavillion-type space was composed of organic concrete forms derived from a designed sound frequency spectrum.

Overall, the presentation was pretty good. Computer animations helped show the development of their projects and the design concepts behind them. I’m not yet sure how I feel about relying so heavily on the computer as a design tool. I’m a sucker for the Human Touch, and I know it’s a cliche to say so, but I really think the comptuer representations made the projects look lifeless and overly analytical. Although I suppose that’s appropriate for a firm whose name literally means “the science of architecture.”

Archi-tectonics’ Web Environment



This past Monday night, I attended a Lecture at my alma mata of Tulane University, given by Giuseppe Lignano and Ada Tolla of the New York based firm, LOT-EK. For those who aren’t familiar with LOT-EK, their work focuses on the reuse of prefabricated industrial components. With projects such as “Container Mall,” and the “Mobile Dwelling Unit, (MDU)” they are perhaps best known for their use of shipping containers, but they have also utilized cement mixers, airplane fuselages, oil tanks, and water towers.

The lecture itself was quite good. Short and entertaining. Giuseppe quickly flashed images of what inspired the duo – everything from electrical wires to pot holes to decaying brick buildings – while listing, alphabetically, in a robot-like monotone, the abstract ideas they associated with each image. Ms. Tolla would then describe the projects and the design process in her charming Transylvanian-like accent, while complementing her oratory with an array of dazzling animations and images.

What did I think? Well…they apparently really love just hanging out and watching t.v. No less than three of the presented projects were variations on media modules. Small, comfortable spaces wired with multiple televisions, computers, video games, speakers, and digitial projections. These became somewhat repetetive, as no new ideas were introduced, and the descriptions seemed to be along the lines of “…and then we put all that stuff in a cement mixer…then in an oil tanker…”

The large scale projects are undeniably impressive, but again, repetition dulled their impact. The Container Mall, the MDU city, and the Gorree Memorial are all insightful, beautiful proposals, but they could almost be the same project with a different label. I think using industrial components is an amazing idea, but at some point, the idea started began to seem less practical and more gimmicky.

Despite my distaste for the similarity among their work, I can respect that Giuseppe and Ada genuinely seem to be having fun with what they’re doing. I don’t think they’re trying to create a recognizable “LOT-EK brand,” but rather this is what they’re interested in and what they want to keep exploring. All the questions were answered with smiles, and an almost child-like excitement. Their attitude was inspiring.