The Tchoban Foundation in Berlin is currently exhibiting the extraordinary drawings of Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012). Rob Wilson went along to marvel at the works of a master paper architect.
Lebbeus Woods has long been celebrated for his spectacular drawings. Even during his lifetime he was fêted as a kind of latter day Piranesi for the imaginative power of his works and the quality of his draughtsmanship. So much so in fact, that whilst looking forward to seeing this exhibition, I was not expecting too many surprises: feeling I somehow knew its contents in advance: the same old same old mix of Heath Robinson-esque complexity and cyborg-like constructions.
On visiting though, I realised that I’d possibly never seen an original Lebbeus Woods drawing in real life: only in reproduction. For the actual works were full of surprises.
Despite all the wildly profiled constructions that are half medieval turret and half factory furnace, or buildings shape-shifting into machines, the drawings have an unexpected resolution and stillness to them: far less the free-form energetic sketches I’d imagined. Each is both a worked representation of an idea, of a world beyond, but also a work in and of itself: a master essay in drawing and technique – resolved indeed compositionally as a “picture”: emphasised by Woods’ surprising use of heavy borders to delineate and contain the picture plane: making some drawings look more like prints cut from a book.
Also the range of subject and reference is far wider than I’d previously associated with him, with the more familiar references of Mad Max meets Antonio Sant’Elia’s Industrial City or organic extrusions that recall Hermann Finsterlin’s work of the 1920s, mixing with strange images of mid-century mansion block façades encased in mountainsides (from his 4 Cities & Beyond series (1982)), reminiscent in feel of some weird background illustration to a Rupert Bear cartoon annual, or the stiff freize of figures in a drawing from the Region M (1984) series, which seems to draw compositionally on the paintings of Veronese.
The show, entitled Lebbeus Woods. ON-LINE, uses the curatorial conceit – not completely convincingly – of dividing up the works through Woods’ differing use of line: categorising these as: Sinuous Lines, Staccato Lines, Merged Lines, Ruptured Lines, Invisible Lines (with for instance Sinuous Lines defined as: as arcs, circles, squiggles, swags). Frankly, since each work contains such a range of mark-making that they could all fit in several of the categories: it is a fairly inexact science. But framing the show this way has the merit of making you look more closely and really appreciate the structure of the drawings.
For the range of techniques and mediums on display, even within this small exhibition, is extraordinary: from marker pen to felt-tip to ink to colour pencil to of course graphite pencil in all its variations of expression from muddy rendering to crisp outlines. And while the architectural forms that they delineate are expressive, it wasn’t so much the expressiveness of the lines that are interesting, but their surety. Seeing an arc of black felt-tip sweeping without a judder across centimetres of tracing paper is almost viscerally satisfying to see, as I recalled my own disasters at wonky freehand inking up of drawings as a student.
This emphasis in the exhibition on the drawing rather than the subject matter, is further underlined by the works being accompanied merely by titles and their materials: no background information on the projects depicted is given: despite many of the drawings coming from Woods’ most famous ongoing project sequences such as Geomagnetic Flying Machines (1988) and the Meta-Institute (1994–1995). While this is perhaps appropriate given the Tchoban is a museum of architectural drawing, in the absence of a catalogue, a crib sheet could have been made available for those less familiar with the background to his projects: as these drawings are the way that Woods practised architecture.
Woods, born in 1940, studied architecture but deliberately decided to turn his back on conventional practice, choosing to become a theoretical architect instead: not by writing about it but by drawing it: making paper architecture.
He co-founded the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture in 1988, and through his extensive teaching in the States and Europe – he had the post of Professor of Architecture at the Cooper Union in New York – but even more so through reproduction of his work, his influence has been huge on more than one generation of architecture students. And in practice, the hesitant lines and broken forms he depicted forshadowed, and perhaps even in part engendered, the full-blown deconstructivism of the late eighties and early nineties.
Woods did not see his projects as just abstract castles in the air, but in them drew on issues directly from the real world, and he saw architecture as deeply political: famously writing a manifesto that was read out in 1993 in Sarajevo during the seige: “Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms”. And in 1997 he published Radical Reconstruction, which focused on cities in crisis caused by war, economic embargo and natural disaster, including Sarajevo, Havana, San Francisco.
Certainly his drawings, do seem to be “at war with..all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms”, for despite often showing immense structures, they have a wonderfully non-authoritarian, provisional, even make-do-and-mend sensibility that contrasts with so much paper architetcure that draws on Classical imagery, such as that of Alexander Brodsky, which can at times get dangerously ponderous, even Albert Speer-like.
But ultimately Woods was more a poet than a rebel: going on in the same manifesto to disclaim: “I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky”.
Given this slightly purple prose, it was perhaps lucky Woods did in general stick to drawing and not writing. As the introduction to this exhibition states, Woods had a “singular language and conviction that drawings can say things that words cannot”. If you are in Berlin over the next month, go see what he’s saying.
– Rob Wilson
Lebbeus Woods. ON-LINE
Museum für Architekturzeichnung