Nov. 27 2013 12:00 AM

Lebbeus Woods, avatar of ‘anarchitecure,’ carves out a free zone

An architect who doesn’t want to compromise has very few options.

One, really — the path of Lansing-born architect Lebbeus Woods.

Woods drew up exquisitely detailed blueprints for impossible places. He dispatched subversive worms of “free space” to tunnel into towers and float over cities. Later in life, he pared his ideas down to swarms of abstract shards — all on paper. He owed nothing to big government or big capital. There are no spaces in his designs for corporate logos or donor walls.

After five months at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Woods’ drawings and models will fill the second floor of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum this winter. With 100 works from the last 35 years, the traveling exhibit is the biggest array of Woods’ works ever gathered, drawing from the SFMOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney, the Getty Research Institute and MAK Vienna.

Joseph Becker, assistant curator of architecture and design at SF- MOMA and one of the curators of the Broad exhibit, said it’s too soon for a fully researched retrospective. Woods, born in Lansing in 1940 and based in New York for much of his life, died on Oct. 30, 2012, at 72, while the exhibit was being developed.

But it’s the perfect time, Becker said, for an “invitation” into Woods’ world that can be accepted at several levels.

“You can take it as just drawings,” Becker said. “You can dive into the psychology behind the spaces he’s creating. It’s up to you.”

Some people will be content just to gape at the sci-fi wonderment on the walls. The Broad exhibit includes a drawing called “Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber,” known as the “’12 Monkeys chair” ever since director Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian film with Bruce Willis shamelessly appropriated the design. (Woods won a tidy lawsuit over the theft.) Sci-fi fans also know Woods as the creator of haunting, cathedral-like set designs for the unmade “Alien 3” film, which morphed into the conventionally gross “Alien III” when the director was replaced.

The Hadid connection On top of Woods’ ideas and images, the Broad Museum exhibit has an extra dimension its San Francisco counterpart couldn’t match: the crackling interplay between Woods’ work and Zaha Hadid’s Broad Museum. The affinity is no accident. Hadid and Woods knew and admired each other. Hadid started out as a “paper architect” working with pure forms; Woods stayed that way all his life. It was the only way for him to escape the weight of client money and ignore all the rules, from building codes to the laws of gravity.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, assistant curator of architecture and design at SFMOMA, was in East Lansing setting up the exhibit Friday.

“Woods provoked a lot architects to actually build,” Fletcher said. “Zaha has taken that very far and has never let go of the experimental aspect in building.”

“Conflict Space,” a set of four huge drawings from 2006, is a flash point of synergy at the exhibit. Only one of the four drawings fit in the exhibit’s SFMOMA run. This is the first time all four have been displayed at once, Becker said.

Two of the drawings are pinned on the museum wall, just as they were when Woods worked on them in his studio. The other two float away from one of the Broad’s slanted walls, as if jumping from the worktable into the air, kept plumb by a hidden wedge.

“We had some hesitation about that, for sure,” Becker said. “Would it be too much of a synergy? But it works really well. Now you can see a little bit of the origin story of this kind of experimental architecture.”

Becker relished the chance to thrust the angles and lines of “Conflict Space” into a room full of angles and lines. “They begged for it,” he said.

Toward the end of last week’s setup, he did a walkabout with Fletcher, ending at “Conflict Space.” The museum’s balcony gallery, one of three rooms devoted to Woods’ work, showcases his later, more abstract creations. The drawings looked at home, on a planet where their language was spoken.

Becker pointed to the shiny ebony trim that zips along the gallery floor and zigzags into the boldly tilted main entrance.

“That black line comes out and does this radical thing right here,” Becker said, tracing it with his finger. Fletcher nodded.

“It’s a great conversation,” she replied. To Fletcher’s eye, Woods’ radical drawings looked like the provocations of an enfant terrible in the rectilinear galleries of SFMOMA.

Not at the Broad. “Here, it feels like he’s this fatherly voice,” she said.

Chaos and destruction, early in life Lebbeus Woods was born in Lansing in 1940, but was still in diapers when he left. His father worked in civil and military jobs that kept him on the move.

“This period in his life is a little unclear for me,” Lebbeus Woods Jr. said after Friday’s exhibit opening at the Broad. “I don’t know whether it was a military or civil capacity which brought my grandfather here, but he was only here for six months.”

Before Woods reached his teens, his father, who worked on the Manhattan Project and was present at atomic bomb tests, died of radiation poisoning. At a curator talk Friday, Becker showed a slide of a massive Los Alamos wind tunnel that resembled some of Woods’ creations. Woods, he said, was “exposed to the idea of chaos and destruction” early in life.

Woods did some scientific and technical illustration while studying engineering at Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and later worked in the field for architect Eero Saarinen on the John Deere World Headquarters and Manhattan’s Ford Foundation building. But his heart was in the lower Manhattan art scene, where musicians and artists were inventing a punk aesthetic that owed nothing to government or corporate money. The inner conflict behind architect Philip Johnson’s famous statement “I am a whore and am paid very well to build high-rise buildings” would never plague Woods, although he often struggled financially and had to sell many of his drawings to get by. Later, he became a much-loved professor of architecture at Cooper Union in New York’s East Village. The school started charging tuition the year after he died.

Woods Jr., a financial adviser in Indianapolis, remembered the 1980s vividly.

“Some of my fondest memories as a kid were visiting him when he had a loft in Tribeca in Manhattan,” he said.

The loft was unfinished, with metal plates covering holes in the floor. Woods built a 50-foot-long drawing table along a brick wall, cranked up his favorite composer — Richard Wagner — and went to work.

“I remember my father hunched over the table for hours on end, so focused and dedicated,” Woods said.

Woods Jr., compared his childhood to the mysterious “free zones” that float over and inside some of the buildings in his father’s drawings. (Often, the “free zones” are cobbled together from the shards of buildings damaged by wars or earthquakes.) What goes on in the “free zones?” Woods never explained, insisting that they wouldn’t be free zones if he did.

“My father embraced that concept of self-determination,” Woods Jr. said. “He allowed me to follow my own interests and my own career.”

Becker was struck by the same quality while working with Woods two summers ago, in the early stages of the exhibit.

“For being such a force and having such a presence, I was amazed at how gentle and open he is to having any kind of discussion about anything, whether it’s literature, art or architecture,” Becker said. (Check out Woods’ blog at for a banquet of stimulating opinions and ideas.)

“The part about my father that most people who see his work will never truly appreciate was the quality of man he was,” Woods Jr. said. “Very gentle, very kind, very humble.”

“He just loved having conversations,” Becker said. “I never felt like you could have a wrong opinion.”

But Woods was a provocateur, especially when it came to architecture. Everyone who sees the exhibit at the Broad, curators included, is bound to worry at the same bone:

What would Woods have thought of it?

“We’re pondering that question,” Fletcher said.

Despite the mutual respect between Woods and Hadid, the former publicly disliked the latter’s 2012 Olympics Aquatic Center.

Woods Jr. followed the disagreement closely. “He saw such genius in her, he was disappointed — and that’s my word — that she missed an opportunity to do what he believed architecture should do, which is to present new options and new alternatives,” Woods said. “He thought she had maybe gone with what was too simple and too easy.”

After scrutinizing the Broad Museum and the way his father’s work inhabits it, the younger Woods concluded that the East Lansing exhibit is a different story.

“This very much feels like re-imagined space,” he said. “It forces people inside to rethink their interaction with it. I think he’d be pleased to have his work exhibited here.”

Lebbeus Woods, Architect

Nov. 22-March 2, 2014 Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum