The hole that is left in one’s life by the passing of Lebbeus Woods is a giant one, indeed a composite of many holes.
There is the absence of the reassuring, meaningful, and deep, gravelly voice. The cessation of the flow of extraordinary pieces, often drawn and sometimes made. The removal of a generous and worrisome persona, who often left one feeling as if one’s motives were a bit too indulgent, one’s actions a bit too lightweight, one’s territory a bit too comfortable and certainly too prissy and Northern European.
Leb was one of the last of that tribe of individuals (Cedric Price was another) who lived life according to their own standards: with indefensible indulgencies, unexplainable inconsistencies of habit or value, excesses galore, and then—suddenly—acts of generosity and even piety that leave you breathless.
It was Zaha Hadid who, sometime in the 1980s, introduced Leb to the AA in London, having met him through their mutual friend, Steven Holl. Indeed, it was Leb’s issue of Holl’s Pamphlet Architecture that exposed him—an already mature but unknown visionary—to the architectural world. Somehow, he had come to New York from the Midwest, had worked as an architect on Roche-Dinkeloo’s Ford Foundation building, and later found a living making perspective renderings for Kohn Pedersen Fox.
I myself first experienced Leb’s AA lecture after years of hearing lectures by the most significant, the bright, and the meaningful minds of architecture; and it woke me up. I leapt to my feet like a fan, and became a fan. As did an increasing tribe of Europeans: Kristin Feireiss in Berlin; Svein Tonsager in Aarhus, Denmark; Wolf Prix in Vienna. We all contrived—particularly through the 1990s—to send him on a circuit through our schools.
Everywhere he went, he offered a magical combination of vision, technique, and personal presence that captivated audiences. His proposal Cities in the Sky, for those curious and almost “Edwardian” vehicles that were somehow more characterful than machine-true visions, developed and became, over the years, combinations of the jagged, the thrusting, and the cellular, drawn with such confidence and deftness that they truly seemed to be on the move. The drama and violence of confrontation developed as he became more involved in the eastern end of Europe: with Berlin and then Sarajevo—where he would visit the parents of his new wife Aleksandra at their home, which was under bombardment.
Imagine Woods, dressed comfortably in New York businessman’s attire (never a jeans-and-open-shirt man), pulling on a good-quality cigarette (he was never one to heed a health warning), inquiring for the best champagne (I never once saw him with inferior bubbly). Then picture this man, crouched behind a bullet-shielding wall in Bosnia, or taking very seriously a post-lecture question from a badly-briefed student. Woods complained very little if the projector was wonky, or the hall draughty, for he was the real pro. Often requiring the top of the top-whack fee (cash in an envelope, please), and a no-rubbish meal, he irritated the academic bean counters but left audiences wanting more, wanting him back—and telling their friends about the experience.
Even if many young architects couldn’t spell his mysterious name, his drawings became legendary, and not just in the first-run cities. I was not really surprised to find a line of five different Lebbeus Woods books in a rather ordinary bookstore in a rather ordinary mall in Tel Aviv. Somehow, his ability to draw things that showed substance and patina, and presented combinations of the normal with the extraordinary, gave the messages behind his work so much power and universal appeal.
As international recognition came to him (though never much from the manipulators of East Coast architectural taste), he dropped out of the illustrator’s game and started to teach. And what a teacher he was! With no tolerance for the smart-ass or the amicably trendy student, he nevertheless taught by combining home truths with incredibly straightforward advice. He was, in some respects, always the Midwesterner with the down-home logic lurking under the New Yorker sense of style. This generosity developed with his invention of “RIEA”—the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture—which sponsored new talent and hosted a series of books with the publisher Springer-Verlag.
His last period was characterized by his successful move beyond drawing: notably into installations, at the Cartier Centre in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Vienna, which featured cascades of lines recalling his drawings of that time—non-figurative but highly dynamic. Thus, you were able to walk into his drawings. In other exhibitions, meanwhile, there were three-dimensional objects that had developed from his flying vehicles. Recently, he spent more and more time writing and exchanging ideas through his blog while at the same time continuing to teach, though confined to a wheelchair. Indeed, the support of Anthony Vidler, dean of Cooper Union, was critical, to Leb’s final creations, which though less graphically based, were nonetheless creative and positive and sprang from the same honest power that always characterized this extraordinary man.