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Like many people, I was devastated to learn that Lebbeus Woods passed away two nights ago, just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighbourhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building – an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.

I can’t pretend to have been a confidant of his, let alone a colleague, but Lebbeus’s influence over my own interest in architecture is impossible to exaggerate and his kindness and generosity as a friend to me here in New York City was a reassuring thing to receive. I say this, of course, while referring to someone whose New Year’s toast a few years ago to a room full of friends gathered down at his loft near the Financial District was that we should all have, as he phrased it, a “difficult New Year”. That is, we should all look forward to, even seek out or engineer, a new year filled with the kinds of challenges Lebbeus felt, rightly or not, that we deserved to face, fight, and, in all cases, overcome – the genuine and endless difficulty of pursuing our own ideas, absurd goals no one else might share or even be interested in.

This was the New Year’s wish of a true friend: someone who believes in and trusts your capacity to become what you want to be, and someone who will help to engineer circumstances in which that transformation might most productively occur.

If you were to walk through an architecture school today – and I don’t recommend it – you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone very good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything.

Lebbeus will be missed for his formal inventiveness: buildings on stilts, massive seawalls, rotatable buildings that look like snowflakes. Deformed coasts anti-seismically jewelled with buildings. Tombs for Einstein falling through space.

But this would be to miss the motivating absence at the heart of all those explorations, which is that we don’t yet know what the world is, what the Earth is – whether or not there even is a world or an Earth or a universe at all – and architecture is one of the arts of discovering an answer to that question. Even flat-out fabricating an answer to this, meaning that architecture is more mythology than science. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that: it is exactly why architecture will always be more heroic than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone’s home.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and – as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers – neither should we.

Geoff Manaugh

Writer and editor of BLDGBLOG

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