Mark Lamster | Essays

Underground Architects


"Who's your favorite architect?" I get that question a lot, but don't enjoy answering it. I admire many architects and for different reasons, so choosing seems reductive. A quick response, which is usually the expectation, sounds potted and inadequate, and now that everyone on the planet has an opinion about architecture —which is not altogether bad — you often end up with an argument you'd rather not have. Name anyone too obscure and you're in danger of coming off like a pompous snob. Well, whatever — I'm guilty of that. When asked I generally respond with two names unfamiliar to the uninitiated (though I wish they were not): Sasha Brodsky and Lebbeus Woods. Together they're responsible for only a handful of standing buildings--though the catalog is growing. Their reputations, instead, rest on paper projects that catalog the traumas imposed on the individual and the urban landscape. Brodsky's work is wry and wistful; Woods's is more dystopic. Over on his website, Woods has released a film treatment Underground Berlin that seems a distillation of his design philosophy into narrative form (The image above is taken from it). Imagine Chris Marker's La Jetee crossed with Dr. Strangelove and Metropolis. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Also, you might be interested in a short bio of Woods I wrote a few years ago; It follows after the jump.

In an era of computer-aided design, Lebbeus Woods is a throwback, the last of the great paper architects. Like Piranesi and Boulle before him, his reputation rests not on built work, but on fantasy landscapes created with pen and ink. “My interests have never been in building,” says Woods, “but in expressing ideas in terms of architecture.” Convulsive, dense, and sometimes inscrutable, Woods’s visions of a post-apocalyptic future have elevated him to near mythic status in the design world. The cinematic environments of the films Aliens 3 and 12 Monkeys are products of his imagination. At 6 feet 4 inches, with an abraded basso profundo that hints at a lifetime of late nights and cigarettes, Woods is an imposing presence. Trained as an architect at the University of Illinois, he began his career working on the design of the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York. But the satisfactions of a commercial practice were never adequate for Woods, who turned to experimental architecture in the 1970s, financing his habit by moonlighting as a delineator for New York’s blue-chip architectural firms, who counted on his presentation drawings to make clients swoon. Projects completed under his own name, meanwhile, drew attention to the ravages of war and urban decay, and secured Woods’s reputation as the political conscience of the architectural avant-garde. In 1988, he co-founded the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture (RIEA) as a forum for progressive thinking and action in design. “Building buildings requires money, and the sources of that money have vested interests. They have political agendas. People who are out of that big-money game don’t have the resources to build buildings,” says Woods. “I want to address problems that clients are not commissioning architects to address.” With his books Anarchitecture (1992), War and Architecture (1993), and Radical Reconstruction (1997) Woods offered profound meditations on both violence and the redemptive power of design — subjects illuminated by his own history. Woods’s father, an Air Force colonel who participated in the Manhattan Project and was present at the atomic testing on Bikini Atoll in 1948, died of a rare form of leukemia in 1953, when Woods was just thirteen years old. Woods is convinced the cause was radiation poisoning, and notes that his father’s military record shows his death to be a result of service, though he never saw combat. Writing in response to the 1993 shelling of Sarajevo, Woods admonished that “only by facing the insanity of willful destruction can reason begin to believe again in itself.” Nearly a decade later, his words seem no less relevant.

Posted in: Architecture, Media

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