Lebbeus Woods

New York

at Friedman Benda


Imagine, snaking through Berlin’s subway tunnels during the Cold War era, bulbous pods filled with scientists. The pods burst out of the city’s center, eventually tethering themselves to the Eiffel Tower. The American architect Lebbeus Woods envisioned these scenes in several interrelated sets of drawings made shortly before the Wall came down.

The examples selected for this recent show remind us not only of Woods’s skills as an illustrator of mythic realms but also of his influence on generations of architects. Just around the corner from the gallery, for example, stands Neil Denari’s new 23rd Street apartment building, folding and twisting over the High Line like a concrete embodiment of Woods’s vision.

During the 1970s and 1980s, while employed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates in New Haven, Conn., Woods helped to design buildings like the Ford Foundation in Manhattan. He then became one of New York’s most successful illustrators, using his Prismacolor pyrotechnics to sell postmodern skyscrapers to developers and the public. In the mid-’80s, when he became a professor at Cooper Union, he began drawing buildings that would exist only in his mind. This puts him in a historical lineage, as gallery press materials point out, with Leonardo, Piranesi, Étienne-Louis Boullée and the Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger; it also links him with the Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia, Britain’s 1960s Archigram group and various 1970-80s “paper architects” who created fantasies never intended to be built.

Woods’s drawings evolved into the series “A-City” (1986-87) and “Centricity” (1987-88), depictions of a world that, in keeping with the Deconstructivist thinking of the time, was more dystopian than utopian. The basic elements were what appeared to be inhabited ruins of refineries, bulging towers covered with steel plates, and a landscape of shifting planes that swirl up into gangplanks and gestural lines.

The architect’s most elaborate and finely drawn series, “Underground Berlin” (1987) and “Aerial Paris” (1988), culminated in the pictures of half-destroyed, half-metastasizing buildings in “Architecture and War” (1990-92), produced after he visited war-torn Zagreb. Woods signed many of the images retroactively, and most contain his scribblings, which at first appear to explain the drawings but are actually unintelligible. The exhibition contained some surprises, such as black-and-white drawings from the “Region M” series (1984), showing Victorian-clad gentlemen moving through a landscape of crumbling towers rife with heavily bolted equipment, tubes and protuberances. These images may have helped inspire Steampunk art, which features 19th-century styles and technology thrust into an alternative future.

This exhibition-marked by delight in representation, myth and elaborated form-was also a reminder of what came next: Deconstructivism’s pulling apart of such images to reveal their internal contradictions and suppressed violence. I hope the show will coax more drawings out of Woods’s and others’ archives so that we can better understand the central place his images have in late 20th-century architecture.

Photo: Lebbeus Woods: Centricity, 1987, pencil on paper, 24 by 23 inches; at Friedman Benda.