2008-08-25

An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World

“Berlin Free-Zone 3-2,” a 1990 proposal by Lebbeus Woods for an abandoned government building in reunified Berlin. The structure, more theoretical than practical, has no assigned purpose.

From The New York Times' article about the architect. Lebbeus Woods.

Not so long ago many of the world’s greatest architectural talents behaved as though the actual construction of buildings was beneath them. During the 1960s firms like Superstudio in Florence, Italy, and Archigram in London were designing urban visions intended to shake up the status quo. These projects — walking, mechanized cities and mirrored megastructures that extended over mountain ranges and across deserts — were stinging attacks on a professional mainstream that avant-garde architects believed lacked imaginative energy.

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Mr. Woods, a large, burly man who still likes an occasional cigarette, doesn’t try to hide his disdain for this new reality. “Big corporations today want to present themselves as benefactors of the human race,” he told me recently, summing up the current state of affairs. “ExxonMobil runs ads about the ecology now. And architecture is part of this. It’s a business.”

It’s hard to disagree with the main thrust of his argument: that architecture has always needed a place that is wholly free of self-censorship, and that this place does not exist in the often-contentious exchange between architect and client. Most of us remember, for example, what happened to Mr. Koolhaas in the 1997 competition for a major expansion to the Museum of Modern Art. Choosing to ignore the museum’s internal politics, he indiscreetly highlighted the museum’s corporate agenda in his design. An enraged MoMA board instantly dropped him.

The pressure to smooth over anything in a design that might be perceived as threatening has only increased in recent years, as a lot of architecture has begun to look like a sophisticated form of marketing. Architects who once defined themselves as rebels are now designing luxury residential towers for the super-rich.

The greatest influence of this trend, however, may be on a younger generation of architects. Reared in an era when there seems to be an irresistible supply of work, these architects often seem eager to build at any cost. And their facility with computer software can make it easy to churn out seductive designs without digging deeply into hard social truths.

As Mr. Woods put it: “With the triumph of liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism, the conversation came to an end. Everyone wanted to build, which left less room for certain kinds of architecture.”

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Here's The New York Times' full article about the architect. Lebbeus Woods.

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