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Lebbeus Woods

Taking On Risk: Nine experimental scenarios
One. Berlin. 1990. The Wall has come down and Germany is reuniting, under rules laid down by the West. The center of Berlin—the Mitte—which has been in the hands of the East for thirty years, is poised to become the center of the reunited city and nation. It’s symbolic importance is so great that every square meter of its buildings and streets are taken strictly hold of by city and state authorities. The gaps are being closed. The cracks plastered over. Where will the artists, impoverished as ever, go? The renegades? Where will the empty, haunted, elegiac spaces be in the super-controlled New Berlin? The nightclubs, afterhours bars, the underworlds and overworlds that make a city vital, creative, dangerous, exciting, and potential? Prompted by a German museum exhibition I am not invited to join, and knowing Berlin from an earlier project of mine for the divided city1, I choose to address a number of ordinary sites in the Mitte, because they strike me as far more important—and potential—than the historically important buildings and public spaces. The creation of functionally ambiguous and conceptually open spaces can still occur, but only if they are hidden from the suspicious gaze and controlling grasp of authorities and good burghers. To do this they must be invisible from the streets, entirely interior, constructed secretly and outside the limits existing building laws, but deep within the existing urban fabric of spaces. Forming a loosely-knit network, connected by instruments of modern telecommunications, their can become a free zone, a city within a city, where types of experimental living that characterize a dynamic city can be freely invented. The freespaces are free, in the first place, of any predetermined meaning or purpose. These must be invented by those who for reasons of their own choose to inhabit them. Difficult to inhabit because of their spatial configurations, they are an inner frontier that challenges conventions of every kind. You cannot move in with your old furniture. This project is the first clear expression of my growing belief that architecture must be an active participant in crucial social changes of today, not a bystander, or a expression of them after the fact.2 Two. Zagreb, Yugoslavia. 1991. Forty-five years of a united state of the “southern Slavs” are ending, with an explosion of rancor and bitterness between the peoples of the country’s six separate republics. Each sees the others as the enemies of its own national interests. Civil war is about the break

The project called “Underground Berlin” was proposed as part of a large exhibition “Berlin: Denkmal or Denkmodell,” shown in Berlin in 1988, which then travelled to Paris, Bern, Kracow, Kiev, Moscow. Published in the monograph Lebbeus Woods: Terra Nova, Extra Edition, A+U, Tokyo, 1991. 2 The drawings for the project were shown at the Aedes Gallerie für Architektur, Berlin, in February, 1991 (catalogue published by Aedes). Published in the monograph Anarchitecture: Architecture is a political act, Academy Editions/St. Martins Press, 1992.

out. The republic of Croatia will experience the violent convulsions of political, social, and economic change. Is there no alternative to war? Can architecture play a role in negotiating the dramatic changes already underway? As in Berlin, a new type of architecture can intervene effectively in a landscape caught up in political change. In Zagreb, the freespace concept emphasizes the need for exchanges between people of different ethnic backgrounds and political views on symbolically neutral ground. The freespace structures are not hidden, but take their places temporarily in the streets of the city, where public demonstrations fill the open squares and private debates about the immediate future of the city and the republic fill the shops and coffee houses. Brought in by transport helicopter for hours or days, the structures are nodes in a dialectical grid, spatial instruments that span between buildings, stand suspended between them in the streets, or simply lean against existing structures for support. Visible signs of change, they become sites of transition in the process of creating a new, and as yet unknown social order. Some hope that it might be an order combining the best of the two rival systems that contended for the better part of a century—a ‘third way.’ They also become sites of contention, by those who resent their intervention, by those who want to control them and the powerful electronic technology they contain. Their construction and presence, however transient, poses risks. Wherever there is risk, something may go wrong, even terribly wrong. But then, something in the whole situation might go wrong, terribly wrong, and the city and country will be consumed in the mechanisms of war. Which poses the greater risk? Three. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 1993. A cosmopolitan, multiethnic European city is under siege by terrorists who claim to be an army whose mission is “ethnic cleansing,” that is, the extermination or driving out of the Muslim population. Surrounded and cut off from the outside world, the people of the cit-Muslims, Christians and Jews--cope with snipers, constant artillery shellings, lack of heat, water and electricity. The people of the cit--men, women, and children--are daily being murdered. A big question, for architects in and out of Sarajevo is how should the reconstructed buildings and spaces for living incorporate the tremendous changes— social, psychological, cultural, political, economic—brought about by the siege and its aftermath? Clearly, this siege is an attack upon urban civilization itself and foreshadows the threat of terrorists to cities everywhere. Their aim is to attack the complexity and diversity of the city in order to return to ‘fundamental’ values and ways—a brutally Fascistic ideology. The reconstruction, when it comes, must incorporate in the general rebuilding of damaged structures many spaces that embody the personal and social transformations caused by the siege and the struggle to transcend violence and fear. If architecture is an embodiment of knowledge, as I believe it is, then only new principles and techniques for the design and construction of architecture can embody such experiences as these. The injection, the scab, and the scar are constructive metaphors for

the architectural healing of this wounded city3, and must be seen as signs not only of survival but of new forms of living. Built from the remnants of destruction, in blasted, burned and abandoned voids, from scraps that are re-formed into new types of building materials, the freespace structures of Sarajevo are an architecture of complex and difficult urban transformation celebrating new forms of diversity. As a result of my visit to Sarajevo in late 1993, I make a number of proposals for specific buildings or building types damaged during the long siege. More heuristic than prescriptive, in that they show how the new principles of reconstruction might be applied, they address the ordinary buildings damaged but repairable. Apartment buildings, office towers, bureaucratic structures such as the Secretariat of the parliament. New types of spaces fill the voids created by artillery and mortar shelling, infilling the otherwise conventionally refurbished buildings. On the site of the destroyed “old” tobacco factory, I propose the High Houses. Two experimental living spaces are raised side by side above the site, reclaiming the airspace that has been the domain of murderous trajectories. Supported by scavenged steel columns welded end-to-end, and held fast by cables bending them in tension, they are stabilized, paradoxically, by their impetus to move. The thought behind all the projects is that most of the building spaces are returned to normal. The rest, a critical minority, effectively destroyed by the siege and corresponding to that part of the population unable to return to normal, is radically transformed. The new types of spaces are not for everyone, but only for those who choose, or cannot help but choose, to reinvent themselves. 4 Four. Havana, Cuba. 1995. After thirty-five years of rule by a totalitarian regime, the city has entered a state of crisis caused by a failed economy, a drying-up of foreign aid from sympathetic countries, and a longstanding American economic embargo that stifles trade for necessities like grain, oil, and ordinary consumer goods. The old city, La Habana Vieja, which is home to thousands of the poorest families, is in full decay and there are no funds to maintain, let alone restore it. The Malecon, a great boulevard running along the seafront of the city, from the old city far to the west, is flooded by hurricane driven tides every few years, along with portions of the city itself. At the government center, where the Parliament building (a miniature of the U.S. Capitol building) there is no debate about how the deepening crisis is to be solved, which is at the core of the problem. At the invitation of local architects a small group of internationally known architects who can be described as open and experimental in their approaches, come to Havana for two weeks, to study and discuss the situation, and—if they can—make


Published in the pamphlet War and Architecture/Rat I Arhitektura, (Lebbeus Woods), Princeton Architectural Press, October 1993, and presented in an exhibition at the destroyed Olympic Museum in Sarajevo with a lecture by the author on November 26, 1993. 4 Projects published in the book Radical Reconstruction, (Lebbeus Woods), Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, 2001, 2003.

proposals for solving a number of pressing architectural problems. Out of these discussions come a wide-ranging number projects by the different architects5. For the old city, I propose the rebuilding of the old Spanish colonial defensive wall (demolished only at the end of the 19th century) separating it from the rest of the city, as a means of protecting this fragile quarter, but also as a type of urban ‘battery’ that produces small but sufficient quantities of electricity and potable water. Consequently, the wall sponsors a type of spontaneous architecture that can become the main new building type for rehabilitating, without outside funding, the crumbling buildings everywhere within the quarter. For the Malecon, I propose the construction of a six-kilometer-long artificial beach cantilevered from street level out and over the now beachless and rocky shore as a major new place of public gathering and recreation. When the hurricanes come and the floodtide rises to engulf the edge of the city, the concrete beach is rotated in sections by the force of the tide into a vertical seawall, preventing the flooding of the city. For the government, I designed a new type of institute, a ‘meta-institute.’ This is a monumental building housing officials, scholars, professionals from every field of knowledge, whose mission is the study of institutions, including those of government. An institute for the study of institutions, its design poses spatial problems that are paradigmatic of those social, economic and political conditions that will eventually influence the evolution of Cuban government. Five. Vienna, Austria. 1997. A fabled and well-kept city of three million inhabitants, who live in highly stable and prosperous conditions. This is best exemplified by the First District, the ‘historical’ center defined by the Ringstrasse, where upscale apartment buildings, shops, hotels, restaurants, and museums serve inhabitants and visitors alike. A wealthy, politically calm city, Vienna seems perfect. But how will it change under the pressures of changing times that even this city cannot entirely escape? It is possible that social and cultural change can enter the First District in forms of entertainment, such as theater, music and other types of performance. If it enters as something ‘serious,’ it will certainly not be allowed by the authorities to pollute the history dominated landscape. In a collaboration with Peter Noever, director of one of Vienna’s leading art museums, the SLV (SiteLine Vienna) is conceived. With the subtitle “a project for the measurement of small cultural differences,” it operates in the narrow domain between fantasy and reality, lowering, at least for a short time, the boundaries between. Designed as a sequence of performance platforms in street sites on a straight line drawn between the garden of the MAK museum, across the First District, to the

All the projects are published in the book The Havana Project: Architecture Again, (P: Noever, Ed.)Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1996. Presented in several European and American museum venues, the models and drawings were presented in Havana (with a Spanish language edition of the book) in October, 1999.

Parliament Building, the project is planned for the summer art, music and performance festivals that flourish in the heavy tourist season between May and September. The platforms are provided above the normal walking level in structures that stand on their own, or merely lean against existing buildings. Not a single hole can be drilled into the historically precious building facades, or in the cobblestone pavements. A series of performances are choreographed by the SLV management, temporarily headquartered in the museum. Most, however, will involve performance artists who are encouraged to respond to the life of the streets below. Once the performers are gone, and the stages taken down, there are no permanently visible traces of them. Only the residue of ideas, the most powerful things in the world.6 Six. Taichung City, Taiwan. 1999. A 7.2 Richter Scale earthquake is centered near this, the second largest city in Taiwan, island home of six million inhabitants in the Sea of China. Buildings are tipped over or collapse into rubble. Hundreds of people are killed. Within months, a major quake hits Turkey, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. This is only part of a worldwide phenomenon that recurs year after year. Yet architects and their clients continue to design and erect buildings that fall down when the next major quake comes. Are there new design concepts that might be especially appropriate to building in the earth’s seismically active zones? The main reason buildings fall down during severe earthquakes is that the geometric configurations of their structures are based on the right angle. Beams and columns, walls, floors, and ceilings constructed in the normal way do well in resisting the downward forces of gravity, but are relatively weak in resisting the rotating horizontal forces produced by earthquakes. For the present, the only solution for existing buildings is structural reinforcement of the rectilinear structures, but this is not always effective. A bigger problem is that it is very expensive and not economically feasible in many earthquake zones. As a result, it is the people in poor countries who die in far greater numbers than those in relatively rich ones. Design can do little to change economic conditions anywhere, but it can devise solutions to problems that are driven by ideas, not money. In this case the solution comes from how the problem is defined. If earthquakes are seen as normal natural occurrences that are in themselves neither good nor bad, but simply part of the earth’s geological evolution, we might adopt the idea of building in ways that somehow work with nature, not against it. What this means is to consider the structure of building as a system that absorbs horizontal forces by changing its shape. Such systems are multi-angular and will change over the years. People living in such structures change their patterns of living, like urban nomads on a continually and complexly evolving urban terrain. Their way of life, however, would


Project published in the article “The Crisis of Innovation,” (Lebbeus Woods), in the journal New Architecture, Andreas Papadakis Publisher, London, 1998.

become stable, in the sense that they learn to live with change that comes unpredictably, even violently. Through design, there is a dynamic reconciliation between the natural and the human. Each does what it does best. For the former this means to change according to the inscrutably complex working of forces active in the earth. For the latter this means to adapt to unpredictably changing conditions, with curiosity, serious playfulness, and ingenuity. 7 Seven. Paris, France. 2002. The critic and philosopher Paul Virilio organizes a major exhibition on the topic of technological accidents, believing them to be not only inevitable, but an integral part of technology itself. As such, they demand to be understood in a much wider intellectual and social context than is now provided, which is the overall purpose of the exhibition. How does architecture fit into this story? How do architects deal with unpredictability and potentially catastrophic events for which architecture itself is the medium? The aim is not to celebrate accidents, violence or catastrophes, but rather to prevent them when it is possible and to creatively incorporate them when it is not. The installation designed for the large, transparent gallery space in Paris, investigates, in a speculative way, the space of a collapsing architectural structure. Entitled “The Fall,” it aims to find the space between cause and effect, the active space of transformation. In attempting to articulate this space, new methods of design and construction are devised to account for the unstable kinetics of one architecturally-scaled system suddenly transforming into another one. In this case the design sets up a linear spatial system originating in a static grid that, in its spontaneous assembly, and following a few rules, becomes a field of dynamic, interlocking spaces. Understanding the space of the fall leads to a much deeper understanding of the space of its after-effects, and of how to make subsequent designs for it. In an era increasingly marked by dramatic and sudden changes, architecture, as a field of knowledge, needs to speed-up its sense of time. Thinking in terms of years is not where the story ends. Sometimes, it must think in terms of seconds.8 Eight. New York City. 2002. A year after the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which resulted in their collapse, the loss of three thousand lives, and tremendous psychological and economic damage to the people of the city, many are debating the best way to build again on the site. A number of conflicting interests need to be addressed, including the demands of the real-estate developer who owns the leases on the sixteen-acre site to return it to financial profitability, and the demands of the families of the victims that the


Projects published in the monograph Earthquake! (Lebbeus Woods), RIEA Concepts Series, Springer Wien/New York, 2001. 8 Project published in the book The Storm and The Fall (Lebbeus Woods), Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2004.

site become a permanent memorial to those who died. How can the conflict between short-term and long-term goals be reconciled in the designs for the reconstruction? Commercial interests have the upper hand from the beginning. New York is a tough town whose resiliency depends to some extent on a lack of sentimentality and a particular kind of ruthlessness. Large, blocky skyscrapers are proposed to replace the ones that fell. A memorial park will be built at ground level, literally in the long shadows of the new towers, where tourists and others can ‘reflect on the absence’ of the former towers, and all the lost lives, too. Many believe this is an inadequate expression of the complexities of the situation. The proposal I have made for the reconstruction of the site is intentionally abstract and, in that sense, architecturally incomplete. At this stage, I strongly believe, it is wiser to present concepts and not finished forms. Also, and no less important, the finished forms must be the result of a process involving many people and often conflicting factors, a collaboration in the realization of what in many ways must be idealistic and visionary. No single architect or team can achieve this by the usual design method of predetermining a final form. The “World Center” proposes a massive building, containing vast amounts of rentable space for offices, retail stores and malls, entertainment centers, as well as apartments of various types, and parking. It is a building perpetually under construction, reaching ever higher into the sky. It is the world’s tallest building and will always be the world’s tallest building. Its unique feature is a vertical memorial park that reaches from the street to the ever-ascending Summit. The park, called The Ascent, rises continuously within the building mass, and contains a series of Stations, which are resting points and also places of contact between those ascending and the stories of the twin towers creation and destruction, the multitudes touched by those events, and experiences related, directly and indirectly, to the aftermath and reconstruction. Inevitably, these stories touch upon many aspects of urban life, in New York and elsewhere, forming an epic story within an upward journey that can be made be visitors in hours, days, or weeks. At the Summit is a community of people who have chosen to live and work high above the city. Artists, scholars, architects, poets and many others mingle with office workers, residents, and visitors in a diverse, self-organizing community devoted to reflection on and contemplation of the events surrounding this site on September 11, 2001.9 Nine. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 2004. Under the impetus of curator Tracy Myers, The Heinz Architecture Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art decides to mount an exhibition called “Lebbeus Woods: Experimental Architecture.” The gallery spaces are designed in an aggressive postmodernist style that underscores the need for the design of the exhibition, if it is to live up


First published in New York Magazine, September 10, 2002, Also published in the book The Storm and The Fall (Lebbeus Woods), Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2004.

to its title, to challenge the existing architecture, becoming, in itself, an experiment in design, construction and use. An exhibition is a form of temporary construction, as is most experimental architecture. This is necessary because the experimental most often addresses conditions of the present and attempts to explore how these affect longer term conditions. While the future emerges from the present, the present itself is evanescent, ‘temporary.’ Often, experimental works test some larger idea, an hypothesis or theory, against the stringency of a particular situation. In the design of this exhibition, the concept tests one more time the potency and relevance of the radical and transient architectural intervention. The usual practice of hanging drawings on walls and putting objects and models on pedestals in effect legitimizes both the conventional ways of thinking about what we see and the context framing what is seen. This is not helpful when the content of the work shown challenges exactly these things. Therefore the design calls for the insertion of the works into the existing galleries on their own terms. The drawings are still attached to walls, but ones that reshape the existing spaces in ways unpredicted by the galleries’ conventional order. Equally important, the drawings are exhibited as printed images and not as original objects, in order that they can be manipulated in size to work with the newly configured spaces. In short, they are treated as architectural elements. The original models are shown, though not as detached art objects. Rather, they are grouped on a constructed landscape that is formally and conceptually consistent. Finally, the ‘tangle’ is a constructed spatial structure that can only be entered in imagination, as a field of spatial potential defined by independent visual interpretations. The experimental works made over the past decade or so, including finally the exhibition installation itself, explore what architecture is and might yet become. They mark beginnings, not conclusions, but at the same time test a few key concepts by applying them to variations on a set of problems that I consider crucial to these times, and which have largely been neglected in the field of architecture. Whether they lead ultimately to architecture that participates fully in the present and future depends on whether others will apply them to the problems and challenges confronting them. There is no way to be certain they will. But that is always the risk of the experimental.

18 March 2004 (revised 22 March)

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