Radical Reconstruction

By Emily Bick, 10 March 2002

So much of the 20th century’s architecture was about destroying cities in order to remake them according to orderly and efficient masterplans. Architecture, as practiced most notably by Le Corbusier, was about building a utopian landscape while eradicating any traces of the past. Even the possibility of a past would vanish as those who had memories of the old, unplanned cities died out – the modernist utopia would become the only possibility. The end of history and its beginning. Architect Lebbeus Woods takes the opposite approach. Woods seeks to ‘reconstruct’ cities by emphasising rupture and its beauty. His book Radical Reconstruction details his plans for three cities, and explains the theoretical framework behind his designs.

Woods considers the scorched earth school of architecture hierarchical. In addition to rewriting social history, rigid planning and traditional structures seek to dominate space, instead of acknowledging the specific material and social conditions unique to an area. Woods champions a form of architecture that is heterarchical – adaptive to the physical environment and changing ideologies of its inhabitants, and encompassing several different design strategies.

Radical Reconstruction contains new visions for Havana, Sarajevo, and San Franscisco. Havana is a city full of eastern-bloc prefabricated buildings, cut off economically by an embargo from the United States. Sarajevo is poised between two memories – that of the post-communist consumer playground it was preparing to become before the war, and that of the ancient tribal rivalries that have led to so much destruction. San Francisco, home of hi-tech knowledge workers, is a city built on a major fault line. With an earthquake, the physical world intrudes.

Woods envisages buildings like scar tissue, healing these ruptures. Spiky planes jut from a wall dividing 16th century and modern districts of Havana to form a ‘Meta-Institute’. In sketches for Sarajevo, insectoid structures with shiny cybernetic talons and carapaces are grafted onto the charred ruins of a bombed tobacco factory, and project into the sky. For San Francisco, Woods proposes buildings on stilts situated in the silt of the bay, which reconfigure themselves with every earthquake. These buildings seem alive, more than anything – parasitical, perhaps, feeding on the structures of the past and growing, thrusting skyward. But symbiotic might be a better way of phrasing it: the old and the new reinforcing each other, adapting to the future together.

Emily Bick <emilybick AT> is working on a PhD in science fiction culture at Birkbeck

Radical Reconstruction // Lebbeus Woods // Princeton Architectural Press // 2001 // 168 pages // ISBN 1-56898-286-0 // £21.00