On Lebbeus Woods and Architecture

In an article in yesterday's New York Times, Nicolai Ouroursoff paid homage to Lebbeus Woods. Ouroussof suggests that "Architecture is big business today. … But that he now stands virtually alone underscores a disturbing shift in the architectural profession during the past decade or so. By abandoning fantasy for the more pragmatic aspects of building, the profession has lost some of its capacity for self-criticism, not to mention one of its most valuable imaginative tools."

Has the profession (and increasingly architecture is a profession not a discipline, incapable of a critical or even intelligent discourse) produced any architecture of value in the last decade? Not much. I can think of Casa da Musica, which is a great building, and perhaps the Seattle Public Library, which is a good building, but OMA's well has run dry. I don't think much of the firm's embrace of authoritarianism or the revamp of Eisenman's Max Reinhardt Haus for CCTV. Rem's last good essay, "Junkspace," was written before 9/11. Does he really have nothing to say? Herzog and de Meuron haven't offered anything of merit since the 1990s. Other firms fair worse. Gehry, which epitomizes the boom, has been a free-fall disaster. Like puppies distracted by biscuits, architects have been so eager to build that they have unable to see the flames engulfing them. Who among them would write a critique of the next hot place, Ordos, like Woods did here?

Yesterday I was cleaning out my library and purged the office of monographs recording work done in the last decade. I only wondered why I didn't exile them to the basement earlier. There is nothing in them that can hold a candle to anything Woods produced, nothing in them as interesting even as Eisenman's recent Ten Canonical Buildings.      

The boom has not only produced almost no good buildings, by distracting architects from the proper task of developing the discipline, it has set our task back by over two decades. There is almost no speculative work worth mentioning, almost no serious research going on in a field that begs to be rejuvenated. A few people, generally at the intersection of architecture and media, do interesting work. But they don't get the attention they deserve and are constantly tempted by industry money. The architects I respect the most today work outside of the traditional field. They make exhibitions, set designs, graphics, program computers, and make maps but they tend to be abandoning a dying field rather than applying the defibrillation it needs. The boom has undone architecture. There are no new ideas and architecture is hurting.

Ourousoff invokes Archigram and Superstudio as predecents for Lebbeus, as "stinging attacks on a professional mainstream that avant-garde architects believed lacked imaginative energy." Whether we blame the dissoluting effects of network culture on personality or the abuse a generation suffered at the hands of the baby boomers, this kind of attack is absent today.*

Architects make little of our built environment. If they disappeared tomorrow nobody would notice. To survive, the discipline may yet abandon making buildings and do something entirely different. I don't see why architects are afraid of this. If you read Vitruvius, you find that architects used to make catapults and war machines. Few architects seem to spend their time lamenting the loss of that aspect of the profession.

At AUDC, we have long been inspired by the example set by architects like Woods, Superstudio, and Archizoom. Architecture, in their hands, doesn't give up. If this post sounds pessimistic, it's only about the future of part of the field I abandoned almost twenty years ago to the day. On the contrary, now that Robert Sumrell, my partner in AUDC, has moved to New York, we are back at work. It would be nice to find more fellow travelers in the journey, but for that, I'm afraid, like Woods, we'll have to wait. In the meantime, we've spent the summer hard at work, plotting and scheming. 

* A note of caution here: Archigram and Supertsudio are often mentioned in the same breath. These groups are radically different. Archigram would have been happy to build. They were merely out of their era. If Cook was 40 today, he would be a leader in the boom, indeed he has been happy to be regarded as an inspiration for that crowd and has spoken out vehemently—and wrongly—against the impact of theory on the profession. Superstudio and Archizoom, on the other hand, thought of architecture in an entirely different way. Architecture, for them, was a means of critiquing society, not merely a way of making cool things. The rifts at the time were real. To overlook the differences between these groups is a mistake.



[...] Without Woods’s exploration of the possibilities for spaces and constructions to be challenges to hegemony or previous societal ills, I would not have discovered architectural or critical theory - subjects that will forever challenge me to explore and continue learning. I would not have discovered the theoretical polemicists who proceeded him - Superstudio, Archizoom, Archigram, and most importantly (and not coincidentally, his primary influence) the Situationist International. This article - which uses Mr. Woods as an example of how we have lost our way as a profession due to the influx of capital in the latest boom is pollyannish, because… uhh… Nick, that’s what happens in a boom… People are too busy doing to reflect… But additionally, it’s inspirational and challenging - as is this commentary by Kazys Varnelis. [...]