SAN FRANCISCO — On the morning of Oct. 30, as New York surveyed the damage left by Hurricane Sandy, word began to spread that Lebbeus Woods, the experimental architect known for his dystopian and densely layered drawings, had died in Lower Manhattan at the age of 72.
Woods’ death, it turned out, was wedged into the watery and windblown space on the calendar between the arrival of the hurricane and Halloween.
It was almost as if he’d drawn it up himself. As a new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art makes clear, Woods was most at home in precisely that kind of shadowy and forbidding landscape. His hand seemed steadiest and most precise when he was sketching a world coming apart at the seams.
The show’s curators, Joseph Becker and Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, started planning it before Woods fell ill. It draws on SFMOMA’s deep collection of his drawings, which the museum began acquiring in the 1990s.
His death has turned what might have been a late-career tribute into a memorial, a posthumous retrospective. And that has brought a level of expectation that the show is not quite ready to shoulder.
As a sample of Woods’ talents as a draftsman and visionary, the exhibition is stunning. It is less interested in the broader story, in making sense of his wide and complicated influence on the leading architects of his generation.
Woods, a native of Michigan, was trained as an architect and worked for a time in Eero Saarinen’s office. But he gave up traditional practice in his mid-30s, dedicating himself to drawings, models, sketchbooks and the occasional manifesto.
Last year he saw his first and only built project completed in Chengdu, China. Woods designed an open-air terrace crisscrossed with illuminated steel beams — he called it a “light pavilion” — that was embedded within a larger complex of residential buildings by the architect Steven Holl. But for the most part his elaborate drawings were meant not as blueprints but to stand on their own.
His working method was simple or defiantly pre-digital, depending on your point of view. Sitting at the drafting table in his apartment, often holding just a pencil — or a pencil in one hand and a cigarette in the other — he produced entire architectural universes on the page. In that approach he was heir to a rich history of virtuosic drawing and two-dimensional conjecture in architecture that includes the 18th century Italian Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the British postwar collective Archigram.
The San Francisco exhibition begins with drawings from a 1980s series called “Centricity.” They show structures that resemble freeway overpasses and hot-air balloons. Most are cracked or shackled — or girded against some ongoing or imminent disaster.
Characteristically, the drawings combine a sense of ruin and rebirth, as if severe dislocation were a necessary precursor to architectural progress. Indeed, a great irony of Woods’s career is how much that idea — that unrest or even violence leads to creativity — was at odds with the solitude and consistency of his professional life.
There were times when he ventured out to see political conflict up close. A trip to Sarajevo in the 1990s produced a powerful series of drawings on architecture and war. And Hollywood came calling occasionally; Woods produced some early conceptual designs for the third “Alien” movie. But for the most part he worked by himself, undisturbed by clients or contractors.
The SFMOMA show, at the very least, justifies the idea that Woods deserves to be remembered as an architect rather than an artist or provocateur.
Many of the featured drawings imagine architecture digging beneath the Earth or floating above it. In a series called “Aerial Paris,” pterodactyl-like contraptions drag yellow and blue sails through the air above a dense, pre-modern cityscape. But in every case what anchors the ideas is a fundamentally architectural sensibility, an understanding of how buildings (or building-like forms) fit together and reflect light.
Woods’ death prompted an outpouring of tributes from well-known architects, many of whom he’d known for years. Thom Mayne called him “a man of huge integrity and an insatiable inquisitiveness.” Holl praised his work as “a starkly original, metaphysical revolt.”
What those friends of Woods’ didn’t say but might have is that his career offered them a steadfast portrait of a world they left behind. In the 1970s and into the ‘80s, there was a whole group of young architects — Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and others — who reacted against sleek corporate modernism not by attaching columns to the facades of their buildings, as the more upbeat and commercially minded of their peers were doing, but by taking solace in darkly vertiginous drawings or speculative books.
Over time, every one of them except Woods moved past the rebelliousness of those experiments and pursued built work. In the end they became, as a group, some of the most famous and prolific architects in the world. Even John Hejduk, Woods’ colleague at the Cooper Union in New York, saw a number of projects through to completion.
Woods’ nearly monastic approach wasn’t a way to flee from politics or engagement. As he saw things, it was a way to commit himself more fully to architecture’s fundamentals — to thinking in a sustained way about what it is capable of and capable of saving us from.
Meanwhile, the architecture world was changing all around him. While the work he was doing was often explicitly political, the architects he influenced most directly have largely abandoned a confrontational attitude toward establishment clients.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they’ve channeled their old rebellious energies into form-making, giving the facades of their buildings the same barbed personalities they once flaunted in their personal and professional lives. Of course, this may be just a familiar case of architects picking their battles more carefully as they grow older.
Still, the absolute fealty of these architects to Woods — the reverent tone they used to talk about him before and after his death — says something important about the generation now at the top of the profession and how they’ve made sense of their fame. Even as Woods was pouring his own imagination into dense and unsettled made-up worlds, he was serving as a vessel for the collective angst and sentimentality of a group of once radical and now wildly successful architects.
They turned to him for many of the same reasons he turned to paper and pencil: to hold fast to a stubborn purity largely missing in the profession, just as it is largely missing in the world at large.