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01.24.2013
Comment> Sanford Kwinter on Lebbeus Woods
In advance of an SFMOMA retrospective, the Harvard theoretician parses Woods' contributions.
San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake (1995).
Lebbeus Woods

Steven Holl, a longtime friend of Lebbeus Woods’ and close co-conspirator in the post-’68 design world (when every project that did not reinvent the future was, perforce, left to wither in ruins), recently paid tribute to Woods’ passing. Holl’s poignant gesture involved the offer of a cosmic burial in the same space-time tomb that Woods himself once proposed for the inventor of relativity.

Among the crowd of a thousand or so listeners, there was surely little doubt that Woods would have embraced the irony of the proposed substitution: He was, after all, one who embraced fate itself. Woods’ project was, throughout and to the end—so why not also in the beyond?—one of great courage and risk.

The project did not create immediate or universal understanding. As an outsider myself to architecture in the 1970s, I did not at first recognize the heroism of Woods’ project—the heroism required of a practitioner who seeks to build a route and pathway to the outside, to fashion his or her own exile (as did James Joyce) from one’s home and culture in order to be able to create in an unfettered, spontaneous, and uncompromising manner.

Joyce was preeminent among my own boyhood heroes, so I well understand how Lebbeus came to play this role for so many in the field. In time I came profoundly to appreciate Lebbeus’ remarkable offering to the architectural imagination. As Nietzsche had taught: “Build your house on the side of a volcano.”—a battle cry to commit to existence—to an insecurity that cannot fail to drive an infinitely creative life.

   
Left to right: Unified Urban Field (1987); Photon Kite (1988); Concentric Field (1987).
 

Young, resistant, and perhaps ambitious producers of culture have recited this phrase, yet few—perhaps none—ever found the courage to make it real. Lebbeus did. And for that, he inspired moments of terror and also served as a beacon.

As Nietzsche suggested, no home should survive the volcanoes that shake it, and Lebbeus maintained a deep attraction for the counterforces that endlessly make and remake architecture. In a text, he once wrote: “I know only moments.” Therein perhaps lies the essence of his Nietzscheanism. For he recognized only the reality of transition, of passage, of crisis, and of the awkward, brilliant moments of sublime opportunity that these, and only these moments, presented. Lebbeus loved the flesh, the senses, the hybridized; he loved how history changed things, and how every change offered an opportunity for improvisation and a release for the imagination.

To take two of his most famous proclamations of resistance—Resist the idea that architecture is a building and Resist the temptation to talk fast: These are incitements to us to move in uncommon directions, and they bring us again to his foundationally Nietzschean manner, to his love, and forceful commitment to the “Untimely”—to the positions, the ethics, and the physical forms that are well outside of one’s own time, yet serve as seeds and placeholders for another time yet to come.

This is what constituted Lebbeus’s public pact with an architecture of homelessness, an architecture coincident and coextensive with life itself. Lebbeus made of architecture a preoccupation, a framework for speculation, and a mode of thought unafraid of any darkness. He kept the idea of experimentation alive when much of the rest of the field collapsed into shameless expediencies. All that he did, said, or wrote, every ounce of work, was directed toward imagining and constructing a worldly city (for the un-repatriatable exiles?), and through this imagined city...a soul.

Sanford Kwinter

Sanford Kwinter is a professor of architectural theory and criticism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.


Lebbeus Woods. Architect will be on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from February 16 to June 2, 2013.