The Architecture of Nightmares

Circa 1999, Lebbeus Woods, detail of Terrain 1-2

In “Imagination Unmoored” (8 August 2008) I suggested that in addition to our dreams we might end up living in our nightmares. It struck me as a strange thought when I wrote it, though I didn’t even have to think any particular scenario — the eccentric, the accidental, the illicit — all the way through for its plausibility to be apparent. Our culture already abounds in it. It is in this regard that the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have been inducted into the Library of America and that players sign up for Hord in World of Warcraft. Alternative iconography seeks stark contrasts with the mundane, with Goth tending toward horror and punk the post-apocalyptic. Pornography has always tarried with the Sadistic and the surreal.

Any art of the found will inevitably end up scavenging our calamities as well as our aspirations. Enter Lebbeus Woods whose architectural design work will be included in Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (Ouroussoff, Nichlai, “An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World,” 24 August 2008):

In the early 1990s he published a stunning series of renderings that explored the intersection of architecture and violence. The first of these, the Berlin Free-Zone project, designed soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was conceived as an illustration of how periods of social upheaval are also opportunities for creative freedom.

Aggressive machinelike structures — their steel exteriors resembling military debris — are implanted in the abandoned ruins of buildings that flank the wall’s former death zone. Cramped and oddly shaped, the interiors were designed to be difficult to inhabit — a strategy for screening out the typical bourgeois. (“You can’t bring your old habits here,” he warned. “If you want to participate, you will have to reinvent yourself.”)

This vision reached its extreme in a series of renderings he created in 1993 in response to the war in Bosnia. Inspired by sci-fi comics and full of writhing cables, crumbling buildings and flying shards of steel, these drawings seem to mock the old Modernist faith in a utopian future. Their dark, moody atmosphere suggests a world in a constant struggle for survival.

In 1999 he began working on a series of designs whose fragmented planes were intended to reflect the seismic shifts that occur during earthquakes. (“The idea is that it’s not nature that creates catastrophes,” he said. “It’s man. The renderings were intended to reflect a new way of thinking about normal geological occurrences.”)

“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” Mr. Woods told me. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

The article actually laments that the young generation in architecture has been made facile by overuse of computers. Au contraire! That is exactly how we are to experience the architecture of the impractical, built under fanciful physics.