Lebbeus Woods: Defiance, Unknowing, and Co-Creation

“Architecture and war are inseparable. 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.

I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no “sacred and primordial site.”

I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful forms.

I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and moments that are as lifetimes, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then “melt into air.”

I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, the silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know your name. Nor can you know mine.

Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.”

Last weekend, I spent more time in the beautiful city of San Francisco than I did at home in Danville. I slept there on Friday and Saturday, and ate all but one of my weekend meals in the city. As the year has pressed on, more and more of my friends have saved up enough to move into the city, so I’m never lacking for people to visit or, God forbid, things to do (insert busy San Franciscan joke here). The point really is that, for a bit, the city was on my mind–not just this city particularly, but the idea of a city.

My thoughts were in large part sparked by an exhibition of work by the experimental architect Lebbeus Woods. SFMOMA is closing for renovation, and finished out their time in the old building by holding a free weekend that culminated in a 24-hour celebration extravaganza. One wing of the second floor was currently dedicated to the work of Woods, whose influence stretches far beyond the two or three buildings built to his credit; take one look at his hallucinatory sketches and you’ll understand why. He draws forms that are buildings in theory only, somehow figuring out a way to make right angles seem organic; in the above form, I’m reminded of a wolverine with its hair on end, or perhaps a beaked eagle. In creepier moments it’s easy to call his work insect-like. In other, bleaker sketches, the organic element fades away, but it never seems to really leave; if his sketches seem mathematical, it would be because they suggest the stochastic beauty of kinetic randomness, not the elegant order of the golden mean.

(A slight aside: the most impressive thing about viewing his work is the sheer volume of it, the tactile link to the single draughtsman who begat all of this stuff. In an astounding variety of media, it seems he worked in singleminded pursuit of his architectural vision, which in light of the work seems less important than the sheer fact of his production. I suppose I am saying that, while the content of his work was impressive, the fact of his having done that work was even more impressive. Perhaps especially so for me personally, given my propensity to think of an idea, then drop it before seeing it through to physical manifestation.)

The declaration quoted above was part of a series of collages depicting the relationship between architecture and war–rubble-strewn cities, bombed-out buildings, the aggressive upward explosion of towers and impersonal nature of both modern forms and the bomb. Philosophy or anti-philosophy, it is hard to say, but the bombast grabbed my attention and the content held it. I quickly found echoes of a familiar nature.

To be at war with… all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms.

Woods begins with rejection. First he rejects the authority of the present, the institutions that would claim their power is intrinsic or permanent. He holds no fixed creed, he has no “sacred and primordial site” (perhaps because for him the potential for such a site is omnipresent). Implicit, though, is a second rejection, one of any teleology at all, a basic remonstration of Platonic forms and the idea that there are fixed uses or ends to things in the world. This he shares nominally with Nietzsche, but Nietzsche–despite rejecting teleology vehemently–did, in a sense, have his own idea of the telos of humankind, which was a natural evolution towards the coming of the Over-Man. I do not think Woods shares such a vision.

For one, it is clear that, while defiance must come from the individual, creation must arise between individuals. Stealing a term from a friend, we might call this co-creationism: the idea that we construct our universe in dialogue with one another. This stands in slight opposition to the tradition that one might expect, given the individual-centric vision that dominates the beginning of the statement. In Camus’ rebellion-tinged existentialism, it is Sisyphus himself who decides to love the boulder, or not; in other words, the decisions of existence are in the minds of the singular. Woods takes a step away from this, retaining the element of individual rebellion while insisting that creation–the construction of a citytakes place in social intercourse, not the mind. Indeed, the individual remains unknowable–I cannot know your name, nor can you know mine–and it is only through cooperative construction that the facts of the world come into play. It’s a little fuzzy on how exactly this happens if each of us is individually unknowable, but it’s still an energizing, inspiring idea, the thought that it’s only in interaction, transfer, alterity, that we can be productive, be alive.

The metaphor of the city holds rich resonance in Western culture, signifying the ongoing project of human civilization and its quest for harmonious integration. At the beginning of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I think, it is agreed that politics is the highest art; politics being the science (it is called a science in my translation, anyway) of ruling a city. And of course Aristotle’s teacher Plato wrote the Republic, which seeks to define the ideal city. In time, Christian rewrites–Augustine’s City of God–emerged, changing the inflection of the work but retaining the metaphor of the city as symbolic of human civilization. The Enlightenment can even be charted by examining the effects upon urban planning, which gave us regular, gridded streets with logical names, inscribing the rational values of the time onto the built environment (cf Washington, DC’s ABC-123 system).

All of this is to say that, when Woods says, Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city, I believe we should read the declaration on at least two levels, that of his job as a literal architect but also in terms of his position as a constant co-creator of human civilization.

I’ll end by noting that, while I think Woods diverges from Nietzsche quite severely (despite surface-level similarities), his commitment to co-creation and the human project puts him squarely in line with Isaiah Berlin, the great philosopher of the twentieth century. Like Woods, Berlin believed deeply both in the inscrutability of the individual and the necessity of working together on the project of humanity. The city is a great proving ground for such an idea, especially one as busy and diverse as San Francisco, where we are everyday confronted with difference and challenged to constantly revise our own ideas of the world. Woods’ philosophy, like his architecture, reflects a belief that we must be always in motion, mentally as well as physically.

Woods, Berlin, and I agree–no value system is absolute, and it is the challenge of our time to work to understand one another despite these differences. It is only through mutual negotiation that progress can be made. It is a message our times sorely need.

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