The show wasn’t big; it didn’t try to overwhelm you with quantity. It didn’t need to: just a selection of representative work from the last few decades. “Just”!
Awareness of his absence amplified the pathos of the work.
I couldn’t help feeling that this was probably the last time an architect’s work would be represented by a show of freehand drawings. A tradition inaugurated with Alberti finding its conclusion in Woods. People tell me I’m wrong about this—that a lot of architects are still skilled in traditional drawing skills. But photography and computer renderings are the visual currency: it’s hard to imagine any present-day school or office encouraging anyone to refine their gifts as Woods did his.
And his gifts were extraordinary. Modernist orthodoxy promotes the de-skilling of craft as an essential component of the de-mystification of art. And perhaps justly so: there’s something magical and uncanny about ease with which Woods evokes materials, surfaces, textures, different degrees of buoyancy and gravity, with a few ink scratches, and patches of color.
And the clarity and refinement that characterize the style of drawing perhaps has a function beyond mere presentation. It frames the vision, which is of situations that are violently inchoate and unrefined. Frames in both the sense of “separates from its context,” and also the sense of “amplifies by contrast.”
And the vision is the essential thing. Looking at his drawings from the early Nineties, its impossible not to see them as visions of things to come. His ostensible subject might have been Sarajavo, but he was drawing the East African embassies, lower Manhattan, Bagdad, New Orleans, Tohoku …. Woods gave form to our now familiar landscape of spectacular urban catastrophe. The hope he offers out is not that disaster will be averted, but that—with ingenuity, improvisation, freedom—it might be possible to live among the ruins.
This sounds like a description of a Piranesi drawing, and the connections with the earlier draughtsman of tragedy resonated throughout the exhibit. The linking of their names now seems inevitable.
[Image: Lebbeus Woods, San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City, 1995]