Michael Najjar, Netropolis | Shanghai 2017, 2017, archival pigment print on aluminum Dibond, 70 7⁄8 × 118 1⁄8". From “The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism.”

Michael Najjar, Netropolis | Shanghai 2017, 2017, archival pigment print on aluminum Dibond, 70 7⁄8 × 118 1⁄8". From “The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism.”

“The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism”

Architecture exhibitions can feel like slapdash microcosms of urban sprawl, touting utopian optimism and making claims for innovative design’s miraculous capacity for transforming the ways in which we think about space and live our daily lives. Luckily, “The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism” was something else: a superb tribute to the visionary architect, educator, and artist Lebbeus Woods (1940–2012).

Woods had a politically and socially charged agenda, along with a somewhat pessimistic worldview. His architecture was based on crisis and conflict. “Architecture is war,” he once said. “War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms.” Woods’s practice was theoretical. He was a paper architect rather than a builder, realizing just a few actual projects during his lifetime, the most well known of which is the Light Pavilion in Chengdu, China. Commissioned by the architect Steven Holl for Holl’s Sliced Porosity Block, a massive multiuse commercial complex, and completed in 2012, Woods’s pavilion is nestled within the facade of the complex, challenging the tower-and-podium structure typical of shopping centers, megamalls, and public plazas, and at once suggesting stability and weightlessness. Architectural critic Anthony Morey has called it “a space understanding how to become a space. A space that is unsure as to which direction it shall cast a shadow.”With sloping panes of glass and dramatic labyrinths of suspended steel staircases, the Light Pavilion invites visitors through a tangled network of pathways with glowing multicolored columns leading to balconies overlooking the city. Its sole purpose is to give visitors a dynamic sensory experience within Holl’s structure.

This tribute exhibition brought together eleven artists and architects from around the world. Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of OPEN Architecture, a Beijing-based firm, presented models for their Chapel of Sound, an open-air amphitheater located north of the capital, near the Great Wall, composed of various acoustically intimate spaces; the massive edifice will be made from concrete, but will appear to be carved from monumental slabs of layered sedimentary rock. OPEN’s proposal for the Dune Art Museum—to be programmed and operated by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing—is a refreshing departure from the staid and conventional museum design. Also sited in northern China, along the sandy, windblown coast of Bohai Bay, the structure would begin to disappear or erode upon its completion, melding with its harsh environmental conditions to become a kind of buried or hidden structure.

Among the other standout works in “The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism” were Belgian artist Lore Vanelslande’s mandala-like ink-and-gouache drawings, whose delicate, concentric geometric precision reminds us of the power of sacred forms both past and present. The quasi-surreal and dark fairy-tale paintings by Berlin-based painter Maik Wolf were also an astute choice for this show. Wolf’s Eisenhaus Mental Seat of Grace 1, 2016, depicted a cobbled-together cabin in a desert-like setting. Its skewed, inverted, and aggressively pitched rooftops jut from multiple directions. Berlin-based Michael Najjar’s photograph f.a.s.t, 2017, was an elevated view of the world’s largest filled-in, single-dish radio telescope. Tucked into Pingtang Valley, in the mountainous region of Guizhou Province in southwest China, it measures more than sixteen hundred feet in diameter, like a massive concave geodesic dome. Besides studying gravitational waves, black holes, or other interstellar phenomena, its primary objective is to detect communication from alien life-forms. Woods would have loved this, I imagine, as he was commissioned to develop architectural set designs for sci-fi films such as Alien 3 (1992) and 12 Monkeys (1995), though these were never realized.

The spirit presiding over this exhibition was, of course, Woods himself, represented by many excellent drawings dating from the early 1980s to the mid-’90s, including the series of storyboard-like renderings for “Hudson Yards,” 1987. This was Woods’s dystopian response to Donald Trump and his multibillion-dollar redevelopment plan for the former industrial rail yards along Manhattan’s west side, a project that would further displace the city’s homeless. Woods called Trump’s project “a megalith of capitalism.”

Arthur Solway