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Holding Out for a Hero

An architect flexes his muscles at the Carnegie

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Spider-Man, Batman, Catwoman: Clearly, the superhero world places no limitation on eccentricity in determining what makes for an allowable special power. In fact, the Incredible Hulk's ability to achieve superhero status based on suppressed rage ought to be inspiration for architecture critics everywhere. But that's just not enough: Even though I have seen a few comic books about architects, I want an actual architect superhero, one who uses special powers of design to promote the forces of good.

 

As the current exhibition at the Carnegie Museum's Heinz Architectural Center demonstrates -- and as his 7:30 p.m. lecture on Sept. 10 in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater will doubtless reaffirm -- Lebbeus Woods may be that man.

 

I should clarify. A practicing architect since the 1960s, Woods determined early in his career that he preferred developing projects purely as drawings and writings rather than through construction with a client and contractor. "I realized that working for clients, who commission buildings of well-defined 'types,' made it nearly impossible to commission new, experimental types of buildings," he has said. For Woods, architecture is not simply a specialized professional or artistic enterprise; it is a way of understanding the world and addressing its most serious problems.

 

Rigorous theory underlies all of Woods' work. Yet many of his drawings, all of them masterfully executed, look like they could be torn from the pages of a science-fiction comic book, or perhaps a Star Wars movie storyboard. So don't let the evil specter of theoretical architecture scare you away: The drawings are awesome, in every sense of the word.

 

This quality only makes their seriousness more complex. Woods has been obsessed by war since observing its ravages in the Balkans in the early 1990s. He sees architecture as an instrument to both acknowledge the horrors of war and to prevent them. The architect imagines war reconstruction as permanent recognition of the physical and psychic horrors of war. His repairs are "injections," "scabs" and "scars," surrealistically robotic fuselages of (apparent) sheet metal grafted onto the holes in conventional brick-and-mortar buildings. "Scar construction, 1993" is one of these drawings, in which the meticulous attention to rendering mundane brick makes the angular cybernetic infill seem that much more convincing.

 

Fantasy architecture also means never having to send drawings to a structural engineer -- that's one of your superpowers. So the "Suspended Freespace Structure" from the "Zagreb Free Zone" series imagines a multi-story vertical agglomeration of tubes, pods and cables strung between existing buildings and balanced on one point. It's a mobile meeting center (presumably capable of traveling through the air) for citizens of various ethnicities to resolve their differences. Both in his writings and in this exhibit's promotional film, Woods contends that the necessary explanations for his work often defy concise description. But you can still appreciate the fact that when Architecture Man designs a Hall of Justice, it's especially cool.

 

Similarly, Woods has turned the Heinz Architectural Center into his own version of the Bat Cave. In the long corridor, constructed wall panels with oversized images of scratchy drawings (some not incidentally of the World Trade Center) lean ominously inward toward the viewer. A few zigs and zags on the picture plane representing the towers emerge from the panel as actual bent aluminum tubes, a motif introduced by a tall vertical panel in the gallery's multi-story entry space. The tubes are both visual and sculptural, and on occasions when they lean out far enough to support the panels, they become structural as well. Then, in the rearmost gallery, they become an allegory, as bent aluminum tubes fill an entire room and spill out into the next. What began as the lines of an architectural drawing become a shiny briar patch of cheerfully tangled architectural elements, each indicating the dynamic power and potential of architecture.

 

You're not supposed to touch these tubes, but it seems as though Woods has supplied them as both artifacts and agents of his creative power -- as if each visitor should grab a tube and go out in the world to do something with it. The implication is that architectural superpowers belong not simply to Woods but to anyone who wants to become an agent of his ideas.

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