The best known work of Lebbeus Woods lives in not just fiction, but science fiction: When he died last fall at age 72, the tech, pop-sci, and sci-fi blogs far surpassed the usual architecture and design media in tributes, with much in memorium to the "conceptual architect behind Alien 3."
And that he was. But for those who knew the prodigious draftsman and the full extent of his talents, like Eric Owen Moss, Woods was much more. He was a thinker and an architect so radical he chose not to build. He was a designer in self-imposed exile for nearly the entirety of his career, whose first and only built structure was completed in the last year of his life. the Light Pavilion at Steven Holl’s Raffles City complex in Chengdu.
Now Moss, principal of Eric Owen Moss Architects and dean of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), with the help of Woods’s frequent collaborator Christoph A. Kumpusch, expands the late architect’s built portfolio. "Earthwave" is a new installation in L.A. that realizes an obscure (and canceled) Woods project.
Standing adrift on a small triangle of concrete and surrounded by roadways, "Earthwave" is an 18'-by-18' steel frame that rises from its sparse surroundings, hemming in debris-like tangles of metal, a chaotic intersection of urban and earthy. "It’s in sort of a gritty part of town," Moss tells Co.Design. "Gritty before it was fashionable to be gritty." That would be an accurate description of Bloom Square, a tiny plaza that falls within the LARABA arts district downtown.
The piece, which Woods designed with Kumpusch, looks site-specific, but it actually isn’t. It was originally sanctioned for Reggio Calabria, a seaside city on the tip of Italy’s boot. Nor was "Earthwave" intended as an isolated sculpture, but one of many capsule-like pavilions meant to be lined up shoulder-to-shoulder overlooking the Strait of Messina, commissioned by the 2009 Biennale of Architecture and Art of the Mediterranean as interpretations of earthquakes.
The project was never realized, and Woods’s scheme would have languished in archives without the rescue by Kumpusch. He presented the designs to Moss, who, upon Woods’s untimely death in late October, became a leading defender of Woods’s work in non-alien forms, along with peers like Steven Holl.
"The idea that we should do an exhibition—and I wanted to do it in L.A.—grew out of these discussions," Moss explains of the great disservice of writing off the whole of Woods’s work to science fiction. "Christoph had some drawings of Leb’s which suggested opportunities that SCI-Arc could implement."
After a month of building at SCI-Arc, Kumpusch and his team—students he’d imported from his architecture classes at Columbia in New York—stole away as in a caper film one night at 3 a.m., installation in tow, to Bloom Square. The next morning, residents woke up to a twisting pile of metal.
The finished work, Moss says, is "Leb-qua-Leb," that is, it’s all Woods. The material affinities—hodgepodges of decaying oxidized metal—from his drawings are fully realized in the flummoxed swarm of steel bars. The bent frame resembles the angled light beams of Woods’s other building, in Chengdu.
"It’s Lebbeus, out on the street, next to the barb wire. It’s entirely about Leb, and about his relationship to the city."
"Earthwave" kicks off a two-part exhibition at SCI-Arch featuring Lebbeus Woods’s work. The first part, the installation, will stand through December 1. The second, a gallery component, opens October 11.