Lebbeus Woods (1940–2012)

Lebbeus Woods and Christoph a. Kumpusch, Light Pavilion, 2012, Raffles City Complex in Chengdu, China, by Steven Holl Architects.

IT SEEMS DIFFICULT to understand the work of Lebbeus Woods without reference to the “Derrida moment” in architecture, which was marked by the rapid shift from postmodernist to deconstructivist design in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” inaugurated a specific roster of celebrity architects—Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and others—that has scarcely changed in almost twenty-five years. These figures quickly became mainstays in the field, even if they design a miniscule fraction of what actually gets built. They represent a kind of theory-soaked design discourse that the more meat-and-potatoes wing of the architectural profession dismisses as “talk-itecture.”

Woods wasn’t in that landmark exhibition; he hadn’t yet made a name for himself. But in the years since he has perhaps done more than anyone to carry forward the experimental spirit inaugurated by the show, becoming not only a constant presence in the field but a provocation to its establishment, prodding and daring architecture to realize the elemental destabilizations wrought by poststructuralism. Complex, chaotic, sometimes violent, and relentlessly avant-garde, Woods’s drawings and installations explode with a kind of cosmic beauty. Shards of glass and steel morph and recombine into metallic animal-machines that walk high above cities. Buildings tear and bleed, only to grow scabs and heal into new form.

Annihilation was at the root of his special beauty: Woods recognized that we live in the age of annihilation, on a planet rocked by endless warfare, social disintegration, urban upheaval, and climate catastrophe. Woods was a classic progressive in this sense. He wanted his work to matter in places like war-torn Sarajevo or Berlin after the GDR. He was a conscience to many, particularly within the architectural profession, where budget constraints and client demands generally triumph over avant-garde militancy. Even if they didn’t seek to emulate him, many architects were glad that Woods existed, like a kind of sacrificial offering to the gods of unwavering principle.

Why don’t you build anything? Are your designs unbuildable? Again and again these questions came from naïve journalists and curious fans. No, Woods would answer, on the contrary, they are not unbuildable enough!

Then, finally, at the end of his life he built something: a collaboration with Christoph a. Kumpusch called the Light Pavilion. Located fifty-four feet above ground level, the pavilion is a wild thicket of glowing beams grafted into the exposed flank of a large hotel and office complex designed by Steven Holl in Chengdu. The Light Pavilion is “an experimental space,” Woods wrote in the months before his death. “Whether it will be a pleasant or unpleasant experience; exciting or dull; uplifting or merely frightening; inspiring or depressing; worthwhile or a waste of time, is not determined in advance by the fulfillment of our familiar expectations, because we can have none, never having encountered such a space before.”

Alexander R. Galloway teaches media theory at New York University.