Architecture as the Solid State of Thoughts: a Dialogue with Lebbeus Woods – Part 1

Thursday, November 18, 2010 15:59

An interview with Lebbeus Woods by Corrado Curti

version pdf

The works and writings of Lebbeus Woods unveil a deep and hidden fracture that severs the intellectual and critical practice of architecture – often exercised by a handful of high-profile, and occasionally aloof, theorists – from its business-as-usual, labour-intensive counterpart – no matter how big the firm, or how glossy the cover of the magazine featuring its projects.

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Man on a Wire – Philippe Petit image via Arts Meme

The Experimental Architect¹ inhabits the space that lies between these two extremes. And in this obscure grey area he or she, rather like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, travels alone along unexplored paths and trajectories that bridge the two shores of failure: a “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

CC: Feynman said that science can be seen as: “the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race[‘s] experience from the past” in his discourse dedicated to What is Science?² In 1966. Karl Popper on the other hand, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery³ , wrote: “we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a “body of knowledge”, but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are “true”.

Although architecture cannot be considered a Positive Science, these definitions could be appropriate for architecture too. To what extent, and how, can scientific thinking be applied to Architecture?

LW: Science on the level Feynman and Popper refer to is highly speculative and creative, relying on imaginative people to give it some new and original form. There is plenty of lesser science that simply recasts and reshuffles things we already know to put a finer point on it. Architecture is much the same.

There is the everyday architectural practice that recasts and reshuffles the already known – office buildings, housing projects, shopping malls – that simply refine for tastes of the moment the familiar typologies, meeting the demand for something new, but not too new, that is, new to the point that we don’t feel comfortable with it, demanding that we have to change our habits too much. The upper, really creative levels of science are very inspiring, but only to architects who aspire to make a breakthrough, to solve a problem that has never existed before or has not yet been solved. For the other, everyday architects, this level of science is of little use or interest.

Architecture is existential. Its hypotheses and theories, the problems that it confronts are of the constantly shifting conditions of being human

It’s important to understand here that there are, with respect to knowledge, crucial differences between science and architecture. Science presumes that there is some ‘truth’ that must be discovered and defined, say, the structure of the atom or the origins of the universe. All the creative types in science can get to work on such well-defined problems, or aspects of them. In architecture, there is no such equivalent truth to be found, defined, or understood. Architecture is existential. Its hypotheses and theories, the problems that it confronts are of the constantly shifting conditions of being human. While they may hold some basic human traits – physical and mental – the goal for architects should not be to enshrine these in eternal laws and forms, but to enable people to live to their full potential, whatever that is or may be. Scientific thinking can only be of limited help in this task.

CC: The term Experimental is so widely used in contemporary architectural discourse that it often becomes vague and generic. Today, various different approaches such as: the integration of software and informatics in design processes to generate and control forms, the introduction of new manufacturing technologies to building techniques and processes, and the application of innovative materials to buildings may all be referred to as experimental. During the course of your career you have researched into the possibility of establishing the field of Experimental Architecture as a distinct branch within the discipline. How do you define it?
LW: An experiment, simply put, is a test of an idea or a hypothesis, a ‘what if,’ to see if it works in reality.
An experiment is NOT the creation of the hypothesis – that belongs to the realm of theory. It is also NOT the application of its results to reality – that belongs to the realm of practice. The experiment is an in-between realm. It happens, to use the scientific term, in a laboratory – a personal space and under controlled conditions. In architecture it necessarily takes some spatial, visual form – drawings and models by hand and computer are most common. These can be evaluated post-facto by the architect and others regarding their confirmation of the hypothesis and also their potential usefulness in practice.

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Magdeburger-Halbkugeln, Kupferstich Gaspar Schotts zu von Guerickes Halbkugel-Experiment, via Wikimedia.org

It has always seemed important to me to establish the experimental as a distinct activity in the field of architecture because of the changing nature of the field in the contemporary world. In the past, the role of buildings and the architects who designed them was clearly defined, because society itself was clearly defined in its hierarchical structure. There was little need for theory because people knew what buildings were supposed to do, the only variables being of style and arrangement of architecture’s already known, historically precedented components. Consequently, there was no use for the experimental or an in-between stage of design. Whatever experimenting the architect did was folded into the normal design process. There were no new hypotheses to confirm before the architect and a client committed themselves to full-scale construction.

But all this changed when our society – ever more global in scope and technological in character – itself began to change more and more quickly. There are new technologies introduced almost every day and these change the ways people live. Political and economic changes are happening almost as frequently. It seems obvious that the pace of change is accelerating to the point where the changes are qualitative and structural. The need for new kinds of space is growing, but architects – in their practices – don’t have either the temperament or the time to explore new possibilities. This creates the need for the experimental architect, who is devoted to such exploration. This is a historically new situation, and I believe that the field of architecture has yet to respond to it. RIEA, I have hoped, will create the example of what might be done.

CC: You founded the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture in 1988, and have been directing it now for over 20 years. What role do you envisage for RIEA in relation to the issues discussed?

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image taken from Peter Cook, RIEA The First Conference, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 19904

LW: As you know, RIEA is being directed by a Board of Directors now and is more open and democratic than in the days when I had the greatest influence. I think that is a good development, especially considering the complexity of problems in the world today that confront architecture and that RIEA is engaging with. It is really my hope that RIEA will show leadership in identifying the most critical problems, clearly formulating them, and then contribute both concepts as well as analytical and design techniques towards some practical solutions.
Of course, this is already overly ambitious, but I think a group such as RIEA may be one of the few that can freely set the highest goals, because we don’t have a political or economic agenda. If we only get halfway there, that will still amount to a lot.

CC: The Building Industry is possibly the most reluctant sector to embrace innovation, both from a cultural and technological point of view. Tradition is a highly respected cultural value – even though it often hides cheap vernacularism and low-cost-low-quality building techniques – while technological innovation is mostly produced in other sectors – military, aeronautical and mechanical – before it is translated into architecture.

Frankly, I think to justify this by saying that only certain sectors can afford to invest in R & D, just isn’t good enough. The truth is that architects are struggling to find ways of boosting innovation in their own sector.

The UN estimates that architecture, as a profession, is affecting no more than 5% of what is being built worldwide. Proportionally, this indicates that architects are only responding to the needs of an extremely small, and affluent percentage of the world’s population. Does this mean that we, as architects, are incapable of forging change and becoming real innovators for fear of the risks and responsibility involved in addressing different fields of work and research? What role can architectural education adapt in relation to these questions?
LW: The most important part of education is asking questions. Young people entering schools of architecture are naturally curious, though they don’t always know what are the most important questions to ask for the future. With more experience in the world generally and in the field of architecture itself, their teachers should offer guidance by framing the most critical questions about what it means to be an architect in today’s world. This should be done in the design studio, where everything comes together, and not only in separate elective courses on ethics, politics, history.

Today’s increasingly service-based economy, one fragmented by computers and internet niches, has created a need for an entirely new typology of living quarters and their groupings, one that has yet to be invented and tested. This is priority for experimental architects.

In the high-pressure realm of professional practice, the really important questions usually don’t get asked and architects ride along on a wave of assumptions about what their responsibilities are and to whom. Architects’ associations are little more than dues-supported clubs. It’s only schools, really, where the tough questions get asked5.

CC: What are the most urgent fields of research that Experimental Architecture should engage in today, and in the immediate future?
LW: The most critical and difficult problem is the rapid growth of cities. The widening gap between the poor and the rich means that much of this growth is in the form of slums and other kinds of unsustainable – in human and environmental terms – newly built urban landscapes. Architecture can’t directly affect the economic disparities, but it can refuse to cooperate with the social institutions that create them. Also, architecture can propose the best possible solutions to slums and deteriorating urban conditions, and not only those that serve prevailing political and economic powers. This is because RIEA does not depend on those powers for its existence.

Certainly, there is a great need for low-cost housing – for housing the growing urban populations. I’m sure that the term ‘housing’ has to change, because it is a typology based on rigid social categories that are today outmoded. Housing meant ‘mass-housing’ for masses of workers employed on factory assembly lines, originally in the form of ‘company towns.’ Later, housing ‘projects’ were designed and built for masses of lower-income urbanites, an underclass that still exists but is much too diverse to be massed together and in effect ghetto-ized.

Today’s increasingly service-based economy, one fragmented by computers and internet niches, has created a need for an entirely new typology of living quarters and their groupings, one that has yet to be invented and tested. This is priority for experimental architects.

Another priority – an even more difficult task – is how to improve the living conditions in existing slums. The best thing would be to eliminate slums – the ones existing today – and make sure no more are built ever again. But this would require the elimination of poverty. Not only is that way out of any architect’s domain, but it’s a task that society as a whole must be committed to achieving – a commitment that has not yet begun to be made. Until it is – if it ever is – architects can and must look for ways for strategies and techniques that slum-dwellers can use to help themselves, if necessary a small step at a time. Something will be better than nothing – which is more or less what’s happening today – architects don’t want to get near the problem.

Finally, for now, I would say that architects who want to explore the most cutting edge issues must confront the relationship of aesthetics – the way things look – to ethics – what things mean in the most fully human sense of the term. Consumerism and mass-marketing have ghetto-ized architects, and especially the most visually talented ones, as product designers, stylists who dress-up conventional products to make them more marketable or simply serve as a form of prestige advertising. Breaking out of and away from this captivity is the highest priority challenge to the field of architecture. What makes it difficult is that architects must develop their social commitments without sacrificing their aesthetic ideals.

It’s not sustainability or beauty, practicality or poetry, but both that have to be accomplished, at the same time, in total harmony and support of each other…(to be continued).

[Due to the lengthiness of this content-rich interview we have decided to publish it in two parts. Part II will be posted later this month]

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¹lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/the-experimenta

² The famous discourse was originally presented by Richard Feynman at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966, in New York City. The text is fully available at: www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html

³Popper K, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Routledge Classics, London 2002, ISBN 0415278449, A brief excerpt is available at: bio.classes.ucsc.edu/bio160/Bio160readings/Logic%20of%20Scientific%20Discovery.pdf

4The First RIEA conference on Experimental Architecture was held at Emmond Farms, Oneonta, New York 1989, The First Conference featured: Peter Cook, Lise Anne Couture, Neil Denari, Godon Gilbert, Ken Kaplan, Ted Krueger, Hani Rashid, Micheal Sorkin, Micheal Webb, Lebbeus Woods

5Lebbeus Woods has written extensively about architectural education and the ideal form of an architectural school on his blog:

lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/01/28/architecture-school-101
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/02/06/architecture-school-102
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/architecture-school-201
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/architecture-school-202
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/architecture-school-301
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/architecture-school-302
lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/architecture-school-401

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15 Responses to “Architecture as the Solid State of Thoughts: a Dialogue with Lebbeus Woods – Part 1”

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  2. Marcia Caines says:

    November 18th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

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  3. Ethel Baraona Pohl says:

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  5. Jack says:

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  6. eva papamargariti says:

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  7. Heather Fenyk says:

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    Architecture as the Solid State of Thoughts: Interview w/ Lebbeus Woods (a little futurology re: cities & architecture) http://bit.ly/ciE23a

  8. miquel lacasta says:

    November 20th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

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  9. Marc Chalamanch says:

    December 6th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

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  10. ARCHITECTURE: the solid state of thought [complete] « LEBBEUS WOODS says:

    December 8th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    […] with Lebbeus Woods: Architecture As the Solid State of Thought, Part I of which was posted here on November 22 2010. We preferred to keep the content of their dialogue unedited, but have divided […]

  11. pudra says:

    January 4th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

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  12. donatella cusma says:

    November 2nd, 2012 at %I:%M %p

    R.I.E.A remembering #LebbeusWoods an interview by our very own Corrado Curti http://t.co/c19YSx7i @MCaines @lebbeuswoods_

  13. Marcia Caines says:

    November 7th, 2012 at %I:%M %p

    R.I.E.A remembering #LebbeusWoods an interview by our very own Corrado Curti http://t.co/c19YSx7i @MCaines @lebbeuswoods_

  14. Marcia Caines says:

    November 7th, 2012 at %I:%M %p

    Remembering good times #LebbeusWoods, R.I.E.A, Corrado Curti & Cluster: #Architecture as the Solid State of Thoughts – http://t.co/WH8QZnkj

  15. Architecture News says:

    November 7th, 2012 at %I:%M %p

    Remembering good times #LebbeusWoods, R.I.E.A, Corrado Curti & Cluster: #Architecture as the Solid State of Thoughts – http://t.co/WH8QZnkj

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