Monday, November 19, 2012

Inspiration - The Dreams of Lebbius Woods

I first saw a drawing by Lebbius Woods while I was working on my thesis project at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota in 1974.  It was (in my dusty memory) a simple perspective drawing of an interior, but it was startling in several ways; first, it was a perspective (unusual in those isometric days), second, it used bright harmonious colors (in a time of white and wood), and finally, it was fantastic rather than functional.  It was a unique vision in my constricted world, and it influenced my thesis project immediately.

When I worked as an architect in NYC, Lebbius did renderings on a number of projects I worked on.  I tried (and failed) to copy his style, which was always inimitable, but the sheer challenge exhilarating.  Later I found that Lebbius’s rendering work was nothing more than the cash cow which he used to fund his architectural explorations.  And his explorations would be the basis for his fame.

Unfortunately, Lebbius Woods died October 30.  Although I had a couple of conversations with him over the years, I can’t say that we were friends.  Yet, he was one of the frames which directed the path of my life, and I mourn the loss of one of the few geniuses I knew.  So, Lebbius is gone, but, as I quipped to a friend, “he left his drawings.”

Above is Lebbius’s take on the Times Square Tower Competition.  You can compare it to my submission at the end of the last blog post on “conceptual sketches”.  I like to think that we were heading in the same direction, but in any case it is interesting to compare and contrast.  

Although He was already making a name in the early ‘70’s, I have no drawings earlier than the 3 following from 1979.  They show his love for developing patterns and textures on flat surfaces, as well as an architectonic “homage” to van Doesburg, Rudolph and Eisenman.

In 1982 he published AEON the Architecture of Time.  The rendering technique is the same as his commercial rendering (color pencil), but the effect is brooding and mysterious.  He was still working on ideas that hearken back to familiar forms such as 1930’s skyscrapers, and his view through the branches looking toward a set of industrial silos is almost picturesque.  And yet, the mood is dark in both cases.

Lebbius was drifting toward conceptual illustration, as exemplified by this Sci-Fi book cover from 1983.  Eventually he did work in Hollywood, which was natural given his brilliant imagination.

Not long after, he was pushing his imagination into more alien territory.  Origins, from 1985 fused a rough ink technique with architectural forms which are hard to categorize.  But the genius of his hand makes even the most curious features seem solid and real.  The closest “sources” I can think of for these forms are the concrete masses of Louis Kahn, and the industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

The following image, also from Origins, shows Lebbius starting to merge conceptual diagrams and abstract doodles with his realistic renderings.  It is a montage board presentation technique that I love, but with an extra creative twist or three.  The combination of abstract snapshots, obfuscating notation, and solid reality creates a tension that he would exploit more and more in his exploratory career.

The rendering work is so solidly realistic that it is useful to have examples of preliminary sketches.  The following two images are rough underlays of final drawings, and show his ability to think in perspective terms while working out details.

Below is an example from The New City which highlights the contrast of strange architecture and beautifully believable rendering.  The nearly monochromatic color scheme is typical of his way of enforcing unity on the unfamiliar.

This image from Anarchitecture – Architecture as a Political Act, shows Lebbius’s sure eye for a simple palette that harmonizes while challenging the conventional.

Another image from Anarchitecture shows a fascination with destruction and decay; handled, as always, in the most elegant way.

A final image from Anarchitecture, below, is a tour-de-force of controlled chaos.  The date is 1992, and the mood is a precursor to many computer games which came out in the ‘90s.  Again, the juxtaposition of near chaotic abstraction, and strange realism is pure Lebbius.

By the mid ‘90s Lebbius was engrossed in the forms of disaster and destruction, whether natural or manmade.  His book Radical Reconstruction (1997) moved solidly into the political; at least as far as fantastic architecture can go along with politics.  Below are designs based on structural failure during earthquakes and floods, respectively.  He also riffed on the war time destruction of Sarajevo, and the economic decay of Havana.  The human figures on the second image are a rare occurrence.

As with all our great historic artists, Lebbius Woods is dead, but is not gone.  His ideas and drawings survive to inspire, instruct and challenge.  

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