4.12 / Review

Lebbeus Woods, Architect

By Alex Bigman March 25, 2013

Lebbeus Woods, Architect, the title of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) exhibition, belies its central question: where do the limits of architecture end and those of art begin? This question relates directly to Woods’s multifaceted and unusual practice. While Woods studied and later taught architecture, he never received a degree in the subject or a license to practice it professionally. Moreover, he almost never meant for his drafted structures—physically complex and improbable as they were—to actually be built. Rather, his science-fiction-like constructions intended to baffle existing conventions of usefulness and habitability. For this reason, discussions of Woods’s work tend to use terms like theoretical or experimental to describe his unique practice.

Despite SFMOMA’s titular suggestion that Woods is, above all, an architect, the exhibition repeatedly emphasizes the theoretical, artistic, even intangible nature of Woods’s work. The first gallery contains a number of Woods’s homages to theoretical physics. A City (1988), for example, is an urban system inspired by physics and advances in engineering technology rather than history, culture, or language. Einstein Tomb (1980), is a monument to the physicist consisting of a vessel to be launched into the depths of space, orbiting on a beam of light. These sketches are rendered in beautiful crosshatching or atop cloudy expanses. Paired with them is a quote by Woods that betrays a distinctly painterly attitude: “Forms are, for me, less important than the light they reveal. This proves, I suppose, that I am not a tactile person, but a visual one. What I see moves me more deeply than what I touch.”

As for Light Pavilion (2011), Woods’s only built work, the museum downplays its real-world existence, including only a small, medium-range photograph showing the work’s realized form, which consists of a lattice of crisscrossing stairwells, bridges, and ramps within a cubic void carved out of the Raffles City Center building in Chengdu, China. Though Light Pavilion is Woods’s only realized architectural work, the photo’s wall text still makes the point of referring to the building as sculptural. By this point in the exhibition, a viewer longs to know what it would be like to enter one of Woods’s beguilingly alien spaces. But the exhibition does not abide this desire at the one point it might have been able to do so by including, for example, a large interior photograph of Light Pavilion. Instead, it directs one back to the building’s miniature model in a central vitrine.

Lebbeus Woods. Photon Kite, from the series Centricity, 1988; graphite on paper; 24 x 22 inches. Collection of SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of the Members of the Architecture + Design Forum, SFMOMA Architecture and Design Accessions Committee, and the architecture and design community in honor of Aaron Betsky, Curator of Architecture, Design and Digital Projects, 1995–2001; © Estate of Lebbeus Woods.
Lebbeus Woods. Conflict Space 4, 2006; crayon and acrylic on linen; 74 x 120 inches. Collection of SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of anonymous donors and the Accessions Committee Fund; © Estate of Lebbeus Woods.

The wall texts and artist quotes placed throughout the exhibition prompt the viewer to consider Woods’s works as models, in the sense that they conjure potential worlds with social, political, and ecological systems running contrary to our existing ones. It is no coincidence that Woods’s architectural proposals tend to take place in socio-politically transitional places, like late-1980s Berlin or Havana, or naturally unsettled ones, like San Francisco above the San Andreas Fault. Placed at these junctures, his forms assume catalytic and sometimes downright aggressive characteristics. The itinerant, War of the Worlds–like structures positioned along the streets of Zagreb, Croatia, as part of Zagreb Free Zone (1991), for example, are intended to serve as sanctuaries and communication hubs for the city’s outcast individuals and thinkers. The structures of The San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake (1995) are not built to resist tectonic shifts but rather to thrive on or even to cause them. “Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules,” Woods has said.1

Insofar as we are to take Woods’s models as tools for renewing one’s perception of the world, there seems to be little separation between Woods’s works and the fine art that hangs elsewhere in SFMOMA. Piet Mondrian’s grids prompt us to imagine statically democratic utopias in more or less the same way Woods’s sketches prompt us to imagine perpetually revolutionary ones. In fact, there is one Woods work, Conflict Space (2006), a crayon and acrylic on linen piece consisting of purely abstract intersecting lines, meant to evoke direction and movement and activate its actual architectural surroundings, which is decidedly not architecture in any conventional sense. And yet the similarity of this work to the other models in the exhibition is far more apparent than its difference from them.

Perhaps the important question is not whether Woods more belongs to art or architecture but which discourse needs him more. In a 2008 profile on Woods, the New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff portrays his subject as a loner: the last to remain faithfully committed to truly transgressive “theoretical architecture” at a time when his peers were capitulating to the market’s sudden demand for “out-there” but relatively tame architectural designs, which by the early ’90s had acquired a new cultural premium.2 Unfortunately for the world of architecture (if Mr. Ouroussoff’s assessment is correct), Woods passed away in 2012, and it may be that the thoroughly corporatized world of architecture needs Woods’s voice more than ever.

Lebbeus Woods, Architect arrives at critical time, then, and a perfectly appropriate one, as SFMOMA prepares for its own architectural transformation. Charged with this responsibility of honoring Woods’s unique approach, the museum has attempted a difficult maneuver: presenting Woods as an architect but suggesting that he was really more of an artist. The contradictions that this approach produces may be confusing for someone trying to place the work of this visual thinker for the first time, but they also raise a lot of interesting questions, unsettling the institutionally codified categories of art and architecture in a way that may prove productive. Woods’s works call for more fluidity between categories, and he is certainly not the only one whose works transcend the logic of the departmental structure of this and other museums. As SFMOMA transforms itself over the next few years, practices like Woods’s provide something to consider in the very way that the museum defines itself and the ever-evolving work that it displays.


Lebbeus Woods, Architect is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 2, 2013. 


  1. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World,” New York Times, August 24, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/arts/design/25wood.html?pagewanted=all.
  2. Ibid.

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