LEBBEUS WOODS - Experimental architecture

By Massimo Mucci

In the vast output of the American architect Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012), some projects dating back to the first half of the 1990s are particularly representative of his commitment to redefine the political role of architecture in the processes of transformation of society. The three projects for the cities of Zagreb, Sarajevo and Havana stand out for the original and innovative research carried out by the architect on concepts such as freespace, free-zone, heterarchical city, up to wider design themes. The study of these projects through the use of the representation of architecture as a tool for compositional analysis, allows to delve into the ideational and graphic procedures of the designer, and to clarify the points of contact and the distances with respect to the architectural trends of those years. The graphic works are considered here as expressions of a critical theoretical thought on architecture, elaborated through the simultaneous explorative use of drawing and writing, interwoven on several semantic levels in a chain of figurative creations. This allows to recognize in Woods' work the use of the drawing as a project, and to understand unknown aspects of his architectural language, deepening the compositional origin within a cultural framework characterized by themes close to him, such as experimental architecture, Deconstructivism, transformation.


ISBN: 9788862426978
Book series: Materiali Iuav
Language: Italian
Size: 20x24,5cm
Pages: 256
Print: color
Binding: paperback

Published by: Lettera Ventidue

Interview with Peter Noever, Vienna, September 5, 2018

191, Interview with Mr. Peter Noever – Vienna, September 2018; Excerpt of LEBBEUS WOODS - Experimental architecture by Massimo Mucci, Lettera Ventidue © 2022
192 - 193, Interview with Mr. Peter Noever – Vienna, September 2018; Excerpt of LEBBEUS WOODS - Experimental architecture by Massimo Mucci, Lettera Ventidue © 2022
194-195; Interview with Mr. Peter Noever – Vienna, September 2018; Excerpt of LEBBEUS WOODS - Experimental architecture by Massimo Mucci, Lettera Ventidue © 2022
196 - 197, Interview with Mr. Peter Noever – Vienna, September 2018; Excerpt of LEBBEUS WOODS - Experimental architecture by Massimo Mucci, Lettera Ventidue © 2022

(Translation) Interview with Peter Noever, Vienna

Meeting with Mr. Peter Noever – Vienna, September 2018

Massimo Mucci: What were the themes developed by Woods that most interested you when you met him?

Peter Noever: The theme that most attracted me was his radical approach targeted to really create a new world. This was the only thing that interested me. Everything come together, but he has set this energy of change everywhere he went, independently from the respect of local culture. In this sense he was most radical, and he was a visionary. That’s what interested me and why I wanted to know him, also because maybe I could attract to design a building in Vienna. His architecture was so programmatic, and he was merciless in celebrating his ideas. Of course, this was a problem because people was not trained or not used to have such approach, even people who were in touch with him, like in Vienna or at architecture museum and architecture schools. I think he’s a very exceptional figure and also people who were avant-garde advanced always said: ‘he has to build’. Actually, he didn’t deny his will to build and he was ready to build every second, but he didn’t want to build stupid architectures. Furthermore, there were no clients for this kind of architecture, and even nowadays there are still no clients , because it is getting worst. He did not make only beautiful drawings, instead he always mentioned that there are no ideas which you can’t translate into a drawing. He did not make superficial things or jokes, he really tried to have a changing in the society and in the world. He thought that the world can be different than as it looks, and this was a sort of limitation.

MM: In the book Architecture in Transition: Between Deconstruction and New Modernism1, Lebbeus Woods is next to those architects defined as deconstructivists. Actually, Woods develops a language similar to deconstructivism, but intentions seem to be different. What were the real points in common between his research and the idea of deconstruction at that time?

PN: Deconstructivism is just a brand, in my opinion, because if you ask to everybody who was in that exhibition, like Zaha Hadid or Wolf Prix, you could realize that they had different intentions, and it was only the genius case of Philip Johnson that he gathered special architects. Of course, there were the breaking of the rules by deconstructivists and in this sense there was also Lebbeus Woods. The exhibition in Museum of Modern Art in New York was very cleverly done and it also was right for me to put Lebbeus on the focus.

MM: The topic of MoMa is similar to your book Architecture in transition, but there are some differences.

PN: Yes, the topic is similar, but architects are individuals. I don’t know if you can exactly define Hadid deconstructivist, for instance. It depends on the definition of deconstructivism. You can give a very banal and easy definition, saying that it come from the Russian Constructivism and then they broke those forms and so on. This is probably true, but there are many more architects that broke the rules of the common system as we know it, and they found a new architectural language. For instance Eric Owen Moss, or Günther Domenig, who is not well known. An interesting question would be, who was first Günther Domenig or Frank Gehry? For instance the building in Vienna near the Central Station [Branch Bank Building of the “Z-Bank” in Favoritenstrasse, Vienna, 1975-79]. Guggenheim Bilbao was inaugurated October 1997. Domenig started with this project when there were no appropriate CAD programs, and he did a facade which was not possible to build. So, if there is a deconstructivist, then Günther Domenig only. I think this question is always a little game. It was in the mind of Philip Johnson, who invited architects close to his language. He likes to make architecture and then architects.

MM: In the ‘Vienna Architecture Conference’ you have outlined a crisis situation in the architecture discipline facing the challenges and changes of society. The seven invited architects respond, each in their own way, to the request to search for "new spatial organism, new dimension of space – to find a fitting architectural expression"2. Could you elaborate on this introductory aspect? And how did Lebbeus Woods fit in this context?

PN: This is interesting, because the situation in a certain way got worst. When you say “the end of architecture”, we should ask now, what is after the end of architecture? The intention, of course, was to resonate on the so traditional previous period. Like Zaha. She was suffering twenty-five years. Although she was already famous and she had a good professorship, she didn’t build anything yet, and nobody asked her to build something, because they say: ‘this is beautiful but impossible to build’. So, she got this glamour, but nobody took care of her. In this sense Lebbeus had the same program, of course in a different direction, in a very emotional struggle like Zaha Hadid. There was nobody interested and asking for a lecture or a show, and they said: ‘yes, this is wonderful, the best I have seen, but of course to build by somebody else’. Another aspect emerged: there was no space and no interest for a new definition of architecture. If I look now, it did not go to the better, and it seem more conservative, not only in the green architecture or the social cases, which have nothing in the screen of architecture. And these aspects are interesting but they don’t make architecture. This society is thinking about their own problems, but it doesn’t come out. If you look the social housing, there is nothing changed to the better, instead there is the same system of layout although all life changed. So, we are talking about a group of young architects who tried to change something, more or less all at the beginning of their career, but the society didn’t want to renew anything. So, there was the idea to cut with the tradition and to show this new group, to communicate, to put this issue as a target to talk about, in order to influence some other architects. The interest in architecture is not so strong and nobody want to change the city. Lebbeus, I think, was very clear on this issue. It was very clear that he had a dream in architecture: to build a new city and to create a new world. He was really interested on the radical change, and he tried to achieve it, not developing the tradition, but really going forward. This was his credo all the time.

MM: In fact, in the book The End of Architecture?, Lebbeus Woods writes his fundamental critical text: Freespace and the Tyranny of Types3. Here he challenges the traditional concept of revolution as a motion that returns to the starting point, with the idea of an architecture completely out of the games. How is this concept expressed in their Havana projects?

PN: I think the Havana project went well and fantastically, although we didn’t build anything there. I was interested in Havana also because I had a project before together with Carl Pruscha (CPPN). So I went very often there and then we had that conference. One point that interested me was that everything were like decay, you can see it on the streets. Although the architecture is a very strong modern one with a very high aesthetic quality. It was built before the revolution, but also during the revolution, although in different way. The old city was very nice and very romantic to look, but life there was less romantic.
The renovation of buildings never can be identically, because things are changing, materials, labor, everything was different, so this concept of preservation is a kind of stupid romantic idea. Therefore, the idea was to bring strong architects to Havana and to show that you can do something else, rather than to make bloody idiotic renovation of old buildings. There were beautiful projects, like that of Lebbeus Woods, or Eric Owen Moss in the Plaza Vieja, where he put a baseball stadium on top of the Plaza. Lebbeus always said: ‘We have to start completely new’, and so this had the spirit and the smell of revolution, when we were in Havana. It was an open society, although all talked about it only as dictatorship. But on the other hand, people were self-managed, because they were free and they worked together. For the Americans going there was a challenge and immediately we were completely taken, touched and emotionalized. My idea was to have only real projects in the real city. So it was necessary to go there and design directly on site. There were many ideas and Lebbeus had the idea to protect the old city through the wall and the barriers on the Malecón. It could be a great opportunity for Havana to do one of these projects.

MM: Another important aspect is the criticism of the concept of typology, which includes the contestation of the functionalist idea of the form. How did this reflection contributed to the conference and to the development of Havana projects?

PN: People like to make a concept at the end.  They were super individual architects, although they have many things in common. For instance they had a common message of contemporary architecture and avant-garde. Also Zaha Hadid was invited, but in the last minute she couldn’t come. There was a great interest to this site completely untouched; on the other hand there was a strong history of modern architecture and Spanish baroque. Havana is a city of architecture, so it is a big challenge to do something there. Plaza Vieja looks like the old Vienna, where every house has different colour and everything has been renovated, so it’s touristic. Nowadays Old Havana looks like a postcard. The idea was to take the chance, not to repeat the tradition, but to do something completely different. For Lebbeus it was a manifesto of what we can do in an old city: it could be transformed into a strong modern architecture.

MM: After The End of Architecture? it was organized The Havana Project4 international conference as an application of the preceding considerations in the real context. Was Havana seen as a model or an opportunity? A place where to build an alternative way without necessarily going through the Western market logic? What was the meaning of dealing with the fate of the Havana city in that historic moment?

PN: Havana was an opportunity and a model of the possibility of modern architecture. It seemed like a laboratory, where you could make experiments, because it wasn’t commercialized, and in this sense it was untouched. This could be a dream, but if Fidel Castro would had a clear esthetical concept, it could have happend. Havana attracted architects who had not only commercial ideas about architecture, but for testing something which has never done before. Raimund Abraham said that when you start to build you lose the architecture, because other people come and make interpretations. So you don’t need to build architecture because you can draw it on a piece of paper. For Lebbeus it is the same: drawings are architecture.

MM: On the occasion of The Havana Project Woods remarks his definition of "radical architecture" as "The one in which you do not know how to behave", and in the particular contest of Havana "It can be an extension of revolution, rather than reliance on old definition - even if definitions have to do with revolution itself”5. It seems to me a very strong concept in the tradition of radical architecture.

PN: I know what he really believe in, which is not to write statements or manifestos for the beauty. He believed, and he was also in struggling with the world, that architecture is war, then he took a serious decision and nobody could just attack him: you have to fight for it, you have to fight until the last moment to get realized, getting possible to make it. This is what he meant when he said that there already was the spirit of revolution in Havana. The first spirit of revolution was gone, because they had to struggle to auto-organize the everyday life and so on. Still it was not touched by commercialization. So, there is a lot to do with beautiful fantasies and dreams, maybe it is a place in this world where you can prolong the revolution as another media, to transfer it in the media of architecture. I think this was to enlarge it, to put it into the future, not to make an ordinary life as we have. He was not ordinary, he was always on the limit. I don’t think we can take word by word, but this kind of spirit of revolution means that you have chance of change, to do it for the change. This means that there is a political revolution, so you can enlarge it, you can continue it where is an architecture revolution. I don’t want to make much interpretation, but I think it was the attempt to take this spirit and to transform it in another media.

MM: Woods publishes some of his concepts about Havana in the format of a Manifesto, as he had already done for Sarajevo6. Why does he prefer this form of communication?

PN: It depends on what is the meaning of the manifesto and on who is the author. In this case he has to make himself strong, make a definition like a manifesto and establish that you make a mistake if you go far away from it. I think the manifesto is for outside and for inside to have this kind of borderline. Also in the manifesto you have to clear the message in few words. He made a text as manifesto, but it is also his work: very often the project is a manifesto of architecture. I think there is no really difference between drawings and words.

MM: It seem to me similar to the avant-garde period.

PN: Yes, sure; I think it is like Zaha Hadid when in her interviews always mentioned that she was very much involved in the architecture of the ‘10s and the ‘20s in Russia, because this was the very avant-garde period with Aleksandr Michajlovi? Rod?enko, Vladimir Tatlin, etc. There was the manifesto of Mayakovskij, because they wanted to change the society and the human being. I think this is coming from there a little bit. Both, Hadid and Woods were influenced from Constructivism, but in different way. I think Lebbeus didn’t look too much back: he knew history, but he did not try to connect so much to it. He was really radical and fresh in this sense.

MM: In fact, we could say that the manifesto is a radical point in the history.

PN: Yes, and in the case of Lebbeus it is very strong. It is a kind of provocation, but it is also a guideline for architects. So, you can struggle against it or you can see a challenge.

MM: The Havana Project conference itself seems to be an ambitious project: to re-establish the urban planning approach starting from individual contributions and unconventional ideas. Could you explain this aspect better?

PN: I think, it was still the dimension before. If you make an Architecture Biennale in Venice, as long as you don’t tear the palazzo down and build a new building for a new use, the palazzo is just for memory. I think, if you have the architecture in your heart, it would be a drama if you really don’t make it. Also in Venice, if I would make an architecture Biennial, I would only struggle to tear one palazzo down and engage the best contemporary architects. This architecture has to be much better as the architecture of the palazzo. Havana was a place where it was possible make a similar proposition, so it was far away to academic meeting or conference. It was a real project on site, with nothing paid, and nobody was paid for that.

MM: How does this concept work with the idea of Heritage?

PN: Also Unesco needs new examples, and if you give them to it, you can talk with it. But from my understanding, the problem is that all people would take part of the decisions, like in Vienna: If you go in the Central Station, you can see that the building is not for the trains, there is no façade and inside you find only completely idiotic entertainment shopping malls, so there is nothing anymore. The city is not able to make an airport or a train station. There is not a picture that you can have in your mind for saying: ‘That’s the Central Station’, because it’s a shopping mall indeed. So, all these kind of architectures had not an expression. Anyway, in Havana nobody had an outcome, because there was also a shock of culture when they came. Lebbeus could more easily deal with this things which he didn’t know, but the others remained quite shocked.

MM: The Wall designed by Woods is composed by the contrast of a great monolithic mass with irregular "spontaneous" elements that seem to gradually corrode it, and which over time they will completely transform it. Can we read this dialectical relationship as the dissolution of the monumental force of architecture designed by architects?

PN: On the Malecón the idea was to use the water for positioning the plates and to break the waves. Otherwise, slabs stay horizontally and they became usable by people walking on them. In the old city he wanted the wall like an infrastructure for the city. People can have water pipes and electricity, connecting with the wall and they can use his energy. On the other hand, it was also the idea to go back to the traditional structure of the city: a part of the old wall.

MM: There also was the idea to build on the top of the wall.

PN: Yes, people can build on the top of it and use the energy. He understood that people going there could be very creative, because they have to live in such a kind of space and in personal linking. They could build up in the old a parallel infrastructure because the old one don’t work anymore. He wanted to keep this very special energy that people have when organize the space themselves. The wall is a kind of path, a kind of bond and then you can go. This is what people do in the old city.

MM: In fact, the question is the dialectic relationship between architecture designed by architect and spontaneous constructions.

PN: Yes, and Lebbeus wanted to keep this energy. The energy of people, because if people wasn't left free, they  not create the space by themselves, and here there is a big respect. This was the discussion; he was criticized as to much romantic because you cannot leave the people free, and of course it include a political meaning.
I think he was a very outstanding architect; I had a special relation also because I felt a little bit sad, and I tried to push him, to invite him. We had the Vienna Festival here and I invited him. Lebbeus had the very healthy idea for the city to build some prototype of temporary architecture and put them in front of the main monumental buildings. So, Vienna could look different and it would be very healthy, not to make photomontages or similar things, but to build real buildings. They also had a function, for instance one was the information station, another one was for the Vienna Festival, and the others would be for movies, so not just stage set. He did models and drawings, but in the end nothing happened, because one month before the minister of culture didn’t accepted the project. It was a complete project, with costs, absolutely buildable. It could have been a contemporary structure in the city for a temporary period.

MM: The concept is very similar to the idea of freespaces in Zagreb.

PN: Yes, it is. This one would have been around the Ring of Vienna.

1 Peter Noever (a cura di), Architecture in Transition. Between Deconstruction and New Modernism, Munich, Prestel, 1991.
2 Peter Noever (a cura di), The end of architecture. Documents and manifestos. Vienna Architecture Conference, Prestel, Munich, 1993, p. 9.
3 Lebbeus Woods, Freespace and the Tyranny of Types, in Peter Noever (a cura di), The end of architecture, cit., pp. 84-95.
4 Peter Noever (a cura di), The Havana Project. Architecture Again: International Conference on Architecture, Havana, Cuba, Prestel, Munich, 1996.
5 Lebbeus Woods, Interview in Havana, in Peter Noever (a cura di), The Havana Project, cit., p. 178.
6 Lebbeus Woods, Statements from a Manifesto, in Peter Noever (a cura di), The Havana Project, cit., pp. 134-35.

ISBN: 9788862426978
Book series: Materiali Iuav
Language: Italian
Size: 20x24,5cm
Pages: 256
Print: color
Binding: paperback

Published by: Lettera Ventidue