The following post was originally written as an entry to McSweeney’s 2011 Column Contest. It didn’t win. But I had a lot of fun writing it so I thought I’d post it here. As proposed, it was an architectural criticism column written from the perspective of a somewhat emotionally dysfunctional critic who sees his own failures in the monumental structures that obsess him. In the resulting reviews, personal narratives converge with professional critique. Descriptions and opinions of the buildings emerge through seemingly inadvertent revelations of his personal crises and social conflicts. Over the course of the columns, a larger narrative is revealed in which the reader learns more about the critic – his failures, fears, aspirations, and his romantic and professional pursuits. In this introductory column, your critic experiences the five stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– in his critique of the Lower Manhattan skyscraper New York by Gehry.
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.
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.
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.
Lebbeus Woods + 12 Monkeys [LWB]
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.