Lebbeus Woods, Architect at SFMOMA

San Francisco

19 February 2013

SFMOMA’s show Lebbeus Woods, Architect displays the work of a theoretical architect whose prolific output was politically charged, yet only included one built work.

Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012) was an architect and and a professor at Cooper Union in New York City. Over the course of a thirty year architectural career he explored a variety of topics in his models and drawings that approached space through hand-drawn and modeled architectural propositions that questioned materiality, habitability and physics. He was responsible for a vast body of work yet only one of his projects was constructed, an experiential space titled “Light Pavilion” (2012) inside a Steven Holl building in China. This show presents a sampling of various bodies of work done since the 1980s, drawing heavily from SFMoMA’s own collection.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Joseph Becker of the museum's architecture and design department organized this exhibition as the department’s final show prior to the SFMoMA’s multi-year closure as the building is expanded. Becker describes the holdings of Lebbeus Woods’ work to be the “backbone of the museum’s experimental architecture collection” and approximately a third of the pieces in the show comes from this collection, with the rest on loan from public and private collections. Initially, the exhibit was to be in collaboration with Woods himself, and he planned to create an installation in part of the gallery. Sadly, he died in October 2012 in the midst of the planning process.

Mounting a show of theoretical architecture that is accessible to the general public is a challenge, but in this case Lebbeus Woods’ drawings are engaging enough in their own right to draw in museum visitors who may have little or no architectural background. The entry to the gallery features a grid of framed drawings from the Centricity series that explore what a city would look like it if it were completely freed of rules, resulting in floating sci-fi structures that resemble buildings but give only a few clues as to how they could be inhabited.

The show is arranged thematically, with individual bodies of work clustered tightly on the gallery walls in black frames. In the first gallery, the project Einstein Tomb is hung across from A City. The tomb project is the earliest piece in the show dating from the early 1980s, and consists of a series of drawings for an infinite memorial to the titular scientist rendered in a style reminiscent of woodblock prints. The companion piece is more traditionally architectural, and includes line drawings that resemble plans and sections of a fantastical future city that examines the relationship between technology and life. In the same room a Woods quote on the wall begins “I dearly love the form of things...” which gives it all away. Whether examining the destructive power of war or thinking about a memorial, everything Woods did was explored through form and the spaces created by it. This is what forces us to call Woods an architect, even if his major project was not creating buildings.

The largest room in the gallery has drawings grouped from individual series around the perimeter, with delicate architectural models and tables with sketches arranged in the center. The layout successfully allows visitors to see the connections betweens Woods’ various series of work as he addresses issues such as war in Sarajevo, political division in Korea and the potentially devastating power of nature in California. One of the most engaging parts of the exhibition is the small back room where the series titled Inhabiting the Quake is displayed. Commissioned by SFMoMA in 1995, the piece makes a series of propositions via collage for structures that could become active participants in the next San Francisco earthquake. The intimate scale of the space invites viewers to get close enough to appreciate Woods’ stunning draughtsmanship.

Yet the scarce amount of interpretive material on display is disappointing. It is important to let the works speak for themselves, but an expanded context and more of Woods’ own written output would have enhanced the visitor experience and helped museum-goers understand more about the man behind the work. That being said, there is very little not to like about Lebbeus Woods, Architect and the pieces in it. Many contemporary formalist architects would be well-served by looking at Woods’ work as a way of using form to critique the systems that surround us instead of embracing the status quo.