In trying to understand Lebbeus Woods, Architect, a thorough and moving show currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), it's well worth pausing over the title before entering the exhibition halls. Why is "architect" — like an asterisk, a footnote or clarifier, needed to crown the name of this solo artist (oh, wait, architect)? Is it because many people, more familiar with Takashi Murakami's painted, placebo-hallucinatory mushrooms in the adjoining atrium (in a nice juxtaposition), may not be familiar with Woods by name, and could benefit from a heads up? That's too literal a concern for an art museum. After all, Garry Winogrand's show, upstairs, isn't modified with the "photographer" term. These people paid the price of admission, didn't they? They'll go through the Woods exhibition whether he's an architect, an artist, a poet or a physicist. Then, of course, there's the satisfying issue of Woods being all four of those things, out of a total of a million others — including a critic, a social commentator, a philosopher, theoretician, engineer, editorialist, drawer, futurist, science fictionist, even a realist, if it can be believed.
The word "architect", fastened as it is to the fantastical, sometimes abstract, sometimes contentious visions Woods let float in the public, keeps this show — his world — from drifting completely out of ours. SFMOMA has been collecting Woods's work since the mid-'90s, and claims to have "assembled the most in-depth institutional collection of his work to date." Coupled with works on loan from private collections, the Getty Research Institute, MoMA New York, and MAK Vienna, this show presents 175 pieces from the past 35 years.
Woods's works do not follow the rules of show and tell, he does not offer neat little models that make sense as much as any dollhouse does, or drawings that mirror the world we're accustomed to seeing. Though many of his ideas are rooted in natural certainties and real world events — like Germany's reunification, or a Zagreb torn by war, or the tectonic plates that shake our cities — those ideas necessarily manifest themselves as distortions, made to remind us that chaos is an accurate reflection of how we live, as well. More accurate, perhaps, than the order most architects promise to make of our messes.
Woods never says, "don't worry" through his projects, but rather encourages viewers to worry productively. That's not likely to win over many clients, which is at once awesome from the creative point of view and the kiss of death from the practical one. So it's with a little bit of affectionate irony that this show, which displays only one realized project, claims to be about an architect, yes. It's also with a certain taste for "reclaiming" the word — it really is as fitting or ill-fitting a title for Woods as any of the others.
I stood for a long time in front of the image and text dedicated to that one realized project on view: Light Pavilion, Woods's 2011 collaboration with Christoph a. Kumpusch. A "void" in Steven Holl's Raffles City Centre building in Chengdu, China, Light Pavilion is a lit experimental area, promising those who enter it an experience — either positive or negative — they haven't before had in a space. In other words, this is architecture without cue cards. The adjoining text quotes Woods addressing those who might bear smirks or crossed arms against him: "If one needed to give a reason to sceptics for creating such experimental spaces in the context of this large urban development project, it would be this: our rapidly changing world constantly confronts us with new challenges to our abilities to understand and to act, encouraging us to encounter new dimensions of experience." In part, Woods's writing is so rewarding because, as a sceptic himself, he addresses doubts directly, encourages them, intertwines them with his work. Throughout the show, it is evident both in words and visuals that there is not a single question mark struck for a period.
What's interesting is that Light Pavilion, perhaps, is the most "boring" of Woods's projects on display, precisely because it is the only Pinocchio to grow into a real boy — still an experiment, of course, but one that exists as a conclusion in our world, in tact with any design compromises it had to accept as a matter of that existence. I appreciate that the show allows this project to integrate fully into the bigger conceptual arc, from Woods's most "practical" works to his most abstract, rather than framing the completed work in a diamond-incrusted frame and hanging it away from the others. Instead, among Woods's many other grand ideas (like Einstein's cremated remains orbiting in space), this congruence suggests both that his "paper" work is also realised, to whatever degree, and that his realised work can still twist and turn in seemingly impractical directions, that it can remain inquisitive and questioning, despite the fact that it gives certain definitive answers, just by staying upright. Sometimes architects scoff at projects like this, and call them "art." The street goes two ways, though, with other architects finding themselves on the receiving end of "pure engineering." What makes Woods so compelling is his ability to swerve across both lanes, still getting to his destination.
For those familiar with Woods's work, my words are superfluous in describing his ideas — there are no better words than those of Woods himself, a direct and unpretentious writer. Lebbeus Woods, Architect, in its choice selection of quotes and excerpts, is an excellent introduction to Woods's turns of phrase, his frank uncertainties, his startling descriptions, both wild and pragmatic.
Of note is that this exhibition was being planned while Woods was still alive. Because of his unexpected demise last fall, the show takes on a more sombre tone, of course, despite the immense body of work being celebrated. It's just as saddening to know Woods is no longer here to answer our questions about the show, as it is to know he's not here to raise new, really good ones.
On the day of my visit to SFMOMA, a little girl, age three or so, ran through the show announcing, in a voice loud enough to turn heads, "I can't draw that, I can't draw that, I can't draw that," as she pointed to the images on the walls. Her father later scooped her in his arms, and I overheard him telling her about shading and dimensions. I didn't take her quite so literally, though. Maybe what that little girl failed to announce, but what most of us were likely thinking is: "I can't believe somebody did." Katya Tylevich
Through 2 June 2013
Lebbeus Woods, Architect
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 3rd St, San Francisco