Lebbeus Woods, influential experimental architect, dies at 72

Lebbeus Woods, an experimental architect who inspired colleagues and architecture students with radically inventive designs and installations that evoked futuristic worlds and cityscapes, died Oct. 30 in Manhattan. He was 72.

The death was confirmed by Steven Holl, an architect who was a longtime colleague. The cause of death was not made public.

Although Mr. Woods’s designs were rarely constructed, they were considered widely influential and were exhibited in museums around the world, including a recent show at New York’s Friedman Benda gallery. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art plans an exhibition of his work beginning in February.

At a time of growing commercialism in architecture, Mr. Woods pushed firmly in the opposite direction, eschewing conventional boundaries of all kinds.

In that spirit, he flew to Sarajevo in the 1990s as the former Yugoslavia was being torn apart, entering the city while it was still under siege to create drawings of an imagined postwar capital that combined elements of destruction and rebirth, with appendages he called “scabs” or “scars” attached to damaged buildings to represent healing.

“He picked very poignant and contemporary political contexts to make drawings and try to intervene,” said Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles-based architect and friend. “He was trying to see the world in a different way.”

In a famous drawing of Lower Manhattan, with eerie resonance in recent days, Mr. Woods conceived of a time when massive dams would be used to contain the Hudson and East rivers. He depicted the island atop a giant gorge, its granite foundation exposed and an underworld below. In another well-known work, he drew a detailed imaginary tomb for Albert Einstein, a heavenly spaceship that would circle the Earth on a beam of light.

Mr. Woods may not have expected those drawings to become reality. But in a 2008 interview with the New York Times, he said that although his work was often described as fantasy, he believed many of his designs could in fact be built.

“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” he said. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what would happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne, another close friend, said Mr. Woods’s influence on the field was immeasurable.

“He was an unparalleled character, a man of ideas, of concepts, really a moral center for architects,” said Mayne, who said he and others turned frequently to Mr. Woods for productive advice and criticism of their own work.

A longtime professor at the Cooper Union’s school of architecture in New York, Mr. Woods also taught frequently at other schools, including the Southern California Institute of Architecture. In 2003, he worked with more than a dozen students at the Los Angeles school to create a sprawling, temporary installation of 1,400 steel rods running the length of the facility.

This year, his colleagues said, Mr. Woods realized a longtime dream with the construction of his only permanent structure, a pavilion for a housing complex designed by Holl in Chengdu, China. Mr. Woods collaborated on the work, called the Light Pavilion, with architect Christoph Kumpusch. It was completed in October.

Lebbeus Woods was born May 31, 1940, in Lansing, Mich. His father, an Army engineer who worked on the Manhattan Project, died when his son was a teenager.

Mr. Woods studied engineering at Purdue University and architecture at the University of Illinois before working for Eero Saarinen and Associates from 1964 to 1968. He later devoted himself exclusively to his conceptual work.

Mr. Woods’s designs have often been compared to the imagery of science fiction, and his influence can be seen in a number of films of the genre. In the mid-1990s, he sued the makers of the movie “12 Monkeys” for what he saw as the unlawful copying of one of his designs.

The architect said director Terry Gilliam used his 1987 design “Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber,” which depicts an elongated chair mounted on a wall and a sphere suspended in front of the chair. Mr. Woods said the filmmakers copied the design for a scene in which actor Bruce Willis was made to sit in a chair attached high on a wall, faced with a spherical robotic object. The studio eventually settled the lawsuit and paid Mr. Woods a fee.

Survivors include his wife, Aleksandra Wagner, and three children.

— Los Angeles Times