Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Book Angle on Lebbeus Woods

A quote on the wall of the Lebbeus Woods exhibit at SFMOMA knocked me over, which unfortunately I did not transcribe at the time. He wrote, in essence, that we spend much of our life resisting hardships, decay, catastrophes rather than incorporating them into our designs. One of his blog posts touches on this idea of decay, accompanied by beautiful photos of ruins. Another blog post that tackles his notions of resistance. The exhibit featured some models that showed how a ruined structure might be strengthened including both the original building as well as some of its ruins. His models demonstrated how the building might show its history, but be rebuilt with integrity, so that it also functioned as an inhabitable space.



Of course, I immediately thought about books. Not just their deconstruction. We've seen artists who take books apart to let the bindings show, who tear fabric from the covers. But how one might start from scratch to design the book for its wear while possibly including hints of its future? Woods' work seems to do this with buildings. But that's what good art does: gives you itchy fingers, drills a new tunnel through a mountain you didn't know was even there.

I had hoped to take some photographs, but just as I was thinking about taking out my camera I noticed a man focusing his iPad on the wall. The guard charged over, "No photography! No taking pictures!" If only I had thought of that strategy: find the one piece you love and take a picture of it before the guard sees you. Online, of course, there are many ways to see the show. Photos that document it pretty well are here. But really, the drawings up close, in real life, are breathtaking, hard to capture online anyway.

Woods (1940-2012) is described as a "paper architect" because very few of his designs were built; they were highly conceptual. And I must admit that as I thought about families returning to bombed-out homes that had incorporated the scars of war into their design, I felt uneasy. I suspected they would want their homes remade as they were, that they would not want to have daily reminders of the trauma. Unfortunately, Woods, in his book Radical Reconstruction, along with some fascinating ideas, has some disturbing notions about what should and should not happen in architecture that I'm not convinced make sense in the real world. There is a lot of "what if" about it, which is great for art, but means you must suspend disbelief for life: building a house into an earthquake fault, for example. A friend and colleague from Cooper Union, where Woods taught, is quoted as saying that Woods, "always wanted us to feel a little uncomfortable in order to make things change." The words in the book definitely make the reader uncomfortable. Still, the pictures are exquisite. An example, I think, of how we do not have to agree with the artist's total philosophy to be inspired by his work. 

As an artist,Woods is inspirational, and his visions have been used with and without his permission in science fiction films such as Twelve Monkeys and Alien III, a film that was never made. Some great images are featured in an article in Wired February 2013. And his work has already convinced me to rethink some preconceived notions. 

Books, to me, are structures, places to inhabit. As makers of them we have a tendency to work on a grid, keep them in rectangular form. Photopolymer plates opened up the possibility for letterpress printing easily on a curve, but still the majority of printed work has sharp angles. For the most part, when paper is folded, it folds in straight lines. Bookbinding is built on precision, but I'm interested in developing and using that precision to express movement through its lines, not just through its words and/or images. Let's look at the possibility of movement through the architecture of the book, similar to Woods' incorporating the scar into the building. But because no lives are at stake, no feelings to consider, I think this concept can move into reality in an exciting new form. The adjectives to work with might be: twisting, exposing, staggering, layering, dangling, offsetting, rotating. And taking into account the shadows as well.

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