Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here
It's always a little risky meeting one of your heroes. It can be cruelly disappointing. However, this was as far away from that as you can get. Lebbeus Woods was incredibly generous with his time, his attitude and his intellect, and he effortlessly won us all over. Not that he had anything to prove – Woods is one of the most important conceptual architects and theorists of his time, and we were truly honoured to have him at Postopolis!.
The Storefront was packed by the time we sat down with Woods for our 'conversation'. We hadn't prepared anything as such, so Woods had no idea what questions we would ask, and despite a quick 'pre-game huddle' beforehand, we didn't really know what questions each other would be asking. Again, the instinctive informality of Postopolis! served us well though, as the conversation flowed relatively easily.
Geoff starts by asking about the constant theme of post-Earth landscapes and instability in his work. Woods replies with a grin –"I suppose that my life has been unstable!" – instantly settling any nerves. He says he was a "military brat" as a kid, always moving, and the autobiography figures into these things, one way or the other. He's also seen a lot of history: "There is a basic instability that we have to deal with in our culture. The earthquake and the war are the most obvious manifestations of it." (Indeed, Woods has often worked directly and proactively in areas that have suffered some kind of recent trauma e.g. Zagreb, Sarajevo, Havana, Loma Prieta earthquake, and now I hear New Orleans.)
Bryan asks about the political nature of architecture, as seen from a wide historical perspective of the Roman Empire and frontier architecture through to homeland security, borders, gated communities, etc. Essentially, Woods replies, architecture as we normally think of it as a profession and a practice is really "not very far from the Roman Empire". They're still building monumental buildings, which "are bowdlerising the hierarchy of power and authority in society". Even when it's a museum it's really about "the elite's ability to gather works of art". No more than that. He thinks that the work on gated communities and the like are part of a "defensive posture" that architects are forced into, inevitably securing enclaves of power and wealth. They're really doing no more than making it look good.
Woods wants some other possibility for architecture, and the reason he's here today is that blogs seem to have some sense of that, in that the internet is a place for "some other view of architecture to emerge". (This is fascinating, encouraging, and generous. I hope that a function of this kind of work, and these events, is in terms of approaching architecture from different angles, from the periphery.)
I asked about the role of architecture from a craft perspective, based on some of the conversations at Postopolis!, where we'd seen the notion of the master builder dissipating. I'd read about some recent work in projects in Vienna and Paris, centred more on creating a set of guidelines and rules for constructing things rather than specifiying the details of the implementation, which are carried out and configured on site. Does this enable an architecture which can thrive and use the conditions inherent in instability? Woods confirmed that was the idea. If there's to be another movement, "another direction in architecture". It has to engage and involve in some way; it has to "interactively involve them other than as spectators". Otherwise this is completely the society of spectacle. It has to engage them as creators.
Woods recalls living through the 60s, when numerous projects attempted to "empower people in lower economic class communities" via an approach known as "design advocacy". The architect became the advocate of the people and the community; they facilitated meetings with people in communities; provided space, tracing paper and pens and so on. Woods thinks this was a noble effort but also a total failure, as people just couldn't think in terms of designing - they weren't educated for that, they weren't prepared for that. So nothing much ever came of it. So it didn't come out as a real movement in architecture ...
So he thinks, yes, you have to engage people, but fundamentally you have give them the tools to work with, the rules of the game – "If you play poker, you have to know the rules of poker! You can't just throw cards around" – then some basic techniques. How you do things, not what you do. Then show some examples - "It could look like this. Or it could look like that, if you follow these rules ... This way, you're giving people a leg up." Some of his projects of the last 4 or 5 years, although it reaches back to work in Sarajevo in the '90s, is conducting these kind of practise, although he modestly wonders whether it will be any better than the design advocacy of 60s. It hasn't "got the momentum yet", he says. But the important factor is that people have choose to do it - he doesn't believe that it's something to be imposed from the top down - people have to want to do it. (This is all fascinating to me, given my interest in adaptive design, systems design etc., and particularly how you put creative power into the hands of people who aren't architects or designers.)
Developing this perhaps, Geoff notes how Woods' work often captures the imagination of those outside of architecture. Woods replies that "the irony is that he has always addressed my work to architects." Yet if it's ironic that others would pick it up, he's thrilled that they do, particularly if "architects are asleep" as he half-jokingly puts it. He does want to influence architects, though, as they have an important responsibility to society. He notes that he's approached architecture philosophically, drawing from ethics, cybernetics (from late '50s, early 60s), and so on, and this emphasis on the philosophical and visual side of communicating architecture may have enabled some of this transference to other disciplines or another form of discourse.
Picking up on the visual communication side, Bryan mentions that one of his favourite examples of Woods' work is in Michael Sorkin's book 'Against the Wall: Israel's Barrier to Peace', and actually was a game, rather than a drawing. Woods is clearly pleased that the subject of the 'border wall game' came up, and tells how, instead of creating a building or some other construction project, they created a metaphor for simultaneously keeping the structure in place and tearing it down. He felt that anything he did was going to endorse the wall, unless he could find a different way of approaching it. So he took on the idea of bringing the wall down creatively, in a creative act, using the idea of a game (deploying rules again, interestingly). He seems to enjoy the idea of using games in this context, noting "We all know it's just a game ... a very serious game."
I mention his extraordinary drawings, which are both detailed and impressionistic, therefore having a certain open-endedness that reinforces his earlier points, perhaps. I ask whether he's approached work with any other media, that might either engage a wider sensory range – beyond visual stimulation and communication, say into soundworks or communicate via the other senses – or has thought of working in film, say. He says that other than some installations, it's "not my thing, I haven't been there yet." (I like the subtle way Woods implies he's still learning, developing here.) In terms of film, he mentions an engagement with the film 'Alien 3' in 1993, which he worked on for a few weeks. However, he laughs, "you don't want to be designer working in movie industry!" You're the lowest of the low, apparently. He finds it amusing that architects complain that clients don't understand their work; they should try working with studio execs. Tantalisingly, he mentions he does have a fantasy of making a big budget Hollywood movie. He actually wrote a screenplay a while back, based on his underground Berlin project. He diligently read the Syd Field book. But he thinks that it would be too frustrating. In Hollywood, he says, you don't produce a product, it's always about the process. But he finds it an intriguing media.
He says "The drawings are about ideas ultimately. They're not about drawing." So he uses drawing to find an idea. "If you could use the movie in the same way - it would be incredible". And he know movies have been used in this way – it's clearly a medium he respects and admires, when done well – but he ends by saying that are by and large formulaic. (I suspect he's looking for a malleability and complexity to communicate his work that the economics of movie making just impinge upon (currently). His work to me often suggests film, as powerful as they are drawings. But I love this point about trying to search for ideas through the act of drawing – it's why, in my own small way, I occasionally scribble here on City of Sound, as well as write. I think blogs could do more to communicate through drawing.)
In terms of where his inspiration comes from, in response to a query from Geoff about this and his approach education, Woods says he can't honestly say where inspiration comes from, directly. He settles on reading as a major influence – "Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre" – and then art, such as "plenty of Brueghel, Goya and Picasso" ... "Everything visual stimulates me", though some media less than others, he notes with a wry grin. But ultimately, "texts have a profound influence on the way I think".
In terms of education, he's taught at Cooper Union where he's been given real latitude. He makes a point of saying that he works with students as he would with any other people – "Students are just people, aren't they?!". He almost hates the term student. The most important thing is to set out to question, lay down some rules, develop modes of answering the question. The most important thing a teacher does is ask the right question. (He also runs the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture).
Bryan asks what Woods is working on today. Woods replies obliquely, beginning by outlining his approach to work. He's always worked alone, more or less. Never really had an office. He has collaborators, from time to time. Basically he sits down, spends a lot of time thinking, not necessarily doing anything, I read, I draw. "I've recently done some very large drawings". "The ideas that interest me now", he says, "are always around the artificial landscape, architecture being a method of reforming the earth's surface ... we're re-forming nature ... making a new earth. I used to call it "Terra Nova in my latinate years!"
He hasn't worked on any building-like structures as such, recently. The work in Vienna was Investigating architecture as energy - trying to look at architecture and making of space that way. "Socially", he says, "we all have to deal with the question of slums". References the Mike Davis book, and the importance of studying, and working with, favelas. It's something he's turning some of his attention to. He says "it's a little preliminary to say (what he's doing) but if we can do anything from the outside for those on the inside, it's going to be to empower them somehow, to transform the slum from the inside. It can't be us airlifting in ready-made solutions ..."
Again, this reinvigoration of, and reconfiguration of, design advocacy. Fascinating. He says he'll contact us first when these projects emerge, leading to his closing point. He says that he very much believes in books – he publishes books – but of architecture blogs and the internet, he says "I think what what you people are doing is so incredibly creative, that's why I'm here tonight." And with that, we close.
So many thanks to Lebbeus Woods for sharing his skill, experience and insight. He was a naturally witty, wise speaker – a genuine communicator, in an entirely off-the-cuff way; friendly, and extremely patient with our informal approach. Ultimately, a real inspiration as a theorist, educator and practitioner. He binds these three elements together so well, such that each informs the others, and then deploys these ideas in war zones and disaster-stricken cities. As highly regarded as his work is, it makes you think he deserves more credit still. Despite constantly challenging architecture to reinvent itself for contemporary conditions, there's clearly a love and value for what the practice and the profession should be. Despite this, he's rarely described as an architect and is, to a certain extent, marginalised by an architectural community in thrall to starchitects. Yet in terms of reconfiguring what architecture is, is there a more important architect working today?
Bryan's done a fantastic transcript of the talk over at Subtopia, and here's an excerpt of the conversation with Lebbeus Woods:
NB. Image of Woods' work are taken from an excellent review of a Lebbeus Woods lecture at Life Without Buildings.. Hope that's OK. The image of his early work is taken from one of Geoff's posts.