For a man obsessed with visions of the future, it seems both appropriate and strangely sad that Lebbeus Woods will miss the culmination of his work in SFMOMA's new exhibit, "Lebbeus Woods: Architect." Like his infamous art, Woods' life was interrupted, and the schism between what is and what could have been echoes on. Woods, who died in October 2012, is lauded as a kind of architectural prophet, drawing and sculpting intricate structures and spaces that defy authority, political ideologies, and even physics.
Since the mid-1990s, four curators have been collecting Woods' work from both private and institutional collections; this exhibition — which will run until June 2 — represents three decades of his radical, experimental visions.
Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, assistant curator at SFMOMA, played a pivotal role in developing the Woods show; she says she is still pleasantly reeling from ongoing discoveries about his work, his studies, and the discourse around his designs.
Fletcher explains that Woods' pervasive architectural influence within the field is rare because of his focus on ideas rather than the execution of a particular form (i.e. having his buildings actually built).
"It's still a debate," she says. "If we talk about Architecture with a capital 'A,' is it actually an art? And if it is, it's the one subject that poses legal risks, has governmental limitations, etc., that other arts are not upheld to. Lebbeus viewed architecture the same way a conceptual artist would. He was a provocateur."
Because Woods never intended his designs to be built, it can be tricky to pin him down. Was he an artist? a philosopher? a sculptor? SFMOMA's exhibit suggests that Woods was an architect above all, advancing the discourse of the built environment through the exploration of possibility.
His work spans a dizzying array of topics and aesthetics — from war-torn Sarajevo and post-wall Berlin to more playful concepts like a tomb for Albert Einstein; however abstract, all are meticulously rendered, with intricate cross-hatching, shadowing, and painstaking attention to volume, texture, and scale. There is also a touch of whimsy, of mad genius, channeling the ebullience of a child not yet acquainted with the limits of possibility.
While sheer imagination dominates Woods' work, he also takes on socio-political topics, offering architecture as a means of fostering communication. Conceptual structures he called "meta-institutes," rendered as both drawings and sculptures, were designed to be spaces where institutions could continually revise and reform themselves. Not surprisingly, Woods believed that the aesthetics of built environments were inextricably linked to governmental structures and the ideologies that accompany them.
Fletcher explains that Woods thought the failure of previous revolutions were in part related to their architecture. The concept of "free spaces" is illustrated in both Underground Berlin and Aerial Paris, structures that offer new perspectives on the past, allowing their imagined inhabitants a place without agendas.
"He's creating spaces that are ideology-free," says Fletcher. "He's not promoting a certain revolutionary stance — they're not pro-democracy or anti-. It's about finding a space where one can discuss these things without the visual remnants of a certain prevailing authority."
Here his work recalls science fiction, exploring ideas through design: Aerial Paris is a concept for a suspended structure designed to run on static electricity, coupling the sheen of a space station with the bursting innards of an insect.
While Woods' creations abound with startling asymmetry, bastardized organic shapes, and re-appropriated familiar structures (like the box), he's not dystopian; his disconcerting built environments belie a profound optimism.
"San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake," a mixed media series commissioned by SFMOMA in 1995, is a manifestation of this, exploring the Bay's precarious position on a fault line. Doctored photographs of the serene blue bay are coupled with sharp lines of red piano wire and huge arching structures that look like a wood-plank tsunami or a rainbow, depending on your mood.
"There is this looming danger," says Fletcher. "And he thought we should build structures that recognize that, that can shift and move and not try to appear as though everything is secure at all times."
His vision for San Francisco was one that acknowledged human fragility in the face of natural calamity, but also our ability to counter it, to be resilient and willing to create despite destruction. Woods celebrated the transient and cyclical.
Fletcher says that Woods has been likened to a fiction writer; he is merely depicting reality in a particular way, creating a progressive vision and space we can strive to occupy.
"He believed in the strength of the individual."